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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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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Slow down and read this: 6 ideas for making better decisions

Lessons in management, like all good stories, pop up almost anywhere.

Case in point: a recent episode of “Restaurant Impossible,” the weekly effort by the Food Network’s Robert Irvine to “save a failing restaurant” in just 48 hours.

Having seen many of the show’s nearly 100 episodes, I can tell you that in almost every case, poor management contributes to the troubled restaurant’s struggles. In this particular episode, the restaurant’s manager had alienated the staff to the point of near mutiny. Enter Irvine with his body-builder physique, skin-tight polo shirts, brutal critiques and renovation fund of $10,000.

He quickly recognized the manager as an issue and, shall we say, “persuaded”  her to change her management style. In a reflective moment, she described her epiphany:

“I was decisive,” she said, “but ineffective.”

Decisive but ineffective. Hearing her say that, I thought about how many leaders struggle with decision-making. They know it’s a key measure of their effectiveness — in fact, many of the leaders I work with say the best bosses they ever had were “decisive.”

What exactly do they mean? One dictionary says “decisive” people make decisions “quickly and effectively.” Another says “quickly and surely.” Still another says “quickly and confidently.” Notice what they have in common. Decisive people, the dictionaries say, make decisions quickly.

And that’s what I think got the restaurant manager in trouble. She, like many leaders, was honing the wrong skill. The question is not: “How can I be more decisive?” The question is: “How can I make better decisions?”

Or, even better: How can my organization make better decisions?

Let me propose that we begin by doing this: Slow down.

I know that sounds counterintuitive when the environment in which we are working is moving faster and faster. But this is, in a way, the speed-versus-accuracy debate applied to the decision-making process. In the end, which is more important: a quick decision or a good one?

Actually, my suggestion to slow down is a relative one. The challenge is to apply a process — it might be just an additional few minutes — to do whatever is required to make a better decision. To ask an additional question. To consult one additional person. To read the organization’s guidelines. To recognize and consider one more potential impact.

This is not an argument for being indecisive, for bringing the organization to a standstill by refusing to confront issues. But here’s a reality: the people who look to you for decisions frequently believe a situation is more urgent than it is. Why? Because they are living with the situation — and they want it to be resolved.

That’s why leaders, on behalf of the overall organization, have a responsibility to reserve the word “urgent” for situations that truly are urgent. Staffers who arrive at your door with the words, “we need to make a decision,” should trigger an alarm:

  • Do we really have to fill that vacancy today?
  • Do we really have to file that FOIA today?
  • Do we really have to decide on that departmental reorganization today? Maybe the answer is yes. But even if it is, ask yourself:
  • How can I slow this process down?

Here are five ideas for giving yourself the time to make better decisions — and for being more effective.

1. Get comfortable with these words: “I don’t know.” In many situations, that’s the honest answer to the question, “What should we do?” If you’re just being presented with a situation, how fair is it to expect you to render judgment immediately? Even after an extended discussion, you might feel the need to consult others, do some research, just think.

Remember that no one has all the answers — and admitting you don’t can make you a more credible leader.

2. Ask questions. Speaking of having answers… The great irony about many leaders in journalism is that when they were reporters, they knew their most powerful tool was a great question. Then they became bosses and assumed that now they were expected to have answers, not questions.

What a shame.

The best bosses I ever had never stopped asking questions. They refused to make decisions until the questions they had about the problem were answered to the extent possible. Even if you are dealing with a truly urgent problem, asking the right question can be the difference between making a good decision and an uninformed one.

3. Encourage alternatives. Leaders who overvalue speed in decision-making — whether it’s ethical or operational — often allow the question before them to be reduced to “yes” or “no.” Do we air the violent video or not? Do we hire the inexperienced reporter for the City Hall beat or not? Do we allow the use of anonymous sources or not?

Truth is, many situations are not “either-or” — we need to ask for alternatives. It’s one of the most effective tools I learned from my Poynter colleagues, Bob Steele and Kelly McBride, in their teaching of better ethical decision-making. Maybe we air the video with a warning to viewers. Maybe before making that City Hall hire, we contract with the inexperienced reporter for five freelance stories. Maybe we write guidelines that strongly encourage on-the-record attribution, and require permission from the top editor for anonymous sources.

Don’t settle for either-or. The more alternatives you surface, the more nuanced your decision can be.

