Butch Ward

Since joining Poynter in 2005, Butch has had the chance to share with hundreds of journalists the wisdom he first heard from a Wharton professor back in 1994 -- when most newsrooms hadn't heard of the Web. "From this day on," the professor told the seminar on managing change, "you will find nothing in your professional lives but white water." Helping journalists cope -- maybe even thrive -- in times of constant change has become the common aspiration of Butch's seminars.


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Here’s what journalists miss when they don’t leave the office

Today let us pay tribute to reporters who, in their quest for a good daily story, boldly defy the Production gods and do the unthinkable: Hang up the telephone and leave the office.

Granted, doing a “phoner” often seems like the only recourse when your responsibilities for the day include preparing a story (or two or more) for multiple platforms, posting to social media, and any number of other special projects.

But rare is the story done by phone that successfully transports the viewer or reader to that place where they actually can experience something.

Joy. Pain. Anxiety. Relief.

The stories I remember best created an opportunity for me to experience an emotion, a realization, a sense that I was there. And the reporters who created those opportunities had one thing in common: they were there.

It was just before 2 p.m. on a recent Friday when Doreen Carvajal, a reporter based in Paris for the New York Times, received an email from the city of Paris. She immediately dropped the story she was working on.

She also left the office.

The email announced that the city of Paris was taking steps to unlock the hundreds of thousands of padlocks that lovers from all over the world have attached to the railings of the city’s famous Pont des Arts bridge.

“I headed to the bridge,” Carvajal wrote to me, “in search of brides in satin and lovers.”

Here’s the story she found. Take a read.

Carvajal, with whom I worked at the Inquirer, sent me her story after I invited reporters to send me stories they had reported and produced in a day.

“I wrote it at a cafe with wifi because I had no time to return to the office from the Pont des Arts,” Carvajal wrote. “I quickly settled on my characters (my favorite: a street cleaner with a green broom) and wrote.”

For me, Carvajal’s story was an invitation to remember the times I stood on the bridges that span the Seine. Her characters, the details she chose, the quotes she selected—all combined to take me to that bridge.

Her story apparently touched a lot of people. It climbed the Times Top 10 emailed list, and was shared more than 2,000 times through the NYT Facebook page.

Her decision to leave the office clearly paid off.

Kevin Jacobsen also left the office. He volunteered to cover the homecoming of the 114th Transportation Company from a nine-month deployment in Afghanistan. Jacobsen, an anchor and multimedia journalist for KBJR 6 and Range 11 in Duluth, MN, was working on three hours sleep (he had anchored the 10 p.m. newscast) when he made the three-hour drive to the reunion of a Twin Ports family just outside the Twin Cities.

“I arrived knowing who I would be focusing on,” Jacobsen wrote to me. “I also knew the framework: Morning can often come too soon, but it was clear, for these families, that being reunited with their loved ones couldn’t come soon enough.

“What would eventually happen though, no one could have planned for.”

And he wouldn’t have seen it if he’d reported the story on the phone.

“I mic’ed the mom of the returning soldier and asked her a couple of quick questions. I shot some b-roll while waiting for the arrival. I also made sure to roll on the mom to get little bits of (natural sound) as the anticipation grew.

“Once the troops arrived and were relieved of their duties, my story became even more clear. The mom had seen her daughter walk in, but lined up on the opposite side of the room. Once the troops scattered, the mom lost sight of her daughter.

“I managed to quickly catch up with the mom and follow her as she frantically searched for her soldier. Those last few seconds before the two were reunited seemed like hours. You could feel the anxiousness. My goal for the story was to try and let that ‘search’ video breathe.”

Here is Jacobsen’s story.

If Jacobsen’s goal was to make me feel the anticipation of the soldier’s mom, he succeeded. His video and audio captured moments we’ve all experienced—when the wait, even if it’s only a few minutes, can seem so much longer. We saw the mother wandering through the crowd and the jerk of her head toward a possible sighting. We heard her squeals when the soldiers arrived, her clipped, breathless voice during the search, her muffled gasps of joy when she pushed her face into her daughter’s arms.

And because Jacobsen helped me experience the wait — a wait he didn’t expect when he was planning his story — I found myself sharing the mother’s joy when the moment of reunion finally arrived.

Jacobsen said his story was “well received.” I guess that means I wasn’t the only viewer who got a bit emotional.

Here’s one last daily story that benefitted from leaving the office.

AJ Dome works for KVOE Radio in Emporia, KS. His news department consists of AJ and his news director. Dome decided this “fun” story — a journey with a local businessman across the Flint Hills in an electric golf cart — would brighten up the station’s newscast.

Here’s his story.

As I listened to Dome’s story, I imagined finding a story like this in a newspaper or on the evening news: a business or lifestyle feature about electric carts and the people who use them — away from the golf course. What I don’t know is how many reporters would take the time for a 35-mile ride in an electric golf cart over rough terrain to get that story.

Dome explained why he did it.

“I was taught by my high school newspaper teacher,” Dome wrote to me, “to appreciate getting out of your comfort zone, to actually go places and see things. It’s so easy to make phone calls or do a Google search, but much more meaningful if you set foot somewhere, and ask a person a question face-to-face. “

I told Dome I appreciated that he included details in the piece that helped me feel like I was on the ride with him — the unexpected road closings, the stares of passing motorists. I told him I could have used a few more details about what he saw and heard as they drove; and a mention of whether they successfully approached (as the story suggested they might) some unsuspecting wildlife.

But most of all, I told him I appreciated that he got in the cart and took the ride. He said he heard from a good number of listeners who appreciated his effort, too.

“When I talk with other young reporters,” he said, “I encourage them to get comfortable shoes, and wear them out by going where the story is.”

Great advice, Dome — who, by the way, is just 22 years old.

Here’s to you, and to a long career spent outside the office. Read more

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wichita-eagle

A daily story about a car theft that reminds us why journalism matters

The past few weeks have not been much of an upper for those tracking the health of the news business. More layoffs. New (and increasingly meager) buyouts. And the downsizing strategy that promises to grow ever more popular back at Corporate:

All staffers must reapply for their jobs.

Only the delusional suggest this is a cycle from which we will emerge. Increasingly, editors know this is their reality:

I have fewer people this year than last, and I’ll have fewer still next year.

I remember feeling like this about 15 years ago when my newsroom in Philadelphia was in the midst of its latest “right-sizing.” Looking for a way to recharge my batteries, I asked 12 of my colleagues to join me for lunch and bring stories that reminded them why they did journalism. It was great. We laughed, we cried, and we left the room a bit more aware that what we did mattered.

The same thing happened to me this week. I read a story about Cleet McGhee.

Cleet’s story is the work of Dion Lefler, who covers government and politics for the Wichita Eagle. He sent me the story after I asked reporters to send me work that demonstrates a story done in a day can be memorable.

I will remember Cleet’s story. It reminds me that journalism can make good things happen.

Take a read: “Woman, man steal Lincoln Town Car that is dialysis patient’s lifeline.”

Lefler explained he was tipped to the story by Cleet’s former boss, a local Tea Party activist whom Lefler has known for years. He interviewed Cleet at his motel, photographed him and saw the security video that recorded the car theft. He also talked with police before writing the story. Done in a day.

Then good things started happening.

“The next day,” Lefler said, “I had about 12-15 messages from folks offering to drive him to his appointments. Cleet told me a woman came to his room, gave him $40 in grocery certificates, $20 cash, hugged him and left without even telling him her name.”

And there’s more. Here is Lefler’s first follow-up story: “Dialysis patient gets a lift after thieves steal his beloved Lincoln Town Car.”

I keep thinking about the moment Cleet hears that someone is giving him a car. Put yourself there:

“You’re kidding, me, man.”

But after being assured the offer was real, he said: “It will get me to my dialysis. God bless you.”

