Attract & Keep the Leaders of Tomorrow
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article suggested that David Halberstam's book "The Best and the Brightest" was published in 1969.
Note: The following text is adapted from a speech by Robert Giles given at Poynter's seminar, "Grooming the Best and the Brightest."
The expression "The Best and the Brightest" came into popular usage with the 1972 publication of David Halberstam's book by that title.
As you remember, it was the story of men judged to be the best and brightest of their generation — rational men of intelligence and accomplishment — who were brought to Washington by President Kennedy and who were thought to be the most able group of leaders drawn to government service since the turn of the century.
"The Best and the Brightest" was not a story of ringing achievement. Rather, as Halberstam's probing analysis revealed, it told of the failed decisions by this group of distinguished Americans that drew us deeper and deeper into war in Vietnam.
At the start of our time together, it is helpful to recall the lessons of this particular failure of national leadership only to remind ourselves that not all who are called to serve in positions of high responsibility are able to execute effectively and with wise judgment.
Not all who seem, on paper or by reputation, to be the best and the brightest can master the new identity we may give them and to which they may aspire.
Our mission here in the next few days is to look ahead several years from now as we consider the attributes of leadership our newsrooms will require, to think how best to identify and develop those who would be the next generation of leading editors — those who would be, in the best sense of the expression, the best and the brightest.
A good place to begin our discussion tonight is to acknowledge a few essential realities about the newspapers we hold dear.
The Leaders of Tomorrow
The world of daily newspapering is steeped in tradition.
Our core values are important to us; they provide a foundation for high standards and a basis for public trust. We celebrate them as distinctive characteristics that set newspaper work apart. We grieve when our values are victimized and deepen public doubts about our purpose.
These familiar values offer comfort when we confront the changing world around us, rethinking our mission, finding ways to adapt to emerging trends and technologies, and rapidly shifting demographic patterns.
Still, our capacity to respond to challenges and opportunities is restrained by characteristics inherent in the newspaper business.
Newspapers are historically slow to change. Newspapers remain tethered to production cycles that had their origins in an earlier industrial era.
Big newspaper corporations spend relatively little on research and development and instead have skillfully, if belatedly, adapted to their own use of inventions and innovations from other sectors of the economy.
Rare is the journalist who is encouraged to seek advanced education in the law, the sciences, economics, or medicine. As Rosabeth Moss Kanter of the Harvard Business School explains, in the global information economy, power comes not from location at the media center of our communities, but rather from the ability to command one of the intangible assets that make customers loyal.
These assets are concepts, competence, and connections; all consequences of thinking and brainpower.
Recruitment of newsroom talent typically tends to focus on filling current needs, when, in truth, if we were to take the long view, we might seek individuals who represent such attributes as cultural sensitivity, vision, initiative, readiness to see opportunity, the ability to speak to the motivations that will drive new generations of journalists.
Even though brainpower is a valuable newsroom resource and the newspaper industry can fairly be described as a "knowledge industry" and our journalists as idea workers, our companies have invested little in the training and education of the journalistic workforce.
No culture of lifelong learning or commitment to continuing education exists.
Reporters and copy editors learn on the job. Some few get company-paid skills training at places like Poynter and API. Rare is the journalist who is encouraged to seek advanced education in the law, the sciences, economics, or medicine.
Those fortunate enough to win Nieman or Knight fellowships do so on their own motion, often with reluctant support from the front office where the thinking is that the newsroom cannot spare their labors for the nine months of an academic year.
No corporate imperative underscores knowledge as critical to the long-term success of our newspapers or as a criterion for individual success.
Finally, of course, commitment to shareholder value has replaced passion for news as the driving purpose of many publicly-owned newspaper companies.
I mention these limitations, familiar to all of us, because they suggest a framework in which we might think about how to attract and retain the best and the brightest.
Three questions seem appropriate to ask to get our discussion going:
- First, what attributes might be essential in the journalists who will lead our newsrooms five, 10, 15 years from now?
- Second, what are the characteristics of a modern newsroom culture in which these future leaders can thrive and grow?
- Third, what management practices might work best in nurturing and retaining tomorrow's newsroom leaders?
We all know what makes a good journalist. If we're honest, we'll acknowledge that the stuff of success is about the same today as it was a generation ago, when many of you got your first newspaper job.
Building newsroom careers for the future and finding ways to anchor high performers on a growth track will demand different thinking from the leaders of today. We must search for qualities in addition to a solid grounding in the skills and values of journalism that we've prized for so long.
The worlds we cover are ever more complex and will continue to change rapidly. The complexity of issues is compounded by agendas and ideologies. It is a world of news in which sophisticated advocates too often succeed in shaping coverage to reflect their own point of view.
To the extent that this occurs, the reporters and editors handling the coverage may simply be overmatched in what they know.
The knowledge factor becomes a critical attribute for tomorrow's newsroom leaders.
What do they know?