4. Trust your judgment. Resist making decisions that you are not comfortable making.

Sometimes you can’t satisfy your every last concern. But if the story fails to answer questions you think are important to answer, you probably shouldn’t run it. (Or you might include in the story the unanswered questions you’re still pursuing.) If you doubt the tenacity of a reporter that your staff wants to promote to a tough beat, you probably need some questions answered more fully before you say yes. If you can’t envision how you would explain on camera tonight at 11 your decision about airing the disturbing video, you might not be ready to make that decision.

Don’t base decisions on gut feelings — but don’t ignore them. Treat them like “Jiminy Crickets,” urging you to slow down, ask more questions, do more research.

5. Engage others in the decision process. I’ve often told the story of the editor who responded to every staffer’s “we need to decide” with a question: “What do you think we should do?”

That question sent powerful signals to the staff: first, the editor had no intention of being the “Answer Man.” Second, the editor trusted the opinions of staff who actually knew more about the problem than he did. And third, the editor wanted to be clear that if you worked in that newsroom, you were expected to contribute to — not necessarily make — good decisions.

Notice that involving your staff in decision-making does not cede your responsibility or authority. That still belongs to you. But many leaders determined to build capacity in their organizations see good decision-making as a collaborative exercise.

And notice, too: Even that one question — what do you think? — slows down the process in the name of a better decision.

6. One final point. Building these ideas into your decision-making can make your process more intentional, more efficient. When staff come to you with situations and are armed with alternatives, ideas and information to answer your good questions, you actually may find yourself making faster decisions. Most importantly, though, they will be better decisions — and your organization will have contributed to making them.

Correction: An earlier version of this post had a misnumbered list of tips. It’s six, not five. Read more

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Managing by telephone? 10 ideas for a better conference call

How can I manage people I cannot see?

That’s a question I get from a good number of managers who work with remote staff and freelancers and communicate with them via Skype, Google Hangouts, email, online chats and, yes, the telephone.

It’s clear from what the managers ask that despite the innovations in communication technology, it remains challenging to communicate effectively with people who work in another location.

I remember the challenge well. In my first assigning desk job at The Philadelphia Inquirer, I coordinated the paper’s coverage of New Jersey, and learned a lot about casino gambling, cranberry bogs, Superfund toxic waste sites and corrupt politicians. Because I was in Philadelphia and most of my staff worked in bureaus located in Trenton and points south, I also learned a lot about managing by telephone.

In the years since (and there have been quite a few), my use of the telephone often has  involved gathering groups of people for conference calls. Some were called to make announcements or share information. Others provided a way to brainstorm ideas or discuss approaches to a problem. Some were held monthly, weekly or even daily so that members of my decentralized staff could brief each other and plan together. And some were called to deal with specific, one-time issues.

Recently I heard from a manager who asked for tips on facilitating an effective conference call. Acknowledging that this is an art, not a science, and that you should tailor your individual approach to the unique needs and qualities of your group, I offer these ideas. I hope they’re helpful.

1. Know the participants. The first step in making a successful conference call takes place long before anyone dials in. You need to know the participants — and they need to know you. So visit your remote locations as often as possible. Be able to put faces with the voices. (I worked with two freelance stringers in Jersey for four years and never met them in person.) You may not be able to visit your bureau staff and freelancers every week, or even every month, so when you can, make the visit count — address work issues that let each of you see the other in action.

2. Set a goal. Even if the call is held every week to discuss issues like the upcoming Sunday edition, your website’s metrics or a long-term project’s progress, establish a clear goal for each call. If all you want to do is make sure everyone knows what their colleagues are working on, you can tell everyone to submit something in writing and dump a meeting. But if you want to identify the week’s best story and share ideas for its presentation, make sure everyone on the call knows that in advance — and helps make it happen. Remember that if you invite me to a call, I need to understand why I’m there and what I am expected to contribute to its success. That begins when I understand your goal. (And be realistic. You can’t create a social media strategy in one 60-minute call. But you might agree upon a process and assign tasks to those involved in the project. That’s progress.)

3. Prepare an agenda. And share it. Before the call, send an email to the participants  that includes the goal for the call and any specific discussion points. Telling me beforehand what we’re going to discuss gives me a chance to think about the issue and what I might contribute. If I’m introverted, you’ve just helped me a lot. Also, include in the email the names of those who will be on the call. It will help me picture who’s sitting around this virtual conference table.