But the story doesn’t end there. Here’s Lefler’s second follow-up story: “Dialysis patient presented with replacement car from radio station, car dealership.”

Cleet’s words bear repeating:

“Somebody’s doing something for me and I’m doing something for somebody else and what goes around comes around.”

Journalists covered a lot of important stories this week. The bombing attacks on ISIS. The domestic violence crisis in sports. The spread of Ebola.

But back in June, Dion Lefler covered an important story, too: the theft of Cleet McGhee’s car.

That, I am again reminded, is why journalism matters. That’s why, when they’re reviewing the applications of all those journalists who are reapplying for their jobs, I wish Cleet McGhee had a vote.

Nice work, Dion Lefler. Thanks. Read more

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A call for really good daily stories

Daily news concept.Earlier this month I offered some ideas for how journalists can produce better daily stories.

The need is obvious. Thanks to the production demands confronting understaffed newsrooms, reporters and editors are increasingly favoring stories that can be done in a day (or less.)

But that doesn’t mean those stories need to be thin, predictable or boring. They don’t have to be kiss-offs.

Daily stories can be good stories. Sometimes, they can be great stories.

I’d like you to send me a daily story that you’re proud of.

Send me a daily story that you took beyond the routine. Maybe you elevated a straightforward assignment with a great interview, a vivid scene or strong character development. Maybe you offered your audience thoughtful analysis of an important issue. Maybe you told you story from an unusual point of view. Maybe you effectively used multimedia.

The only requirement is that you reported, wrote and produced the story in one day.

In addition to a link to the story, send me a paragraph explaining how you approached the story. Did you take a risk? Try something new? Mimic a device you saw elsewhere?

How did you do it?

Send links to your stories to bward@poynter.org. I’ll share them in the coming days. Let’s help each other do better daily stories. Read more

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Fast Food Restaurant

Three ways to serve up better dailies

Back when I was doing my communications gig for Independence Blue Cross in Philadelphia, I received a phone call one morning from a reporter who was playing catch-up on a new state insurance regulation.

“I’ll be happy to explain it to you,” I said, “but be patient. It’s a little involved.”

About two minutes into my explanation, the reporter interrupted me.

“That’s okay,” he said. “That’s way too complicated. I’ll get something else for tomorrow.”

Another story falls victim to media bias.

No, not the liberal political bias that journalists so often are accused of having. This was another, perhaps more disturbing bias. It’s called:Production Bias.

Simply defined, Production Bias holds that if a story can’t be done in a day, we won’t do it.

I first heard the concept of Production Bias in 2001 when I was working with Tom Rosenstiel and Bill Kovach, authors of The Elements of Journalism, and they were developing a newsroom curriculum based on the book. Production Bias was among a number of terms identified to help journalists understand that the first step in mitigating a bias is to acknowledge its existence.

I joined them in a number of newsrooms where we asked the staff if Production Bias existed. Without fail, the journalists said yes.

And let’s be honest: it’s more prevalent today than when I got that impatient reporter’s call more than a decade ago. In fact, in some newsrooms it’s mutated: If the story can’t be done in two hours, we won’t do it.

Am I exaggerating? Sure. But spend a few hours scanning the web sites of news organizations around the country, and tell me how many meaty profiles, in-depth analyses and just plain surprising stories you find.

Clearly, a whole lot of good stories are not being done.

Could this have anything to do with our disappearing audiences?

We’re all familiar with the changes that have contributed to the spread of Production Bias. Less staff to do more work. The 24/7 news cycle. Publishing on multiple platforms. The demands of multimedia.

But the biggest reason, I’d suggest, dates back to a notion that held forth long before we were tweeting or blogging or gathering multimedia.

Our newsrooms are preoccupied with filling.

Fill the show. Fill the book. We can’t do that story because we need everyone to help us fill.

One newspaper editor told me that several years ago, he flat-out told his staff to stop worrying about filling the book. “I want everyone, every day, to write for the front page,” he said. “If we do that, we’ll have plenty of good stories left over to fill the book.”

I asked him how it’s going. Slowly, he said. A few more good stories are getting done each day. “Everyone says they want to take risks, but they don’t,” the editor said. “They find a great deal of safety from filling the book.”

Filling is a hard habit to break.

But we’ve got to get started. How about this modest goal: if our news reports are going to be dominated by one-day stories, let’s make them better. Even memorable.

How?

Here are three ideas, inspired by a handful of print and broadcast stories that were reported, written and produced in one day.

The first story was reported in 2009 by Boyd Huppert at KARE in Minneapolis. Watch and then we’ll talk.

Idea Number 1. Frame the story tightly. Think about where this story was reported and during what time frame. One Checkers, one shift. I can think of many similar, but less powerful, stories done by reporters who visited multiple businesses over several days. Stories, no matter how quickly they are reported, benefit from a well-defined, tight frame.

David Barstow, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter at the New York Times, says that the tighter the frame you put on your exploration of an issue or event, the deeper you can go. His tick-tock on nine crucial minutes aboard the burning Deepwater Horizon is a classic example of tight framing. (And no, it was not done in one day.)

But Huppert’s Checkers story shows that it’s just as important to place a tight frame around your daily story. The frame helps the writer decide what pieces of reporting to put in and what to leave out. It helps you identify your lead and your ending. And it can help you choose your story structure.

So when you embark on a story, don’t just think about the issue or event you’re covering. Spend some extra time thinking about how you’ll tell that story—how you’ll frame it. And remember: the sooner you identify the frame, the sooner you can zero in on the reporting you need to do.

Here’s another daily story that teaches a great lesson. It’s by Lane DeGregory of the Tampa Bay Times. Have a read.

Idea Number 2. Do some planning. Often we know in advance—sometimes weeks in advance—that that we will be doing a daily story on some event or issue. Thinking about the story ahead of time (and how we might tell it) affords us the chance to identify reporting opportunities, set up some interviews. DeGregory had covered Officer Yaslowitz’s funeral, and knew that at some point, she wanted to follow up with the policeman’s widow. Once she decided to tell the story through the frame of Mrs. Yaslowitz’s first day back at kindergarten, she could make the calls necessary to give her access.

When our daily stories involve breaking news, we’re left to scramble to find sources and arrange interviews. But many of our best one-day stories don’t involve breaking news—they involve the community’s ongoing life. If we can identify more of those stories, and plan in advance how we’ll do them, we’ll have more time during our one-day window to devote to reporting and writing.

Now here’s a story by Diane Tennant of the Virginia-Pilot that was done in a day and takes some creative risks. Have a look.

Idea Number 3. Ask yourself, “What’s this story’s purpose?”

Some stories are meant to expose wrongdoing. Others aim to inform. Some help members of a community better understand each other.

And some just plain entertain.

Along the way, Tennant’s story also demonstrated to readers of the Virginian-Pilot the role that social media is playing in their community. But at its heart is a cute story that caused one reader to say in an email: “Thank you, what a pleasant surprise to read such a tender story in the paper this morning!”

One of my former editors used to say that every day’s news report should include a surprise—a story that readers and viewers would find nowhere else, and which would remind them why they valued us. Tennant’s story was a surprise.

I asked her about her story’s purpose, and she said she had not thought much about that.

“When I saw Binky’s picture on Facebook, I called my family’s attention to it, and then it kind of struck me that if Binky’s story amused me and my family, and had amused the restaurant’s followers on FB, then it would probably resonate with The Pilot’s readers, too.”

Her answer made me think she knew exactly what she wanted her story to accomplish. She wanted it to amuse me. It did.

Oh, and just to make sure no one thinks the Virginian-Pilot has eschewed serious journalism, “Binky’s Big Adventure” ran in a paper whose front page featured the “Defiant Governor” vowing to expand Medicaid over the legislature’s objections; and an enterprise story on how the history of accidents involving military drones raises questions about the possibility of increased drone traffic.

Bonus time. Back to Lane DeGregory for a story that puts this all together. Take a read.

