Four tips on long-distance managing

Liz: There are a lot of major news stories unfolding around the world. The Greek debt crisis, the growing threat of ISIS, the escalating war in Iraq. Many of the news organizations covering these stories have multiple reporters in the field and probably no onsite editors. A similar scenario plays out domestically when big stories break far from the newsroom. What’s your advice on long-distance managing, particularly for those editors thousands of miles away trying to run the coverage?

Jill: There are four watchwords for managers of far-flung teams: Plan. Communicate. Protect. Trust. The way to own the big story is to remove every obstacle to your field crew’s success.

  • Plan – Let staff know what’s expected of them on every platform and the optimal times to file. Explain how assignments fit into the broader coverage strategy, to avoid overlap and wasted resources. Establish a big-story mindset and systems that are baked into the culture, not reinvented with every time a huge story breaks. You’ll save time, energy and migraines on all sides.
  • Communicate – Field crews love managers who understand their needs and rhythms – editors that keep them in the loop but don’t needlessly interrupt. The best bosses make certain there’s always an open channel—despite time zone differences—for those on the ground to get fast, definitive answers from the mother ship. And they never forget the power of positive feedback, especially for good work under trying conditions.
  • Protect – This is a no-brainer. Be tenacious about the safety of your people. Make it the one area where you’ll never cut corners. You may book your folks into cheap, shabby hotels, but never skimp on security. At the same time, also protect their sanity. Run interference when folks in the home office exhibit what a broadcast colleague dubbed “producer fantasia”—unrealistic projections of what’s possible for people in the field to deliver. It usually emanates from well-meaning people who lose track of the limits of time, space, geography and sleep.
  • Trust -To get the best out of those in the field, make it clear you believe in them. Find the right balance of autonomy and guidance for each person. It varies, based on their experience, talent and personality. But when the good people you deploy say something’s possible or impossible—and their track record is solid—trust their judgment. Sure, ask lots of questions and suggest alternatives, but give the final word to the trusted journalist on the front line.

Liz: One more, same general subject. Under the conditions you describe, it’s crucial that those in distant locations work together. But it’s not unusual for tensions to flare and disagreements to surface, with the inevitable intra-staff battles foiling the coverage plan. How can their editors be the referee when they’re not on the field?

Jill: You can minimize conflicts with conversations about roles, responsibilities and expectations on the front end of the assignment. Let people know that when normal tensions around editorial direction, work habits or communication arise, you expect they’ll strive to resolve things themselves. But if they try and fail, or if a person reaches out to you with a serious concern about accuracy, integrity, legality, civility or safety, put your reporter hat on and get the full story. Then put your manager hat back on and take action.

Liz: Okay, onto a new subject. A recent study of news consumption by the Reuters Institute brought some grim insights. Just 11 percent of US consumers are willing to pay for news content they receive online. A key finding of the report, which surveyed more than 20,000 people around the world, is that news organizations will need to be even more inventive than they have been in order to survive. How do you keep churning out fresh innovation and new ways of doing things in newsrooms that have been doing nothing but reinvent for a decade or more?

Jill: Gee Liz, nothing like an existential question to cap off a column! Can’t we just keep talking about owning the big news story?

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Seriously, I sense the same frustration in your question that I’m hearing from many dedicated journalists. They feel newsroom staffers have been more open to innovation than they get credit for but the ideas they come up with often fail to gain traction in their companies.

They’re hoping that, along with business buzz phrases like “iterate” and “fail fast” that corporate execs lay on them, they’ll hear terms like “seed money” and “research and development.”

They look with longing at media organizations like those profiled recently by Digiday. These innovation-oriented companies are beefing up tech staffing, Some are wisely embedding that fresh brain power in the newsroom to create hot spots of imagination, collaboration and execution.

I have great respect for the many newsroom leaders building a culture of risk-taking in their newsrooms while learning entrepreneurial and digital skills their predecessors never imagined. At the same time, they’re pitching for gas money from their own bosses to fuel the bumpy drive to future.

How do they do all that? They communicate an optimistic but realistic vision to their teams, seize every opportunity to do engaging, powerful journalism, and lobby their leaders with brilliance and resilience.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

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.