4. Start (and end) on time. If it’s difficult to run an in-person meeting when folks are arriving at all times, it’s even more difficult when they are entering a conference call after it’s begun. If the call is to start at 2 p.m., start it at 2 p.m. and follow up with those who chronically arrive late. And for your part, make sure to end the call when you said it would end.

5. Take roll. At the beginning of a call, I like the participants on the call to announce their presence. This accomplishes two things: it helps the participants picture who’s sitting around the virtual conference table; and it gives me a chance to make a checklist of who’s on the call — so I can make sure everyone’s voice is heard.

6. Set expectations for participation. Call on people. Conference calls, like all meetings, allow you to send a variety of messages, like: “We need the ideas of everyone in this organization.” “The loudest voices will not have an advantage.” “We will treat everyone’s ideas with respect.”

Too many conference calls, like too many in-person meetings, violate these principles, and the organization is poorer for it. As facilitator, keep track of who’s doing the talking and ask those who are quiet what they’re thinking. If someone is about to talk for the 26th time, politely say, “Before you speak, William, why don’t we hear from Susan?” Don’t forget, this is your call.

And be careful about discouraging participation with your opinions — your words carry a lot of weight. Again, remember that the meeting is yours. You can speak whenever you want. So let others go first.

7. Stay on track. Keep your eye on your goal and the conversation on point. When a discussion designed to surface ideas for improving deadline performance wanders into an argument about who did what on one night in October, reign things in. Repeat the goal and summarize the group’s progress so far. Then let the discussion resume.

8. Don’t be afraid of silence. Interpreting the silence on a conference call is something of an art. Many facilitators assume that silence means the discussion has stalled and it’s their responsibility to kick start the conversation. But remember the good reporter’s response to silence: let it hang. The person being interviewed often fills it — and sometimes takes the conversation to a deeper place. Or, respond to the silence by reframing the issue under discussion; ask a question that helps the group look at the issue from a different perspective. Bottom line: Don’t let silence cause you to abandon a discussion too quickly. It still might have good places to go.

9. Agree on next steps. As you’re nearing the end of a call, summarize what the group has accomplished, relate it to the meeting’s stated goal and propose next steps. What will you do with the meeting’s output? What do you need the others on the call to do? Who will report back during the next call? When will it be? Leave everyone with a clear sense of why the call was a productive use of their time.

10. Follow up with email. Some managers like someone on the call to take detailed minutes and distribute them to the participants afterward. I usually lean toward a shorter follow-up email in which I sum up what we accomplished and what we agreed would be next steps. But let the situation guide your follow-up. If your goal was to brainstorm ideas for the upcoming election campaign and the call generated 57 ideas, an email that lists all of them tells the group it has a lot of good ideas. If your goal was to mark the progress of an ongoing staff training program, a succinct paragraph might suffice.

Most importantly, remember that managing staff via telephone relies on the same fundamentals as managing in person. Your success will rise and fall on the quality of the relationships you build with that staff. And every interaction you have with them — whether it’s one-on-one or in a group — contributes to the quality of those relationships.

Dial away. (Just kidding.) Read more

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Maybe your staff can handle criticism, but are they learning anything?

How well do you handle criticism?

I ask because in Poynter’s new report, “Core Skills for the Future of Journalism,” no multimedia skill received as many votes from professionals, academics, students and independent journalists as this one:

“Handle Criticism Well.”

Must be pretty important, eh?

Permit me to suggest why many respondents rated this “skill’ in the top one-third of their survey. At a time when most organizations are under-resourced and overextended, many managers would rather deal with an outbreak of head lice than with staffers who respond to criticism with anything short of compliance.

That’s what I often hear from newsroom managers, and I empathize with their challenges. But let me also suggest that staffers who roll over when critiqued are not the staffers you want aggressively pursuing journalism, often against great odds, in your community.

Instead, I think what you want are staffers with this skill:

“Open to Learning.”

The difference is significant — and has implications both for the staffer who is receiving, as well as for the manager who’s delivering.

What we’re really talking about here is the importance of effective feedback in a journalist’s development. That’s why “Handle Criticism Well” gives me pause, because it places all of the emphasis on what’s not working. Yes, we all need to learn how to receive and deal with negative feedback; but our feedback diet also needs healthy portions of what’s going well.

Being “Open to Learning” avails me of the entire spectrum of feedback in my quest to become a better reporter, editor, producer, writer, videographer, journalist. Being open to learning introduces me to new skills and tools to tell better stories and deliver them with more impact.