Did this story make use of all three ideas?

Tight frame: The focus was on one woman, returning to confession on one night, at one church.

Advance planning: DeGregory obtained advance permission for a reporter and photographer to attend the service and approach attendees. (She avoided wasting half her evening wandering from church to church in search of someone she could interview—and photograph.)

Purpose: The story explored a question as old as the human race—what propels a person to seek forgiveness from God?

DeGregory explains her process:

“I had seen an ad on TV about the Catholic Church opening its doors for people to come ‘home.’ My husband is a recovering Catholic, as he calls it, and I was interested in who might return, and why they left, and what they hoped to get out of it. I called a couple different churches, mostly ones where I knew people who attended so I could drop names, and got that one to agree to let me in. We weren’t allowed to go into the confessional, which was a bummer, especially for the photographer. But we came early, not knowing who—if anyone—we would find, and the line stretched around the church. We approached probably 20 people who didn’t want to talk before finding this one sweet woman who was hesitant, but willing.

“I left about 8 p.m., I think, and wrote it by 10 p.m. for the next day.”

Lane said she was attracted to this story by plain old curiosity.

“I was brought up being made to go to Methodist church, where we didn’t confess. And I’ve never gotten why anyone would want to spill their sins. But I just thought something powerful must be happening to draw someone back to the church after all these years, not to go to a Sunday service but to confess something. I knew there would be drama and mystery and God and sorrow and regret there. And a quiet, reverent scene.”

For me, these three ideas add up to a sound strategy for writing better daily stories. Start by choosing stories with the potential to be memorable. Yes, cover breaking news—but stop chasing it to the exclusion of stories that readers and viewers might, just might, consume in their entirety—and remember.

There is much about the disruption of the media landscape that individual editors and reporters cannot control. What you can control are the stories you choose to do.

Let’s not squander that opportunity.

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Bethune Cookman FIU Football

Journalists are losing access, but the public still expects the story

Update: FIU provides credential for Miami Herald’s beat reporter

After denying access to Miami Herald beat writer David J. Neal for the football team’s opening game last Saturday, Florida International University has decided to credential him for the remainder of the season, according to Paul Dodson, the school’s assistant athletic director for media relations.

This weekend, Florida International University opened its 2014 football season at home in Miami against Bethune-Cookman University. The game was close, ending when FIU fumbled a field goal attempt that would have won the game as time ran out.

Pretty good game, I’m guessing. But I’m only going on the six paragraphs that ran on the Miami Herald’s website under a byline: “From Miami Herald Wire Services.”

The Herald decided not to cover the game. Why?

Because FIU refused to give a press pass to the Herald’s FIU beat reporter, David J. Neal.

In a statement issued Saturday and placed atop the Herald’s original story on the flap, FIU said:

“We did not issue a media credential to the Herald’s beat reporter because of concerns we have brought up to the Herald’s reporter and editors over the past few years about the reporter’s interactions with our student athletes, coaches, and staff and the nature of the resulting coverage.”

“As far as we can tell,” Managing Editor Rick Hirsch said in the Herald’ story, “David has done a diligent, thorough job of reporting on the Golden Panthers. Not all of the coverage is positive. Teams win and teams lose. Programs have successes and stumbles. But in our review of his work, we believe it stands up to scrutiny as fair and professional.”

FIU did issue passes to a Herald photographer and columnist. But the Herald decided not to staff the game at all because, Executive Editor Aminda Marqués Gonzalez said, “The team does not get to choose who covers the program.”

Disagreements with management of sports teams about media coverage are nothing new. A colleague from the Inquirer reminded me of the time the owner and general manager of the Philadelphia Flyers visited the newsroom to demand that the paper’s pro hockey writer be replaced. He was not.

Both Marques Gonzalez and the FIU statement expressed hope that the situation will be resolved. I’m guessing it will. But here’s the reality:

This is just one fight in the escalating offensive against allowing journalists to cover news.

And forgive me if I don’t sense we’re winning.

FIU fans didn't get  in depth coverage of the  season opener from the Miami Herald  this weekend.  (AP File Photo from 2013)

FIU fans didn’t get in depth coverage of the season opener from the Miami Herald this weekend. (AP File Photo from 2013)


The Obama administration has limited access by photojournalists and other reporters to White House events and to the President. Local governments and police refuse to speak with reporters whose work they dislike. Candidates restrict reporters to “press areas,” ensuring that conversations with the public are not overheard. Professional and collegiate sports teams have steadily made it more difficult to cover live events.

Many of those who control access have decided that thanks to technology, they need news organizations less and less to deliver their messages. So as they steadily build their capacity and expertise for communicating directly to the public, they grow bolder about telling journalists to take a walk.

All of this points me to two conclusions:

  • Journalists must keep up—no, escalate—the fight for access to information the public needs and has a right to get.
  • At the same time, we must get much better at covering the news without the access that others control.

Many journalism organizations are lobbying for greater access to information and events that should be available to the public; so have individual news organizations, which also file thousands of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests each year.

Join their efforts. It’s crucial to the ability of journalism to serve the public.

But while we’re fighting for our rights, we also have a job to do. And that job calls for us to fulfill the compact we have with the public:

Get the story. Even when others make it difficult.

Let’s be honest—the best journalism has often involved the reporter’s ability to obtain information someone did not want the public to have. Yet journalists got it anyway.

What I’m suggesting is that we need to apply that same mindset to areas of coverage that seem far more routine than our most ambitious enterprise work.

But we need to do it—because the public expects us to. And that’s who we work for. Not the government, large or small. Not the police. Not the local advocate for the disadvantaged. And certainly not any sports team.

We work for the public. And that’s why, when one of those entities tries to manage our coverage by denying us access, we need to ask:

What does the public want us to do?

In my experience, the public is a harsh employer. Aware of an increasing number of options for getting information, the public is likely to say:

Just get the story.

As I was browsing the web for some information on access, I stumbled upon a page on the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) web site. Headlined Shooting Sports: Tips from the Pros, the page featured six tips from Jim Colton, former Photography Editor for Sports Illustrated. Colton preceded his advice by addressing what he called a “Myth:”

“Great sports photos are only made from credentialed positions. Nothing could be further from the truth.

“It’s nice to be in the first or third base dugouts at a baseball game but some of the best pictures are actually made from the stands, or elevated positions. This is true for almost all sports, but especially outside the professional spectrum. More and more leagues are trying to control access and content so you will have better luck getting clearance on a collegiate, high school or even parochial level….and…you’ll probably make better pictures. There are many local sporting events that do not require a credential. Start there.”

Colton’s advice anticipates that the access which photographers have traditionally enjoyed will continue to grow more restricted. But he doesn’t suggest we respond by taking our cameras home. He urges photographers to seek alternatives—and note that he says “some of the best pictures are actually made from the stands.”

What if Colton’s advice had been applied to the Herald’s standoff with FIU? The Herald knew it had a responsibility to the public and addressed it by running a short wire services report. What would have happened if the Herald’s reporter, who bought a ticket to Saturday’s game, had written a full, bylined critique of the game from the stands? The message to FIU would be clear—you cannot tell us who will cover your game because we don’t work for you—and the public would get the benefit of Neal’s expertise.

Interviewed on Sunday, Hirsch said Herald editors had discussed having Neal write from the stands, but decided against it because of their concern for accuracy. He said they were reluctant to depend on the stadium’s PA announcements for accurate play-by-play information.

If Colton were giving advice on how to cover local government when officials stop talking with you, I imagine he might say forget the officials and turn your focus—both written and visual—to the people who are affected by the government’s work. Tell their stories. Draw connections between their situations and the government decisions that contributed to them. (And be sure to tell your audience that officials no longer talk with your reporter—and why.)

I know that what I’m suggesting sometimes will require additional work. And I know that at a time when newsrooms are strapped for resources, the thought of additional work seems unreasonable. But therein lies the part of this situation that makes me uneasy in the first place.

