Downsizing time again. Now what?

Liz: Gannett recently announced that it’s offering buyouts to employees 55 and older across its newsrooms. At its flagship property, USA Today, this will be the latest in a string of efforts to shrink the staff. Downsizing newsrooms is hardly new, but the challenge of facing the troops is still very real. Any advice for managers at these Gannett papers where the bad news keeps coming? And has newsroom leadership gotten any better at handling issues like encouraging the most talented to stick around?

Jill: Whenever there’s another downsizing, we’re immediately concerned about the impact on journalists. That’s understandable. What’s not so automatic is concern for the front-line managers who have to implement it. I want to focus on them first this time, because they’re going through a mostly private hell.

Think about it. They didn’t ask for the cuts; they may simply have had an edict handed to them. They’re supposed to put on a brave front and not trash the corporate team that calls the shots. They have to make hard choices that affect good people’s livelihoods. Their own jobs may be on the bubble. They’re expected to produce results consistent with the most recently announced (and often ever-changing) business strategy. And at their core, they still love this work.

What are they, naïve or masochistic?

Neither.

They’re people who got into the business because they believe in journalism’s role in a democracy and they want desperately to believe that their companies still do, too. So they soldier on—and I salute them for it. I also advise them to take good care of themselves. They need what I call “safe venting zones”—opportunities to talk with other managers who understand what they’re going through and can talk them off window ledges—or soften their landing if they indeed decide to jump.

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They deserve help from their bosses—in the form of clear direction and vision for the future. If they get it, they’re apt to pass it on to the troops who want to know what the end game is. They want to be able to attest that the latest cuts serve a sincere search for a sustainable business model, and aren’t, as Newsonomics’ Ken Doctor has written about, simply a strategy to milk profits from a doomed investment.

Whatever clout managers have resides in the newsroom, not the boardroom. So, as I cheer them on and hold them up, I remind them of an important reality: Downsized newsrooms still contain solid talent with the potential for important work. Whatever else may be happening at the corporate level, there’s still joy in doing journalism.

The best newsroom leaders do three things to keep that joy alive:

 

  • Empathize: Listen to people’s fears and hopes. Invite them to let off steam in conversations with you (within reason), rather than take their frustrations out on colleagues. Recognize that their primary loyalties are to journalism and to good managers who help them do it, not to companies who may regard them as operating expenses. Accept that when they wear a shirt with the company logo, it may simply mean they’ve run out of clean laundry.
  • Prioritize: It’s tough for employees to say goodbye to teammates who would have preferred to leave on far different terms. It’s even tougher when the work they leave behind gets dumped on others already at capacity. One plea I hear repeatedly from staff and managers is this: We need to establish clear priorities so we know what to stop doing and what to focus on. Tell us that, be consistent about it, and we’ll find a way to make it work.
  • Energize: Remember that as a leader, you are contagious. If you are enthusiastic about a story, a project, or a new way of doing something, it has a positive impact on others. Understand that your feedback is more important than ever. Keep people informed, reinforce risk-taking, encourage staffers when they lose confidence, thank them when they take initiative, praise them for good work and celebrate their successes, even the small ones. The best antidote to bad morale is good journalism.

 

Liz: If you’re under 25 years old, the idea of going to work for places like Vice, BuzzFeed, or countless other digital news organizations may be the most enticing option. Unless you’re one of the top tier, how can old legacy newsrooms compete for the best and the brightest among young journalists?

Jill: Legacy newsrooms house an abundance of good teachers. They can raise the reporting, writing, visual, and critical thinking skills of their team members. That’s a draw for bright minds of all ages.

Smart young journalists don’t expect to put down roots for life as they job hunt. They know they are building portfolios for the future. Smart managers in legacy newsrooms can take advantage of that, if they make—and keep—a promise to help their new hires build a body of work that makes a portfolio all the more impressive.

It’s really nothing more than what small market editors have done for years, cutting a deal that says, “We know you probably won’t be here for a long time, but if you work hard and want to learn, you’ll be more valuable when you leave.”

Liz: It seems the Los Angeles Times is in for a period of upheaval after its owner, the Tribune Company, abruptly fired LA Times publisher Austin Beutner earlier this month. The word is that the ousted publisher had a highly independent streak that clashed with the Tribune Company’s centralized approach. For the newsroom, it looks like more cuts and more chaos are in order. Is there any way to curtail the type of talent drain that often arises during such occasions?

Jill: To be blunt, the talent drain is the price organizations pay for this kind of upheaval. It’s prime time for headhunters to lure top performers to their (apparent) islands of stability and sanity. Wouldn’t you?

As I said, today’s newsroom staffers identify more closely with good managers than with their organizations. Mess with respected leaders and you risk alienating the people who thrived on their watch.

If you have an abundance of strong supervisors on the team, you can mitigate that risk. They may be able to leverage their social capital and persuade conflicted staff to stay, using some of the tips I’ve shared for leading in times of challenge.

And that, Liz, is why great bosses are good for journalism—and business.

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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.