And if my manager and I both have an openness to learning, we can master new skills together — a much better relationship than one in which you give, and I handle, criticism.

As I said, the difference between “Handle Criticism Well” and “Open to Learning” has implications for managers and their staffs. Let me offer both groups a few suggestions:

Managers: First, let’s be clear about your goal. You want your staff to improve every day. You want them to produce journalism that makes your news report indispensable for your community. And for all of that to happen, you need a relationship that allows an ongoing dialogue with each member of your staff about the quality of their work.

So keep these things in mind:

  • Let me know you’re on my side. If I know you’re working in my best interests, I’m much more likely to take your observations to heart. How do you demonstrate that? Ask me about my ambitions, and help me assess what I need to do to achieve them. Ask me what about my job I like most, and feed me opportunities — when it’s possible — to do those things. Ask me for my reaction to the feedback you’ve given me, and respond. Ask how you can help me.
  • Give me specifics. Whether your feedback for me is positive or negative, cite specific examples. When you say, “This story doesn’t work for me,” I don’t know what to do with that. When you say, “this story moves slowly, perhaps because you use so many passive verbs,” I can go back to my story and make changes. (Similarly, when you tell me my photo had great impact because of the way I framed the subject, I can replicate that strategy in the future.)
  • If all I hear from you is criticism, I stop listening. This is not to suggest that you “balance” every negative with a positive. That rarely works because as soon as you say something negative, I forget the positive you began our conversation with. Just be on the lookout for what I do well. If I know I’m just as likely to hear from you when I succeed as when I fall short, I’m more open to your ideas. And that’s the goal, right? You want me to embrace — or at least seriously consider — your ideas.
  • Celebrate my improvement. Tell me when you notice that I tried something you suggested. Tell me that my leads are sharper, that I’m making more effective use of quotes, that my pacing is improved. And remember, be specific.

Staff: Your goal also is to improve every day. You want to produce journalism that your audience remembers and acts upon. You want to develop skills that will give you new opportunities both now and in the future. And to do all this, you need to be open to learning from all of the sources available to you.

So keep these things in mind:

  • Listen (even when it hurts). If you’re fortunate, your manager will give you a useful mix of positive and negative feedback — well-intentioned, specific and actionable. If, on the other hand, your manager’s idea of feedback is a daily dose of criticism, try not to shut down. Be open to the possibility that criticism — no matter how harshly it’s delivered — might help you improve something about your work.
  • Ask questions. Whether the feedback you receive is positive or negative, explore it. Ask your manager to be more specific, to cite examples, to suggest alternatives. Keep the conversation going until you have a clear understanding of what your manager is telling you — and an idea of how you will address the issue in the future.
  • Try to keep ownership. Managers often take their staff’s work and “fix” it. They finish editing and then tell you what they believed was wrong. If that is happening to you, ask your manager if you can get a critique before the editing occurs and try to improve the work yourself. (You will increase your chances of getting this opportunity if you turn in your work on time.)
  • Volunteer to try things. Opportunities to learn new skills require us to keep our eyes open to what’s going on around us. If the newsroom is talking about a social media strategy, ask if you can get involved. If you hear talk of incorporating more multimedia into storytelling, see if you can get training and jump aboard. The point is to take control of your development and seize opportunities to learn — even if the skill is not a requirement for your current job. Remember, those who know how to do the most will have the most options.
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Managers, make ‘we can be better’ more than empty words

So today I’m thinking about Casey Stengel and Jesus.

Why? Well, in my life, it’s the time of year for two really important six-week seasons: spring training and Lent.

Both are times devoted to preparation. Both are opportunities for fresh starts. And both give those who take part a chance to make an important change — whether it be their batting stance or their approach to life.

Spring training is the time when major league baseball players gather in the warm climes of Florida and Arizona to prepare for another summer on the diamond. Lent, which Christians observe in preparation for Easter, recalls the 40 days Jesus prayed and fasted in the desert prior to beginning his public life of teaching and good works.

Yes, the two seasons have very different goals: One aims to produce a winning baseball team and the other to transform lives. But both spring training and Lent begin with an important belief: We can be better than we are.

Better players than we are, better people than we are.

It strikes me that in successful organizations, one of the manager’s most important roles involves insisting upon that same belief — reminding everyone that no matter how good we’ve become, “we can be better than we are.”

The best managers, though, go further. Instead of just asking people to work harder or longer, they enable people to improve by doing something, by changing something, by creating an environment in which improvement can occur.