Access, sometimes, lets us take the easy way out.

Yes, sometimes we use our access to government officials or athletes or politicians to learn something important to the public’s understanding of an issue. No question.

But sometimes we use that access to get “official” quotes that ostensibly give our stories credibility. We quote the police, the school board member, the left fielder, even when their quotes mean little and paste over the fact we didn’t get to the truth.

Here’s my suggestion:

Let’s fight, harder than ever, for access to information the public has a right to get.

But let’s also stop leaning on access to get stories that fall short of what the public needs.

Let’s take a hard look at the stories we’re pursuing and the information we’re filling them with, and ask whether access—in some cases—is letting us take the easy way out. Maybe we should turn the focus of our government coverage toward the people who are affected before officials stop talking with us.

Because maybe that would be a better story.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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image 1790

Ziggin’ and zoomin’: Find yourself some metaphors for leadership success

My nearly two decades at The Philadelphia Inquirer had barely begun when I first heard the phrase that, in many ways, expressed both the newsroom’s strategy—and its essence:

Zig when everyone else zags.

The idea was simple. Don’t cover the story as everyone else is covering it; find an angle that helps the reader or viewer experience the story in an entirely different way.

(One of my favorite zigs is a story by education reporter Linda Lutton at WBEZ in Chicago. During the height of that city’s gun violence in 2012, when journalists were doing thousands of stories on the victims, the shooters and police efforts to stop the bloodshed, Linda attended a teenager’s funeral with the principal of a high school that had seen 27 of its current or former students shot—in just one year. Her story inspired a two-part series of This American Life.)

For us at the Inquirer, editor Gene Roberts’ “zig” mantra was everything you want your leader’s communication to be: clear, actionable, inspiring. It helped us develop a common newsroom language. And with every “zig” we successfully executed, the mantra—and the strategy it represented—buried itself more deeply in our approach to our work.

It also, as it sometimes does, took on an even larger meaning. At the Inquirer, “zigging” eventually applied to the very culture of the newsroom that Roberts and his staff created.

Do you use mantras or metaphors to help you manage your staff—and yourself?

Meeting journalists from newsrooms around the world, I hear some metaphors repeated often. The “full-court press,” a defensive strategy in basketball, describes a newsroom’s response to a big story; a “tick-tock” is a story that recreates an event in great detail, chronologically, along a timeline.

A number of other metaphors are borrowed from visual arts, like filmmaking. And why not? They’re intended to help us visualize strategies for good storytelling:

Zoom in. Get up close to a character or scene, focusing on small details that will help bring the person or place to life.

Turn the camera around. Instead of reporting on the action in front of you (for example, the debate among members of city council), turn your attention to another, more interesting, subject (an angry person in the gallery, the stoic stenographer, a veteran security guard.)

Widen the angle. Add context to the story by placing the action in its proper relationship to what else is going on.

All of these metaphors—and other successful ones—work for several important reasons:

  1. Their meaning is clear. The staff of the Inquirer understood “Zig” and “Zag.” Our familiarity with cameras lets us appreciate what it means for a writer to “zoom in” or “widen the angle.” Mantras or metaphors that confuse are highly unlikely to catch on.
  2. They are consistent with other messages. The Inquirer when Roberts was teaching the newsroom to zig was an underdog, a newspaper scrambling for credibility in a town where the Philadelphia Bulletin was the respected paper of record. So the whole idea of bucking the trend, being the rebel—zigging when the others zagged—was consistent with our self-image.
  3. The idea they represent has merit. Many a catchy slogan has been created to help sell an effort that ultimately failed. Most of those efforts, and their slogans, are long forgotten. “Zigging,” and the idea it represents, lives on; it still suggests a viable strategy for succeeding in the multi-platform newsrooms of 2014.

And while mantras and metaphors can help rally a staff behind an idea or project, they also can be highly personal. Individuals adopt them to help make sense of their leadership, their editing, their reporting.

Marissa Nelson is senior director of digital media for CBC News. Recently we were talking about the challenges of leading her staff through major changes, including a significant reduction in personnel. She told me about her “mast.”

“I picture myself at the helm of a ship,” she said, “and I’m standing with my back up against the ship’s mast. It represents the values that are most important to me—integrity, empathy, fairness—and it reminds me that as we move forward, I need to be true to those values no matter what challenge we face.”

I asked her what role those values played in her management of the downsizing. She said she tried to bring empathy to the process, to remember that the situation was taking a human toll on her staff, and that she needed to deal with each person individually and with compassion.

In addition to standing for her values, Marissa said the “mast” also helps her from a strategic point of view, reminding her as the department moves forward to stay focused on the division’s goals and not to be buffeted off course.

Marissa’s story reminded me of several metaphors that helped me in my attempts to be an effective leader.

One of them helped me deal with the sense of depression I repeatedly experienced about three weeks after accepting a job with increased responsibility. Eventually I realized why. The depression coincided with my realization that no matter how hard I worked, I couldn’t get my arms around the staff and its work. I could not control things.

Today I look back and realize it was actually good that I could not control everything—how are people supposed to grow if they’re manipulated like puppets? But I do remember the metaphor I used to describe my strategy for managing this “uncontrollable” operation.

I set out every day to touch it.

Each day I would try to engage my staff in ways that made a difference. Maybe I’d visit a bureau. Maybe I’d meet with a group working on enterprise. Maybe I’d have a difficult conversation. Or maybe I’d spend the morning with a colleague on the business side.

That was my daily challenge: How could I touch the organization in a way that would move us forward? If I chose well, I actually was having far more impact on the quality of our work than if I had assigned and edited every story.

The touch metaphor helped me.

Another metaphor helped me, like the “mast” helps Marissa, remember that values can play an important role in guiding a staff through difficult times of change.

For me, the metaphor was a bunch of rocks.

It was more than 20 years ago that I heard a Wharton professor describe how successful CEOs traditionally guided their organizations through times of change.

“Companies moved from periods of stability,” he said, “into the white water. And the best CEOS successfully guided their organizations through the white water, back to periods of stability.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he continued, “I need you to know one thing. For the rest of your careers, there will be nothing but white water.”

The professor didn’t know the half of it. In 1993, there were no iPods or tablets or smartphones. In fact, it had only been a few months since World Wide Web software had been placed in Public Domain. Imagine anyone suggesting today that we will return to periods of stability.

While last two decades of white water have given us many technological wonders—our ability to create and share journalism has never been greater—they also have made it difficult, if not impossible, for newsroom leaders to promise their staffs some once-basic things. Things like raises, promotions and even long-term employment.

So what can a leader promise a staff?

Values. You can promise your staff that together you will create journalism that is fair, accurate, independent and benefits the community. You can promise that together you will learn things that will benefit you now and if you go elsewhere. You can promise that together you will do work that has meaning.

And here’s the metaphor—those values are the rocks on which you cross the white water. I picture those rocks and remember the values I hold most dear.

Not everyone responds to metaphors; some people want facts, figures and a well-organized spreadsheet. But for as long as journalism has aspired to be a watchdog, shine a light and give voice to the voiceless, metaphors and mantras have served its leaders well.

Get ziggin’.

 

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Got writer’s block? 14 writers share how they fight the blank screen

A few weeks ago I wrote about my bout with writer’s block, and how I needed a good “slap” to get over it. That got me thinking: how do other writers get over those moments (or hours) when the blank screen is so imposing?
So I asked for advice from some very good writers whose work appears in print, broadcast and online.

You’ll see that in addition to sharing a gift, they also share an understanding that writing well is the product of discipline and hard work.

I hope their advice helps you the next time the words won’t come. Most of all, I hope they inspire you to write.