Do they have an authoritative understanding of economics, history, politics, religions, science?
Do they have an instinct for transforming piecemeal information into strategic intelligence?
Do they think globally? Do they understand the nature of other places and other cultures, and how those places and those people influence our own society and our own markets?
Are they literate in the dominant language of our times; a language built on a vocabulary of zeros and ones, ones and zeros?
Cultural adaptability and cultural sensitivity are increasingly critical, and take a number of forms:
- Being comfortable and at ease in a multicultural workplace
- Having foreign language skills
- Understanding how the transforming demographics of the local community present both a challenge and an opportunity that can influence the long-term health of the newspaper
Over time, scholars of human behavior have come to recognize a set of characteristics that seem to be shared by individuals who have a strong capacity for creativity and innovation.
Among them are fluency, originality, flexibility, tolerance of ambiguity, playfulness and humor, strong work ethic, independence of mind, and non-conformity.
Tomorrow's leaders might well need an instinct for common ground, a spirit of open-minded behavior, and respect for accountability, collaboration, and transparency. We should be alert to those who demonstrate a gift for communicating ideas, for speaking to the passions of journalism, for tailoring the talk to fit the needs of the individual.
Newsrooms should be magnets for brainpower, places that attract thinkers who specialize in concepts. In Professor Kanter's definition, concepts are leading-edge ideas, designs, or formulations for products or services that create value for customers.
Our competitive edge will come from innovation, not the creation of new products as much as figuring out smarter and more effective ways to cover our communities, build public trust and motivate the journalists in our newsrooms.
Our Newsrooms Today
The second question is: what might be the characteristics of a modern newsroom culture in which future leaders can thrive and grow?
A place to begin thinking about this is with recent studies reporting how journalists are thinking about their editors and their own futures.
In its 2000 report on Leadership, the American Society of Newspaper Editors identified six areas in which newsroom staffers said the top editors were least effective:
- Ensuring that managers are skilled
- Keeping abreast of employee concerns
- Encouraging open debate
- Providing training
- Encouraging appropriate risk-taking
- Creating an atmosphere of trust
In another study for ASNE, retention was identified as a greater challenge than hiring in improving the percentage of journalists of color in newspaper newsrooms.
Retention is a complex issue. Among the reasons why it is complex — and why solving it is a difficult challenge — is the reality that the newsroom remains a place dominated by white males who, by and large, have defined the ethos and traditions of the journalistic workplace.
The research concluded that to address the retention problem effectively, editors must be effective mentors and role models.
They must manage the news staff in ways that enable individuals to achieve full potential in their jobs.
For journalists of color, this means satisfying expectations for such aspirations as making an impact, working in a flexible, creative environment, being able to cover stories that interest them, understanding their roles at the newspaper, having the opportunity to work for an editor of color, and believing the newspaper's commitment to diversity is genuine.
There is more to be said on this subject.
In a 2000 study by ASNE and the Freedom Forum, newsroom staffers were asked whether anything could be done by their employers to keep them in newspaper journalism.
The top three answers, given both by non-white and white journalists alike, were:
What do these answers mean?
Each points to underlying workplace concerns. In their responses, the journalists often linked better pay with better hours, suggesting that their concerns could be addressed through better management of the journalistic workload, as well as through higher compensation.
As we will note later in this presentation, pay and work hours are not motivators but among the things about the job that can create dissatisfaction.
Journalists who said that better work conditions would help keep them in newspaper journalism were indicating that the current practices in the management of their work lives were hampering them from deriving full satisfaction from their jobs.
Those who replied that more flexibility for creativity would help keep them in the field may feel inhibited from reaching the potential they want to achieve in their work.
Given that journalism is inherently a creative enterprise, this must be taken as a serious concern in considering retention strategies.
Newspaper journalists also were asked this question: If you left the newspaper business, how important a reason would each of the following be in your decision to leave?
Factors outside the workplace seemed to loom largest in the minds of journalists who might be considering leaving the field. But workplace issues also were a potential factor.
Both journalists of color and white journalists cited interest in another field of work as the leading factor that might cause them to leave. But to what extent is such interest a cause or an effect?
It is possible that better work conditions or more flexibility for creativity might prevent interest in another field from becoming a conscious preoccupation that can lead to a career change.
For journalists of color, lack of opportunities for advancement was the second most cited factor that might cause them to leave newspaper journalism.
The important workplace connection here is the desire for a newsroom in which journalists' need for on-the-job growth is recognized and acted on, whether or not it leads to promotion.
The significance of professional development as a core newsroom value cannot be understated. This important dimension conveys to the journalist the interest of the news organization in his or her professional growth and advancement.
Unfortunately, this good and fundamental idea has not been embedded in the culture of newsrooms.
Instead, for example, the selection of new supervising editors is typically influenced by the notion that a good reporter should be able to become a good editor.
Unexpected things happen when these good reporters are thrust into positions of authority and command without adequate training and education, and are expected to figure out the nuances of directing others.