But let’s take this one step at a time. Let’s begin by acknowledging something we all know to be true: We can be better than we are.

Stengel’s way

Casey Stengel, one of the most successful managers in the history of baseball, is responsible for one of my favorite quotes about management:

“The secret of managing is to keep the guys who hate you away from the guys who are undecided.”

I’m not sure how many members of the New York Yankees hated Stengel during the 12 years he was their manager. But they sure played well. His Yanks won 10 American League pennants and 7 World Series — an amazing run.

But even with all that success, Stengel apparently never lost sight of the need to get better.

“If we’re going to win the pennant,” Casey once said (in classic Stengalese), “we’ve got to start thinking we’re not as good as we think we are.”

At the time Stengel said this, the Yankees were in the midst of winning an unprecedented five consecutive World Series. Yet he still understood the need to improve — and to convince his players that they could.

Like Stengel, great baseball managers know that in order for “we can be better” to be more than just words, they need to do something, make a change that will require discipline of themselves and their players. It might involve taking extra batting practice, a new dedication to fundamentals, greater willingness to selflessly hit behind runners, learning a new pitch.

But what about newsroom managers? What can you do differently that would help each member of your staff do better work?

Three quick ideas:

  • Inventory your staff’s interests and skills. Too often, what managers know about their staffs is limited to what they now cover or did in the past. What other skills do they have? What are their hobbies? What languages do they speak? What do they read? What music do they listen to? What volunteer work do they do? What organizations do they belong to? What did they study in college? Back at the Inquirer, one of my colleagues, a general assignment reporter,  had an encyclopedic knowledge of the Civil War. Another, who worked in business, knew a lot about explosives. Another Metro reporter had an extensive knowledge of movies. It’s possible that in your midst is an expert in an area that could deepen your coverage — or, just as importantly, enrich your staff’s conversations about stories. Find out who’s working for you — and then put those talents to work on behalf of improving your journalism.
  • Assess your staff’s journalism chops. Before you can get better, you need an honest assessment of your current performance. For maximum impact, assess from the top: Who are your best writers? Your best interviewers? Your best visual journalists? Your best audio editors? Who really understands multimedia storytelling? Now, who needs help in these areas? Armed with this assessment, you can initiate a variety of efforts to improve individual skills, like one-on-one mentoring and staff-wide brown bag lunches. You can help individual desks identify specific craft areas that need improvement (maybe your court reporters need to know more about legal proceedings) and get them together with staffers who have had that experience. If the newsroom completely lacks skill in a certain area, look to the community to help. It’s in their best interest to assist, and maybe all you have to do is ask.
  • Reestablish the value of revision. Not only is a lot of content posted to the Web with only one — or no — edit, the downsizing of our editing staffs has made the idea of revising first drafts an opportunity for nostalgia. “Get it right the first time” might be a formula for success in the efficiency expert’s world, but it rarely leads to excellent journalism. Good storytelling and headline writing has always benefited from revision, and you can reestablish that as a priority. Maybe you don’t have enough staffers to guarantee multiple reads. You do have the option of moving first draft deadlines up 15 minutes to allow for an editor to read through the first draft and send it back for changes. Deadlines involve a system, and systems can be changed to facilitate your priorities. When we create systems that endorse the idea of first-draft journalism, it’s hard for the staff to take us seriously when we say, “we can be better.”

Meaningful changes

As a child being raised Catholic by the nuns in Baltimore, I learned that Lent was a time of prayer and self-denial (I gave up Coca-Cola or candy), intended to help me confront my sinfulness and prepare for the joy of Easter Sunday.

Adults traditionally have observed Lent by fasting between meals and abstaining from meat on certain days. Many go to daily Mass and attend confession more frequently.

Increasingly, though, a conversation is emerging about making Lent a time for making important changes in our lives. Father Dennis O’Donnell, who operates an orphanage in Honduras, says we are being called “to a change of heart — metanoia — more than a change of diet.”

As I think about newsroom leaders who, after years of reducing their capacity, still aspire to meaningfully serve their communities, this idea more of meaningful, substantive change rings true. Yes, the changes we discussed above will require discipline — the kind required of the Lenten observer to abstain from meat.

But meaningful changes — the ones that can transform a newsroom’s aspirations and belief in its capacity to do important work — will require courage, too.

Here are three ideas:

  • Own something. Face it. You can’t cover everything you once did. Heck, you already don’t cover everything you once did. So why not ask this question: What do I cover that helps the people of my community live better lives? What issues do I help them understand sufficiently to actively take part in their self-government? And how could I cover these in a way that no one else can? Whether it’s reform of your community’s schools, the operations of city government or the impact of immigration, your newsroom can own an issue in a way no one else does—and your community will benefit.
  • Take a chance. Everyone talks about the need to take risks, but few actually take any. Encourage staffers to present you with thoughtful, reasoned — but ambitious — ideas and let them go for it. Maybe you have to do one big idea at a time. But in too many newsrooms, the norm has become “if I can’t get it done today, I don’t do it.” We are becoming prisoners of the need to fill the book or get the show on the air. Production is winning over journalism impact and public service. The stories that mean the most to our communities are the ones they can’t get anywhere else. Take a risk. Go for it.
  • Let me try something new. I once worked for a paper where the politics writer covered the Phillies. The tennis writer was assigned to Moscow. The sports editor became city editor. In a time of diminished resources, why not encourage people to explore new subjects? Start by asking your staff what areas they’d like to cover if the opportunity opened up. But don’t forget that many people simply don’t believe they’re capable of certain jobs. Our job as managers is to identify the hidden talents — to see in people potential they don’t even see in themselves. A newsroom where anything is possible is fun to work in. Make yours fun.

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Advice from an introvert: It’s time to speak up

I’m an introvert.

A lot of folks are surprised to hear me say that. We’ve seen you teach, they say.

And you were a managing editor.

And you coordinated media relations for a big health-insurance company.

That’s all true. I also can work a crowd, make conversation with people I don’t know, even seize the microphone if that’s what the occasion demands.

But sometimes, despite my best efforts, my introversion takes over.

Like during a faculty meeting I attended recently.

We were discussing, over a lunch of pizza and salad, how we teach ethics. Several of my colleagues jumped right in, taking positions, arguing points, challenging each other. The conversation was lively, sometimes intense.

I popped open another Diet Coke.

It wasn’t that I didn’t want to talk. It’s just how I usually behave in meetings: hang back, survey the room, silently test my thinking against the others to see whether I’ll sound foolish when I finally speak up.

Eventually I did speak up and, while my observations certainly didn’t leave the others speechless (after all, they’re extroverts), I didn’t embarrass myself. I was glad I jumped in.

The experience reminded me, though, how challenging it is to be an introvert in an extrovert’s world. Sometimes we wait too long to join a conversation and it ends before we make our move. Some bosses mistake our silence for a lack of ideas, sometimes even for a lack of interest.

Fact is, we have lots of ideas — but we like to think about them before sharing.

That, according to my colleague Jill Geisler, is one big difference between extroverts and introverts: Extroverts want to talk out an idea as it hits them, while introverts want to think it through first. I’m not overly shy and I do like having dinner with others, going to a party, and being part of a large gathering. (At least sometimes.) But those activities don’t energize me; they drain me. I find my energy inside myself.

So bosses, be aware that there are people in your meetings, quiet people, who might need to be asked what they’re thinking. You might also:

  • Pull us aside after a meeting and get our take one-on-one.
  • Begin the meeting by asking everyone to write down a few thoughts on the issue at hand, in order to even the playing field.
  • Hand out, or at least announce, an agenda ahead of time to give us a chance to collect our thoughts.

Yes, bosses (especially you extroverted bosses), you might gain a lot by being more aware of the introverts in your midst.

But let’s also be clear: Introverts, we need to look out for ourselves.

For, as Jill also says, being aware of our tendencies might explain us, but it doesn’t excuse us.

If we want to be effective in an extrovert’s world, we need to assert ourselves, test our comfort zones, and take some risks — without abandoning our unique gifts.

In other words, we need to keep thinking with our head, while discovering our voice.

Here are three ideas:

1. Think “one-on-one.” Getting comfortable enough to speak in a room filled with extroverts is a daunting challenge. Slow down. It’s much easier to build individual relationships with others, even if they are extroverts. And you’ll enjoy multiple benefits from giving someone a chance to know you.

First, you’ll gain confidence. Think of it as using these individual relationships as practice for sharing your thoughts and ideas in larger venues. It’s much harder to keep quiet in a one-on-one setting, and so you’ll speak. (Yes, I know that even one-on-one, extroverts talk a lot — but it’s easier to politely break into a monologue than into a meeting full of voices.)