Steve Hartman, Correspondent, CBS News

Butch sent me an email asking me to share my thoughts about writer’s block.  His email sat in my inbox for a while. I didn’t know what to say. That is how common writer’s block is for me. In fact, I don’t even call it writer’s block. I just call it writing. There isn’t a time when words come easy for me. There isn’t a time when I don’t feel like an impostor at my keyboard. There isn’t a time when I don’t wonder, “How am I going to fool ‘em this time?”

My key for getting past this daily hurdle is to just sit down at my keyboard and type. I just throw down words like Scrabble tiles from a shaker. If I do it enough, eventually something will appear.  Once I get a few lines down I start re-writing. I’m a horrible writer, but sometimes I can come across as a good one after the 13th draft.

Of course, there are times when I can’t even get the first few words out. I have two secrets for getting through those days. When possible, I go to bed and start over in the morning. Or if I’m on a deadline, I just get it done and don’t worry about it. And ironically, that’s often when I get the best results.

(That’s kind of how I got through this assignment:)

Depositphotos_13185662_s

Carrie Budoff Brown, White House Reporter, Politico

As hard as it can be sometimes, I try to step away from the computer and put aside the story for a short while. When I’m ready, I’ll start typing notes and thoughts and even full paragraphs and potentials ledes on my iPhone. For some reason, I feel less pressure working on my iPhone than the computer. The act of typing my thoughts into the phone often helps to break the writer’s block, so by the time I return to my computer, I have an outline of where I’m headed.

Another trick: Find a new place to write. When I’m working on a longer-term piece, I’ll often take up residence in a favorite coffee shop, rather than my desk at work. The change of perspective, along with some good music, is usually enough to get my thoughts going again.

When these tricks fail, it’s usually because I need to do more reporting. So I make more calls and sit down with more people.

Paula Bock, Writer, Editor at Pacific Science Center

1. Lower your standards. Doesn’t have to be perfect. It’s a ROUGH draft.

2. Turn off the screen and just type so you don’t self-edit. (But make sure your fingers are on the home keys!)

3. Give yourself mini deadlines.

4. Write in 15 minute spurts. Set a timer and keep your fingers moving.

egg timer cooking

Anna Holmes, Founder of Jezebel.com, Columnist for NYT Sunday Book Review, Editor for Fusion

Long walks help. So does pretending that I’m writing an email to a friend. But I must say, the older I get, the more I struggle with writer’s block.

I don’t want to sound too crunchy, but taking up yoga a few years ago has also helped me deal with my writer’s block. Although, in that case, it’s more that the practice of stretching and then being still for long periods of time has helped me figure out how to solve problems in pieces I am already in the midst of writing — not necessarily help me start a piece of writing. That’s what, for me and many others, we think of when we talk about “writer’s block.”

I also suspect that some of what we consider to be writer’s block nowadays is actually “complete and utter distraction.” And for that, I blame the internet. Digital media and technology has made my life immeasurably better – both personally and professionally – but it’s also made it very difficult for me to concentrate on the actual act of writing. One might argue that the many hours I spend on Twitter every day is a type of writing and I might agree with that person, except that I’m not convinced that what I have to say on Twitter has any lasting value. (Nor do I get paid for it.) It’s good for blowing off steam and coming up with ideas, but mostly, it’s very, very good for procrastination. To be sure, procrastination has a place in the writing process, but I wish it had a little less of a hold on me right now. The only solution, of course, is to simply GET OFF THE INTERNET, but I can’t imagine a world right now in which I could actually afford – psychically or professionally – to do that.

 (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

Steve Lopez, Los Angeles Times Columnist

Writer’s block is often a symptom of homework deficiency. At least in my case. It happens when I try to write with authority but I haven’t earned the right, so the cure is to do a little more reporting or to give more thought to the essence of the material I’ve gathered.

When I do have the goods, but still can’t figure out the architecture, I think like a painter applying a primer coat. Laying down some words helps me smooth out the rough spots on the second and third pass. It’s never an exercise in writing, after all. It’s about rewriting.

Connie Schultz, Columnist at Creators Syndicate, Parade Magazine

We all have those times when the piece we have to write seems reluctant to find its way to our keyboards. When that happens to me, I stay in the chair and spend a few minutes writing something, anything, to get moving. Maybe it’s a post for my public Facebook page, or a few paragraphs for something else I’m working on that isn’t due that day. Anything that triggers the muscle memory of flow. This seldom fails me, as it helps me make the mental shift necessary to tackle the work on deadline.

I also have visual cues to nudge me. My father’s lunch pail and my mother’s work ID sit on my desk as reminders that they wore their bodies out in hourly wage jobs so that I could get to do this for a living. On many days, that’s enough to get me going. This is my job, after all, and my heaviest piece of equipment is a laptop. No whining on this yacht.

Don Wycliff, Retired journalist and journalism educator

Happily, I have never had a debilitating case of writer’s block. But I have had periods when I simply couldn’t make progress on a piece of work. Almost always, I found, it was because I had not done enough reporting. I was, in effect, trying to make bricks without straw, to make my engine go without fuel.
The solution was to go back, dig in and report the story more deeply. I generally found that if I could tell the story in simple, narrative fashion, I had covered all my reporting bases. And the narrative often turned into my lead. And if it didn’t, I had enough to chew on so that I could come up with a more imaginative approach to the story.

Jacqui Banaszynski, Poynter Editing Fellow, Knight Chair University of Missouri

What’s the old saw? Long-haul truckers don’t get drivers’ block, and daily newspaper reporters can’t afford writers’ block. But on less deadline-driven projects, I can suffer from serious keyboard avoidance.

What helps me most is to talk through a piece with someone. I need to get it out of my head and out in the world. I need to start hearing key points and sparkling moments, and boring myself with the unessential minutiae. Then I jot down a quick laundry list of those key points – a very informal outline that works as a simplified roadmap.

Finally, I start futzing on the keyboard, but mostly pace or clean or do laundry – something mindless but productive – until not writing becomes more stressful than writing. Once I’m back at the keyboard, I’ll play with passages – anything to keep my fingers moving – until I’m immersed in the story and deep in the zone.

Coffee and background noise (radio, a coffee shop, a newsroom) are musts. TV and email are death, as is total silence.

(Photo by Amy Sussman/Invision for Purina ONE/AP Images)

(Photo by Amy Sussman/Invision for Purina ONE/AP Images)

Boyd Huppert, Reporter, KARE 11, Minneapolis

My prescription for writer’s block is to write. For me it’s all about getting my gears turning. Even if I’m writing garbage, I might stumble on a nugget that can lead me down a more productive path.  Sitting and thinking about it has never worked well for me. I have to see the words.

I do a lot of my writing at night when things quiet down. I’ll never go to bed when I’m on a roll, but never stay up when I’m not. When nothing is clicking, I find the time is better spent sleeping with an early alarm clock set the next morning. A few hours of sleep seem to always clear the fog.

(AP Photo/Sammut Tech, LLC,, Paul Sammut)

(AP Photo/Sammut Tech, LLC,, Paul Sammut)

Doreen Carvajal, Reporter, International New York Times

When I confront “the blocks” it usually involves a project that overwhelms me such as a long, complicated news story or a book project and proposal. One tool that helps is the golden rule of 500. Write the minimum 500 words. Then take a walk. This act of movement clears my head and when I return I can take the jumble and put it into better order. Finally for a really daunting project, I move at more than 200 miles an hour. I take a 5-hour speed train from Paris to Nice to shake it out of me. No wifi. Intermittent phone signals. No distractions. Just words to roll with the landscapes.

 (AP Photo/Lionel Cironneau)

(AP Photo/Lionel Cironneau)

John Aloysius Farrell, Biographer of ‘Tip’ O’Neill and Clarence Darrow

I have two rules. Whatever you do, just do something. Work on your footnotes. Go to the library. Do some filing. Write an outline. Just don’t panic: La donna e’ mobile. The fickle muse will eventually stagger in, tardy and frowsy but heart-rendingly lovely, from her dalliance elsewhere. And here’s a tip from Ernest Hemingway on writing: Don’t write all you know each day. Stop a paragraph or a page or a thought short, to keep the creative spring primed as it refills overnight.

(AP Photo/Mel Evans)

(AP Photo/Mel Evans)

Roy Peter Clark, Vice President and Senior Scholar, Poynter

I’ve come to believe that Writers Block is caused by something very good in the values of the writer:  high standards. The writer begins the work with an idealized vision of the finished product in his or her head. Then the drafting begins, and the first words are so far from the ideal, that doubt creeps in. Doubt has a persuasive voice: “You don’t need to be working on this now; go watch the game and have a beer.” It was the prolific poet William Stafford who offered the controversial solution:  “lower your standards.” But that advice needs a prepositional attachment: “at the beginning of the process.” Use any strategy that builds momentum: write on a yellow pad, don’t stop to check the spelling, write as fast as you can. Part of lowering your standards involves thinking of writing as routine work rather than high art. “Why should I get writer’s block?” asked columnist Roger Simon. “My father never got truck driver’s block.”

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Lane DeGregory, Staff Writer, Tampa Bay Times

Diet Coke. Laundry. Dog walk. Dylan. Looong shower.

I never let myself have writer’s block at my computer. Before I start writing, and as soon as I get stuck, I make myself get up and walk around and try to do something useful — or at least something to put my body in gear and jump start my brain away from pen and paper or the keyboard.

Generally, I write without my notes. I tell the story to my dog out loud first, to hear where I might want to start and where I think the narrative is going. Then I try to force myself to write as long as it takes me to finish a can of Diet Coke. When the can is empty, I get up and give myself a break and rifle through my notes and wonder where I’m going next.

It helps do to laundry or dishes while I think. (If I were a cyclist or runner that might help more). And my dog loves it when I’m really stuck and take her for a walk to clear my head and try leads or transitional sentences out loud. People think I’m talking to her while I’m talking through my story ;)

When that doesn’t work, I break out my dog-eared anthology of Flannery O’Connor stories or put on Bob Dylan’s “Desire” album and try to glean inspiration from the masters.

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Brady: Local coverage should involve communities – and help them improve

In the weeks after Jim Brady announced plans to launch brother.ly, a local news web site in Philadelphia, he and Poynter’s Butch Ward had an email conversation about Brady’s previous experiences with guiding digital newsrooms.

Ward: More than a decade later, have you changed your thinking in any significant way about local news coverage in the digital age? How about your thinking on how to build a financially successful news business? 

Brady: I think the biggest change in my thinking has been about the overall role of a local news organization. I used to be a believer in staying out of the fray, and just reporting on what was happening and stopping there. But I now think news organizations need to expand their thinking there. I’m not suggesting that papers drop objectivity in reporting; I still believe in that. But I think they need to acknowledge that their role should be to help connect their consumers to information, people, events and whatever else might empower them to take action to improve their communities. We don’t need to be prescriptive as to what will make a community better—though, at times, we can choose to be. In Philly, we’re being very open about the fact part of our mission is to make Philadelphia better. You could say that’s controversial, but how many people out there walk around thinking, “I wish this was a worse city. I wish there was more crime, more traffic, etc.” Not many, I would hope.

Ward: Both Project Thunderdome and TBD represented efforts by legacy media companies to play in the digital sphere. What advice do you have for legacy companies trying to build a bridge to a digital future?

Brady: I don’t know. I’m not sure anyone is much interested in my advice to legacy media companies at this point. But, if so, I’d say to ask yourself whether you’re built for the digital future. Whatever the revenue breakdown is today, there can’t really be any argument anymore that the consumer and the revenue is moving to digital platforms. So do you have people, who understand digital, making key decisions for the organization? Are sales folks compensated on selling against legacy or digital? In these difficult economic times, are you still putting a premium on equipping newsroom and sales people with the tools to compete in the digital landscape?
Everyone understands that cost cuts are inevitable in this climate, but that doesn’t mean there can’t also be a reallocation of funds toward digital transformation as well. In fact, that has to happen. But these changes are very hard, and, as someone who has spend a lot of the past decade inside newsrooms going through constant change, it’s very hard to make the necessary pivot to digital when the legacy responsibilities—whether that’s putting out a newspaper or airing a broadcast—inevitably come around the bend every day.

Ward: Would you consider leading another digital effort for a legacy media company?

Brady: Who knows? If I had tried predicting the last 10 years of my career, I probably would have been wrong about all of it. I guess I don’t really organize around the legacy vs. non-legacy structure. It’s all about opportunity and being able to do something different than the last job. My path of AOL to washingtonpost.com to TBD to DFM to a bootstrapped startup like this is so bizarre that I would be nuts to hazard a guess of what job or type of job would be next.

Ward: What have you learned about local sites? Can you point to specific local coverage tactics that actually build readership?

Brady: I think, to some extent, it’s about what you cover. But I think how you cover a community matters more. Going forward, I think local coverage has to focus on involving the communities that are being covered and have an eye on improving those communities. I don’t think the news consumer of the future is going to be satisfied with reporting alone. It’s the relationship with the local reader that will determine success or failure, because it’s harder to commoditize a relationship than a coverage area. I also think making sure you’re covering things that matter to people’s daily lives is important. I know that sounds obvious, but it doesn’t seem to be for some.

There was an article in Columbia Journalism Review a while back that pointed to a New Haven Register story about a new movie theater opening and said, basically, “this isn’t journalism.” But of course it is. The implication was that every piece of local journalism should be accountability-driven, which is ridiculous. The average reader in New Haven cares about a new movie theater that’s opening, and about road construction, and local sports and lots of other things that are not local Watergates. Sure, accountability journalism has to be part of that mix, but any local newspaper that decides to butter its bread with nothing but accountability journalism is going to be hungry for readers at some point.

Ward: How about local coverage ideas that you discovered don’t work?

Brady: Again, I think it’s probably more of a question of approach. If you’re out there covering the community but not talking to it or listening to it, then you’ve probably got a problem. I think another major mistake most legacy sites are making is they’re still acting as it they are the only voices in their communities that matter. How many of the top 100 papers in the country actively link to other media or citizen sites in their communities? Not many. And, to me, that’s keeping many of them from being the starting point for people looking for local news. There are a lot of younger news consumers out there that get their news from Twitter, Facebook, Flipboard or some other non-legacy starting point, and what do those sites have in common? They link to lots of sites and don’t play favorites. News orgs need to learn that not linking out actually makes them less relevant to consumers, not more.

Ward: Are there other local news sites out there that you admire? 

Brady: Many. I think ArlNow in Northern Virginia is terrific. I think Voice of San Diego has taken a really interesting approach to civic journalism, as has MinnPost. Texas Tribune is a great site, and I like what they’ve been able to build around data. And barista.net has shown the way for a lot of community sites, and it’s making some money to boot. What those sites all have in common is a willingness to try something new, whether it’s a laser focus on a specific community, an interesting membership model or a major events business.

Honestly, I don’t know that the traditional model of hiring a lot of reporters and just writing stories will ever work for a local digital news site.

Ward: What else is going on digitally that you think journalists need to pay attention to?

Brady: Mobile, obviously. The move to mobile is happening at lightning speed, and there’s no sign it’ll slow down. And, to me, the key to mobile for local sites will be location. It may be a year or two off, but local sites have to be able to take advantage of the fact we know where our users are at any given time, and also what areas they care about. And that doesn’t even touch on what advertising should be able to do with location. So I think that’s the area to watch, and even if it’s a few years off, the time to start thinking about it is now.

Ward: Let’s talk a little about leadership. What leadership skills do you need either to build a digital newsroom or transition a legacy newsroom to digital?

Brady: If you’re building a new newsroom, it’s all about hiring good people and getting out of the way. Building the newsrooms at TBD and Thunderdome have been career highlights for me, and I’m proud of the people that we hired at both places. I’m looking forward to doing it again in Philly. As far as transitioning existing newsrooms, that requires a different management playbook. The first part is you have to be honest about what you’re trying to accomplish. I visited all 75 DFM papers in the first nine months I was in the job, and I was honest about DFM’s strategy and what was expected of everyone. Some people bought in, some didn’t. But no one could say we weren’t clear about the push to digital and our seriousness about that. And I think we won a lot of converts, though I’m sure we could have done better.

Ward: How do you get buy-in from a staff when you can’t point to evidence that your idea actually works?

Brady: I don’t know that whether people buy in or not is as much about you as it is about them. Sure, I think you can influence people with clear messaging and clear action, but if the will to change isn’t inside your own soul, then I don’t think it’ll happen. Sure, you might get change that’s driven by survival, but that’s not the kind of change that can be transformative, only transitional. It’s obvious the future is digital at this point, so I don’t find myself focused on trying to “sell” digital anymore. I think the days of digital evangelism are over—or certainly should be. I could pull five charts about the news business right now and that would probably be all anyone would really need to “sell” people on our collective digital future.

Ward: What leadership lessons have you learned from helping journalists transition to a digital environment?  

Brady: Patience and focus. Patience in the sense that teaching people new skills and news ways of thinking is hard. But the effort is worth it when you have willing subjects. And focus in terms of selecting who to spend your time on. When I was at washingtonpost.com, I found myself drawn to trying to convince the biggest naysayers in the print newsroom that they should pay attention to digital. In retrospect, I think that was a mistake. There’s a great line in my all-time favorite movie, “12 Angry Men,” where the Joseph Sweeney character is unsuccessfully trying to sway the glib Jack Warden character, and Henry Fonda finally says to Sweeney, “He can’t hear you. He never will.” I think that applies to some journalists vis a vis digital. At DFM, I spent more time focused on the folks who were open to experimenting, or were already active digitally long before John Paton got to the company. I didn’t waste time on the people who made it clear from the start they weren’t on board. Many of them weren’t around for long anyway, some voluntarily and some not. Read more

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Manager alert: pay attention to your best people

For the better part of the past two weeks, I needed a good slapping.

I don’t mean that literally, though some of the people in my life might wish I did. What I needed was someone to snap me out of the insecure funk I get in from time to time.

I had writer’s block.

Do you ever get it? Ideas that seem so clear in my brain get hijacked and disappear somewhere en route to the keyboard. I start a sentence, delete it, start another and delete that, too. I get up and walk the dog, stare some more at the laptop, send out Facebook birthday wishes, stare at the laptop, get a cup of coffee…

Before long, my insecurities win. I am convinced I will never write again. How tragic. It happened so quickly; I never saw it coming.

Am I overreacting? Of course I am. That’s what insecure journalists do. Some are convinced they’ll never write again. Others believe they will never master the digital skills their jobs now require. Still others simply think that finally, after years of fooling their bosses, they have been found out as talentless hacks.

But while they think they need a new career, what they need is a good slap — the kind that really good bosses know just when, and how, to deliver.

Bosses like John Dotson — but when I needed him last week, he was nowhere to be found.

John passed away last year, 30 years after we were colleagues at The Inquirer. He came through Philadelphia before moving on to Akron, where he became publisher of the Beacon Journal and led the newspaper’s Pultizer Prize-winning coverage of race relations.

During our time in Philadelphia, John taught me a lot—but he never helped me more than on a winter’s day in 1983 when we were walking back to the office from lunch—and he slapped me.

That morning, our editor had assigned us to begin an expansion of the paper’s presence in New Jersey by opening a new bureau and publishing a twice-weekly local news section. It was my first big assignment at the Inquirer—and my insecurities immediately kicked in. I spent lunch telling John all the reasons I was worried. I suspect I did nothing to help his chicken salad settle.

We were only a dozen strides out of the restaurant when John moved a step ahead, turned to face me and stopped. I froze. John looked angry. I don’t know for sure that these were his exact words, but almost 30 years later, they are the ones I remember:

“Stop it, Butch. Just stop it. If Gene didn’t think you could do this, he wouldn’t have given you the job. But he knows you can. And you do, too. So just do it.”

Slapped.

I don’t remember what I said to John next, but I know what I felt. Yes, a little embarrassed; but even more, I felt believed in.

Believed in by someone I admired.

That day certainly wasn’t the last on which I felt insecure. But John’s slap changed me in at least two important ways: first, I moved on with a bit more confidence—enough to carry out that assignment and a number of others in the years to come.

More importantly, I recognized that talented people need to hear something they don’t always believe:

That they are good.

Now, it’s certainly not news that a lot of journalists harbor insecurities about their work. Indeed, some of the most talented newsroom people I know are among the most insecure. Unfortunately, some work for bosses with little or no patience for reassuring insecure staffers. They call them “needy,” “whiners,” “head cases.”

Sure, I’ve known journalists who seem to bring a new source of anxiety to the boss every day. For them, the “slap” needs to involve an understanding about how much access to your time is reasonable.

But the truth about many good—and insecure—journalists is that they only end up in your office when they hit bottom. When they think they’re failing.

Some of the luckiest ones had Jim Naughton for a boss.

On many a day, I watched Jim—the former executive editor of The Inquirer (and a past President at Poynter)—as he huddled in his cramped cubicle with a distraught member of the staff who just knew their career was over.

To be sure, Jim could be patient, and these scenes often lasted long into the afternoon. But eventually, after his efforts to reason and comfort had failed, Jim would move just a bit closer to the staffer and say:

“You need to stop this. You are good. Really good. Do you know how I know you’re good. Because we hired you, that’s how. And we don’t hire people unless they’re good. So get out there, relax and do what you’re good at.”

Last week at the Associated Press Sports Editors conference in Washington D.C., I talked with editors about how, especially in times when resources are stretched thin, our best staffers receive the least attention. After all, they come through every day with good work, and many of them rarely ask for anything.

Trust me. That does not mean they do not need attention—maybe even a slapping.

For even if they are not feeling insecure, they need the attention of someone who tells them that they are good, that their work is improving—that they are believed in.

Neglect your best people at your own risk. More than one manager has been surprised when a good staffer decides to leave, usually to join someone who provided what you didn’t—a much-needed dose of praise.

So here are three ideas for helping your best staffers fight their insecurities:

Be clear about what you like. You probably thank best staffers for their good work. But to make that praise meaningful, be specific about what you liked. Remember your goal: To help staffers be more aware of their talents—and which ones you specifically value. That increases the chance they will replicate the good work, and creates a platform from which you can continue to talk with them about improvement.

Talk growth. Telling someone he or she is good is important. But helping me plot my future success is even more valuable. If I am your best feature writer, what can that talent help me become? Build a continuing conversation with your best staffers around their ambitions and how their talents can help them realize them. (Especially in this job environment, it’s not enough to believe I am good—I need to believe I will be good.) And don’t be afraid to include in that conversation the areas in which the staffer needs to improve. Even if I am insecure, I can hear your advice for how I need to improve as supportive—especially if you’ve made it clear you’re invested in my future.

Challenge. Get beyond the words. Nothing demonstrates your belief in me more than an assignment I know you really care about. Whether it’s a story, an investigation or a new product introduction, give your best staffers bigger and bigger opportunities to prove to you—and to themselves—that they are good.

So if you’ve gotten this far, I guess it’s clear that—for better or worse—I got over my writer’s block.

Thanks to a slap.

Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you don’t have to rely on a boss to help you snap out of a funk. After two weeks of living with my flare-up of insecurities, it was my wife who—for want of a better metaphor—stopped and faced me on the street with a message I needed to hear.

Donna and I were in the middle of a four-hour car ride to visit her brother in Jacksonville and she had listened to me try to explain, again, why I couldn’t seem to write anything.

For a while, Donna was quiet. Then she began, “William…” in that tone– you know the one–the one that’s stern and caring at the same time.

“William,” she said, “people believe in you. I hate to see you doing this to yourself. You will write when you know you have something to write about. I know you will.”

Thanks, Donna.

In the end, I know it’s important for all of us to believe in ourselves. But some days, it’s hard.

So let me speak for insecure people in newsrooms everywhere:

Boss, we know you’re busy and we’re sorry to be pains in your ass, but on some days, we just need to hear that someone believes in us.

We’d like it to be you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Manager, Interrupted: How to trade all of that multi-tasking for some real focus

Multitasking at work. (Flickr Photo by Jonathan Blundell/ https://flic.kr/p/7bnUSk)

It’s 3:00 p.m. You’re sitting at your desk, trying to edit and file to the web the six paragraphs on your computer screen, a breaking account of the fire that has reduced downtown traffic to a crawl.

Your phone rings. The reporter at the fire wants to add a sentence about a new detour. You take the information and add it. Back to editing. Your mobile phone buzzes. It’s a news alert: the mayor has decided not to seek reelection. Then the phone rings. The city government reporter has the news about the mayor. Tweet it, you tell her, then file three paragraphs for the web and call back to discuss a follow-up. You forward the news alert to the news and web desks to let them know what’s coming.

Back to the fire story. It’s 3:06 p.m. Your phone rings. It’s a reporter who wants to take next Friday off…

For the newsroom manager, the workday can seem like a relentless string of interruptions.

Perhaps that’s because it is. And in today’s resource-strapped newsrooms, you can feel like the string is wrapped around your neck.

Does it have to be this way? Can a manager do anything about the interruptions that always seem to complicate life at the worst possible moment?

I say yes. In fact, I’d say you can even learn to love them. (I’ll try to get to my suggestions before you get interrupted.)

First, a reality check.

Before managers come to Poynter for a leadership seminar, I ask them to keep a log of their activities—all of their activities—for one typical work day. They arrive with sheets of paper, filled with a single-spaced record of their work. When I ask what struck them about their lists, many say: “We really do a lot.”

Then they invariably say: “And I get interrupted constantly.”

To be sure, nearly all jobs include interruptions—and they clearly have a negative impact on the quality of work. A good deal of research has been done into the impact of interruptions—and into the effectiveness of “multi-tasking,” our favorite coping mechanism.

You might have heard some of these findings. They include:

And then there’s a study that found that people who accept interruptions as part of their workday typically make adjustments. The researchers’ observation certainly matched my experience:

“When people are constantly interrupted, they develop a mode of working faster to compensate for the time they know they will lose by being interrupted.”

The researchers’ next observation also rang true:

“Yet working faster with interruptions has its cost: people in the interrupted conditions experienced a higher workload, more stress, higher frustration, more time pressure, and effort.”

Put another way: Merely working faster to compensate for interruptions ultimately tightens the string around your neck.

You need to do more than simply compensate. You need a plan, one built on an idea that might seem counterintuitive:

Interruptions are essential contributors to the newsroom manager’s success.

That’s right. Often, interruptions are good.

Think about it. The news alert about the mayor tips you off to an important story. The call from the reader who caught a mistake during today’s morning show affords you a chance to improve your credibility with a correction. Even the call from the reporter who wants a day off can be good for a number of reasons—maybe it tips you off to a staffer’s personal crisis; maybe it just gives you a chance to acknowledge a staffer’s hard work.

No, you neither can—nor should you want to—eliminate the interruptions in your workday. Instead, you need to:

  • Make the most of the interruptions that benefit your work. (News tips, interactions with the public, important personnel matters.)
  • Reduce (or at least better manage) the interruptions over which you have control. (Email, social media, phone calls that you initiate.)
  • Minimize the disruptive nature of interruptions, whatever their source, on your work.

Here are a few ideas for getting started:

Keep a log of one typical work day. Start when you get to the building, writing down every activity that you engage in. Include everything. Coffee breaks, the water cooler conversation about last night’s game, a question from a colleague that you answer. When the log is completed, highlight the interruptions. Now note the interruptions you caused; the times you stopped what you were doing to check email, tweet, ask a colleague about the agenda for this afternoon’s meeting.

Keeping the log will be a pain in the keyboard. But it will be revelatory—in many ways. Just identifying the interruptions that you control will give you the chance to make different choices, like …

Resist the need to check email constantly. Facebook and Twitter, too. For every time that you call up email and find an urgent message, there are 50 times you find nothing important (or worse, a message that requires an answer—but could have waited). Too late. The damage is done. How about trying to complete the task you’re doing before checking email?

Resist all impulse activity. It’s not just about email. It’s about stopping what you’re doing for any activity that suddenly crosses your mind. “I need to tweet a link to this afternoon’s web report.” “I forgot to call the statehouse reporter about tomorrow’s budget hearing.” “It’s been an hour since I updated the news budget.” All of these activities have two things in common. All have value, and all—if you deal with them immediately—will take you away from what you’re doing. Try counting to 10 before you switch activities. You can do it. You’re stronger than you think.

Invest in sticky notes. The biggest problem I have with self-interruption begins with this statement to myself: “Deal with it now. It will only take a minute.” Unfortunately, it rarely takes a minute. And 15 minutes (or more) later, when I return to the task that was interrupted, I’ve lost my train of thought. What if, instead of stopping what I’m doing, I make a quick note to myself to return an email, tweet out a story or call a colleague about a meeting?

Taking care of things as they happen—without regard to the importance of what is being interrupted—reflects the belief that efficiency produces quality. Not necessarily. Sometimes efficiency actually compounds the disruptive effect of the interruption you were attempting to address.

Get comfortable with “Can this wait?” Every interruption presents a value proposition. Two activities are vying for your attention (and remember, the brain cannot deal with two cognitive activities at once.) So which is more important: What you are doing now, or what the interruption is asking you to do? Some managers almost always vote for themselves (I didn’t like working for them); others usually vote for the interruption (the copy desk didn’t like working with them). Fact is, sometimes you need to stay focused on what you’re doing— on deadline, for example, you need to edit. When you’re having a difficult career conversation with someone, you need to stay in the moment. When that is the case, an appropriate response to your interrupter is, “Can we talk in an hour?” Or “Will tomorrow work?” Or “can someone else help you?”

This is not to suggest that the reason for the interruption is not important. It’s a reminder that managing is about making choices—and prioritizing how you spend your time—to have the best possible impact.

Schedule stuff. Another great use of the log is to identify times of the day that are less hectic—times when you could schedule work that can make the interruptions that occur later less disruptive. Regularly scheduling 20 minutes to give staffers individual feedback can address performance issues that otherwise might pop up on deadline. Setting aside 30 minutes early in the day to edit a non-deadline story reduces the chance an interruption will destroy your focus. Use your schedule to exert as much control on your day as possible. Get stuff done before it has to compete with external interruptions for your attention.

Assign your staff to a few shifts on the desk. Sometimes the people who interrupt you on deadline have no idea they are being disruptive. Nothing more effectively shows the staff their impact on the operation than letting them help manage it for a few days. Suddenly, for example, the reasons for deadlines are clear. It’s also a great way to measure a staffer’s editing potential and increase the staff’s versatility.

Create a time of day for admin. Talk to your staff about bringing you administrative concerns at a specific time of day. Deadline is not a time to talk about holiday schedules. On the other hand, nothing increases your credibility as a manager more than demonstrating that you care about such issues. Be clear that this is not about dismissing or trivializing administrative questions—it’s actually about handling them better than you can on deadline. (And ultimately, you’ll be judged on how—not when—you dealt with those holiday schedules.)

One last thought: If you decide to respond to an interruption—for any reason—shift your focus completely to the new activity. Dealing with someone’s issue while attempting to continue what you were working on diminishes both activities.

Do one thing at a time. After all, that’s all our brains can handle.

 

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