Time after time it has been demonstrated that good reporters do not always good editors make and that on-the-job training does not easily lead to managerial competence.
Journalism skills are essential, of course, but the newsroom culture for the future must also evoke a commitment to knowledge skills.The message to newspapers from the ASNE research is that professional development training for mid-level editors is a key to addressing the retention problem.
In the broader sense for our discussions here, a culture of professional development is essential for attracting, keeping, and growing tomorrow's leaders.
Building a learning culture in the newsroom has to begin at the top, certainly with the editor, but even better if its driving force comes from the corporate leadership.
Journalism skills are essential, of course, but the newsroom culture for the future must also evoke a commitment to knowledge skills; knowledge about our diverse communities, knowledge about the world in which we compete, the world we cover, the world in which we seek sources and stories and readers.
In a newsroom where career anchoring occurs, where the best and brightest are motivated to stay and reach, there must be a high value for innovation, for encouraging responsible risk-taking, for respecting ideas from the bottom, and creating excitement generated by a new quest, a bright thought, a willingness to say, "Let's try this."
A culture that values innovation also should have a tolerance for failure, an understanding that not every idea works, that not every risk will work out. Failure is part of the learning process and must be understood in that context.
The tolerance for failure on its own is not enough, of course. Failure is an opportunity to learn. Why didn't it work? is the question to be asked, not as a point of reprimand but as an opening for inquiry and discovery.
Finally, in trying to define a modern newsroom culture, we have to ask ourselves, How much is enough? How much are we asking of the editors we are trying to nurture for the future? How much are we asking that places excessive demands on their time, their energy, their ability to step back and assess how we are doing?
On the day Bill Keller was introduced to the staff of The New York Times as their new executive editor, he encouraged reporters and editors to do a little more savoring of life, whether with their families or viewing art, and suggested, That will enrich you and your work, as much as a competitive pulse rate will.
This may have been as important as anything Keller said to signal his intent to modify the culture of the Times newsroom and motivate his staffers to draw more satisfaction from their work at the newspaper by taking more time to savor life outside the newsroom.
This is an idea worth spending time on as you consider how to encourage more of the best and brightest to commit their careers to editing roles and give them a sense of reward and belief in the long-term possibilities that larger responsibilities might offer.
A Theoretics of Newsroom Management
What management practices might work best in nurturing and retaining tomorrow's newsroom leaders? ... Nearly 20 years ago, when I was in the early stages of my work for a book on newsroom management, I was struck by discovering the good fit between basic management theory and newsroom management situations.
It was a revealing discovery. It persuaded me that directing and managing news coverage, a process we think of as somehow distinctive and different, can be informed by an understanding of management theory.
(Abraham Maslow theorized) that the more challenging and autonomous the work, the higher and more lasting the motivation, setting the stage for strong performance.
This theory seems particularly relevant today in thinking about the management of the idea workers we want to populate our newsrooms.
(According to Frederick Herzberg), the things that tend to create dissatisfaction on the job are found in the work environment, such as company policies, supervision, working conditions, interpersonal relationships, money, status, security.
The things that make people feel good about the work are found in the work itself, including achievement, recognition, responsibility, and advancement.
The generation of best and brightest that you expect to nurture and develop will surely be influenced by the Internet, by terrorism and by events yet to unfold.
(Under Paul Hersey and Kenneth Blake's situational leadership model), a leader must be able to diagnose situations sensitively and then adapt his or her behavior ... An editor can determine when close, hands-on supervision is required and when the competence and maturity of a subordinate is such that little direct control over the work is required, and significant responsibility can be delegated.
If these theories, and others like them, are applied routinely to the newsrooms situations we are all familiar with, they can create a critical sense of predictability. They can help us understand the attributes associated with successful behavior of both staffer and editor, and they establish an important culture of consistency in the direction and management of the news staff.
Your success in grooming and guiding the best and the brightest will be influenced, to a considerable degree, on how well you can communicate and motivate across generations.
The thinking and behavior of each generation are shaped by watershed events of their formative years. Gregory (Favre) and I were influenced by the Great Depression and World War II. Most of you experienced the assassination of President Kennedy and the Vietnam War.
The generation of best and brightest that you expect to nurture and develop will surely be influenced by the Internet, by terrorism, and by events yet to unfold.
Tomorrow's leaders are not likely to be motivated by the identical values that drove you to success. Your self-awareness of this reality is a key to figuring out a developmental strategy that will work across the generational divide.
Maybe you'll have to be more of a coach and less of a boss.
(Harvard president) Larry Summers, wrote: "Organizations that foster an environment where creativity is rewarded, that prepare themselves to respond to challenges and execute their strategy in a nimble way, and that discourage rigid adherence to hierarchy will best be able to meet the challenges of this new century."
A newsroom that reflects these values will be most likely to succeed in attracting the best and the brightest for the long term.
Robert Giles is the curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University.