Second, those with whom you build individual relationships might change the way they treat you in group settings, such as meetings. (They actually might call on you to speak — especially if they know you agree with them.)

2. Be a (shameless) copycat. People who comfortably play leadership roles in organizations often are credited with an abundance of natural gifts. Maybe. More likely they are simply good students of the leaders they were fortunate to work for and learn from. My style is a distillation of a hundred leadership styles that I’ve watched and admired and attempted to mimic over nearly 40 years.

Like the way someone makes a presentation? Notice how she engages the audience, designs her slides, paces her material. Wish you could run a meeting like your boss? Watch how he keeps the meeting on point, expresses disagreement without disrespect, encourages everyone to participate.

The point is: We work with many talented people who, if we pay close attention to how they do their jobs, can help us achieve our goal — developing our voices.

(And they’ll be flattered.)

3. Seek out assignments to show off — and stretch. Newsrooms are increasingly looking for staffers to participate in projects and task forces. Whether it’s the development of a new product, a newsroom reorganization or a training initiative, opportunities exist for introverts to develop new skills. It’s almost a cliché to look for introverts to play research roles in organizational projects, and with good reason: Many of us are good at research. But let’s not leave all of the out-front roles to the extroverts.

Volunteer to present findings or update the project’s progress. Then, once you get the assignment, prepare well. Create an agenda and distribute it beforehand. Keep your presentation focused and move it along. Encourage questions and comments. (Before the meeting, brief one or more of those colleagues with whom you’ve built relationships and let them help you discourage speeches and keep the meeting on point.)

And no matter how it goes, seek out your boss for feedback. After all, you plan on doing this again. You don’t have to go on this journey alone, after all, it can be a grueling one. Having the boss share your effort — and support it — can be a great help.

Related: What Great Bosses Know about Extroverts | What Great Bosses Know about Introverts | 3 Major Misunderstandings (When Introverts and Extroverts Collide) Read more

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News managers: Think like great writers, focus on the right details

Sometimes sadness is like a drug that won’t let go.

On the morning after actor Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead in New York with a needle in his arm, I spent several hours reading news stories, appreciations and old profiles written during his remarkable stage and film career.

With each story that I opened, I promised myself this one would be the last, that it was time to get to work on this column about leadership. Then I read another, and another, unable to shake my need to understand a man I had met in a hundred different ways, yet never really at all.

In story after story, I found myself looking for details — telling details — the ones that good storytellers use to build compelling characters like the Lomans and Capotes that Hoffman played. Characters who make me care, characters I can’t stop watching or reading about; characters who are real.

In many of the stories about Hoffman, the writers detailed his unremarkable physical attributes — “lightly freckled skin,” “the sideways wheedle of a voice,” “the doughy, malleable face and Baby Huey physique of a character actor.” Of all the details they could have chosen, they selected those — and they did so to make a point, expressed by actress Meryl Streep: “Philip is not particularly any one way, which means he can be anybody at all.”

As my mind moved slowly back toward writing this column, I began thinking about details in another context — the role they play in a good leader’s management style. But not just any details.

Telling details.

The best bosses I know, like good writers, select well. They know what to “put in the story, and what to leave out.” They pick their words, their directives, their initiatives deliberately — to make a clear point, to obtain a specific, intended result. As a result, they bring order to the organization’s agenda, beat back the staff’s feeling of being overwhelmed, keep everyone focused.

And they can do it whether the job at hand is implementing a new business product, reorganizing workflow, or editing a story. The best bosses recognize the telling details — the questions, measurements and tactics that help their staffs prioritize their efforts.

Back at The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1992, the company installed new color presses and the newsroom needed to make a number of changes to the newspaper’s design. Editor Max King and Managing Editor Gene Foreman took the opportunity to refresh the newspaper’s look — preserving the Inquirer’s classic design while modernizing a number of conventions.

Unlike most redesigns, however, this one was not intended to be noticed. Aware that readers in some markets had reacted badly to redesigns, King and Foreman wanted readers to wake up in nine months or so and read a newspaper that had undergone a total redesign — without anyone noticing.

Needless to say, the effort required great attention to detail, including a very specific rollout schedule that called for incremental changes to be made over the nine months. Some changes were pretty obvious; some were very small. (I seem to recall that one week, we merely made a minor change to story bylines.)

When it was complete, and you placed a new Inquirer next to the old one, the changes were easily apparent. But King and Foreman had achieved their goal: over the nine months of rollout, only one complaint reached the newsroom — a postcard with a single phrase, “Too much sans serif.”

That’s one story, and you know others, I’m sure. I’m imagining Philip Seymour Hoffman, striped tie loosened, shirttail sticking out of his trousers, and black horn-rimmed glasses perched atop his head, playing one of those bosses right now:

The weekly meeting on the rollout of the website’s redesign is sidetracked. The participants are debating a question about coding. The boss listens for a few minutes, and then interrupts. “As important as this conversation is,” he says, “let’s take it somewhere else. Why don’t we focus on next week’s audience tests, and the most important thing each of us needs to accomplish between now and then? Then we’ll know whether any of our priorities for the next week needs to change in order to be ready for those tests.”

Notice, Philip didn’t just stop a sidetracked discussion and return everyone to the agenda. From a long list of rollout issues, he selected one as most important — the audience’s reaction to the new site. He wanted everyone focused on that telling detail, and ready to hear it next week.

And how about these scenes:

A reporter, back in the office after covering a story, sits down at her desk, opens her notebook and prepares to write. Suddenly she realizes Philip is standing next to her. “Before you write,” he says, “let me ask you something. What do you think your readers will learn from your story that they didn’t know before?” After listening carefully to her answer, they talk about a possible lead and nut graph. “One more question,” Philip says. “What would you say your story is really about?” A few minutes later, as her editor returns to his desk, the reporter realizes how much clearer she feels — thanks to a few carefully selected questions.

Another reporter is receiving a performance review, and the subject is his writing. “I can see,” Philip says, “that the quality of your writing came up during last year’s review.” “I know,” the reporter says. “My boss told me my writing was muddled and asked me to work on it.” “What does ‘muddled’ mean to you?” Philip asks. “I’m not sure exactly; too many words?” the reporter answers. “How about if we do this?” Philip asks. “For the next week or so, we’re going to focus on how many dependent clauses you use. They can slow your story down, often without adding much benefit. Try eliminating as many as possible. Then, one at a time, we’ll tackle another part of speech — verbs, adverbs, adjectives. Think we can do that?” The reporter nods, and leaves the conversation understanding more clearly what he has been asked to try. He has received feedback — detailed feedback.

Newsroom managers are complaining to the boss that two reporters detached for a special report are needed for daily assignments. The boss has listened for several minutes to the managers. “Send any complaints you get about missed daily stories to me,” the boss says. Then he reminds his visitors of the newsroom’s goal: to produce stories that no one else will have — to get a reputation for exclusive content. “Let me add that I appreciate the extra effort you’re expending while you’re short-handed. Believe me, it will be worth it.” The newsroom’s priorities are clear.

Here’s my invitation to you: Think about how you decide what to say when you’re introducing a plan, explaining strategy, critiquing a program, editing a story. Are your choices of words, metrics and tactics leaving the staff feeling more focused — or overwhelmed? Are they clear about what you expect — and what they need to do?

Remember, it’s a matter of what you “put in the story, and what you leave out.”

It’s a matter of selection.

Correction: This article originally misspelled Philip Seymour Hoffman’s name. Read more

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Building a creative news environment can be a matter of routine

Newsroom managers have always needed to be good jugglers. When someone asked how I was doing, I often answered:

“I’ve got a lot of balls in the air — and I’m trying not to let too many of them land on my head.”

But listen to managers talk today about their daily challenges, and the juggling metaphor no longer feels sufficient.

Not when they say things like, “I’m just trying to survive.”

With more work, over-stretched resources and frequently changing expectations for themselves and their staffs, managers say their top priority is to get the website updated, get the paper out, get the show on the air.

Just get the work done.

Notice what’s missing from that statement: “Get the work done … well.”

It’s implied, you say? Maybe. But I don’t think so. Too often, managers respond with a polite “you must be dreaming” to the idea of improving the work with more coaching, brainstorming or long-term planning. We know those things would help, many say, but we don’t get time anymore for lunch. When will I get time for coaching?

Instead, they describe turning to whatever strategies or tools or decisions helped them make it through yesterday’s ordeal — and then using those approaches again today… and then tomorrow … and the next day…

They are on a quest for routines.

Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily — if you choose the right routines.

And therein lies the trap. Because repeating the same approaches to your job day after day can be the death of creativity. Too many stories with anecdotal leads become ordinary, boring. