Dear Arianna Huffington: Listen up

Liz – Let’s start with one close to home. Actually, very close to home. As you know, CJR just announced a big shift toward digital, with a decision to ramp up our online focus and replace our bimonthly magazine with two special issues a year. Any advice for editors out there, me included, who are doubling down on digital and want to create energy around that decision for everyone in the room?

Jill: As the leader, you’ve probably been considering the pitfalls and potential of your new plan for a while. By the time you announce the change, it’s old news to you. The staff, on the other hand, is just processing what you’ve long ago embraced. To arrive at your level of enthusiasm takes some work. That’s because this transformation demands two tough tasks of them: learning and letting go.

Your team has to let go of old traditions, preferences and work habits. That can be emotionally draining. They need a leader who is energetic and empathetic at the same time. They need you to talk about enduring values while you lay out new roles and responsibilities. In the face of any skepticism, your best response is realistic optimism.

Your team has to learn new skills — among them may be software, video, social media integration, and writing faster and better for the web. New skills make us more valuable, but never forget what MIT’s Edgar Schein says: learning something new makes us temporarily incompetent. We hate that feeling and often rebel against its cause. Sounds immature, but it’s only human. As a leader, your role is to be the calm amid the crankiness. The better you are at customizing each person’s training, the faster their learning anxiety recedes and their new skills take root. Another tip: plan for people to use their new skills immediately and repeatedly after training, or they won’t stick.

Liz: Vice Media recently announced the hiring of former Bloomberg chieftain Josh Tyrangiel to head up Vice’s bold plan to produce a daily half-hour news program for HBO. This will be HBO’s first daily newscast, and it could be a transformative venture for Vice. CEO Shane Smith is on a mission to layer some “take-us-seriously” sheen on his news outlet’s notoriously subversive image. Any advice for Smith on how to negotiate this turn?

Jill: Why do I suspect that when Shane Smith stays awake at night, it’s not because he’s pining for advice from CJR? But in case I’m wrong, here’s my message to his new newscast crew:

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Vice team, you’re a brand known for edginess, adventurism and international scope, with first-person reporting and commentary. You have a platform (cable) that’s less restrictive than over-the-air TV, so your language has ranged from poetic to profane and your video from antiseptic to gory/graphic. Stick to your distinctive style — with this caveat:

  • Your lexicon can be down and dirty but your ethics must be clean.
  • Be transparent about your story selection, point of view and editing process.
  • Don’t ever stage a scene.
  • Stay independent; Vice has sponsor relationships but they should never influence your journalism.
  • Know the difference between courageous conflict coverage and war porn. (The former is deliberative, contextual and honest, the latter is exploitive: thin on story but thick with gruesome imagery.)

Here’s the biggest challenge you face in creating a successful daily newscast: You have to be timely and timeless at the same time. Audiences have access to up-to-the minute news online. They’re unlikely to make an appointment to watch your newscast. Time-shifted, convenience viewing works just fine for Vice documentaries, but daily news has a shorter shelf life.

To keep your stories from going stale in 24 hours, dare to emulate the old-school storytelling magic that creates NPR’s “driveway moments” or your HBO brother John Oliver’s wicked smart dives into complex issues. Do today’s news so well that I’ll find it interesting tomorrow and beyond.

Liz: One more ripped from the headlines. Huffington Post unveiled a new strategy last February to generate more optimistic, feel-good stories for its site, on the belief that readers would respond favorably. But since then Huffington Post has experienced a sharp drop in visitors to its flagship U.S. site. Here’s a chance to give Arianna Huffington some advice: How do you convince the troops to stay motivated about a new newsroom strategy amid questions about its rationale?

Jill: I’m guessing that in the data-driven world of the Huffington Post, analytics are already determining whether “What’s Working” is the cause of the traffic problems. If so, the logical questions are: Is this a good strategy with bad execution? Or a bad strategy that no tactics can salvage?

(My hunch: People love to share stories that move or uplift them, but it’s better when they feel they’ve discovered a rose among thorns – not when a publisher croons, “Here’s your daily bouquet, everyone.” Branded “good news” sites can seem like they’re just trying too hard.)

As for the leader, her role is to assure the team that a fast diagnosis is underway and that its input, along with the hard data, will speed the turnaround. No need to snipe at each other when we’re struggling a bit. I’d also advise Arianna Huffington to remind her team that if a strategy rooted in good values isn’t working, it doesn’t mean we abandon the values. We just find a better way to infuse them into our work.

Okay, I’ve just offered free tips to #1: Liz, #2: Shane and #3: Arianna. I predict that one will heed the advice, another will call me an effing ethics nanny and the third will be so smitten she’ll invite me to write even more – for free, of course.

Thanks for being #1, Liz.

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Jill Geisler coaches managers worldwide. She holds the Bill Plante Chair in Leadership and Media Integrity at Loyola University Chicago. She’s the author of the book, Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know, and the “Q&A: Leadership and Integrity in the Digital Age” podcasts on iTunes U.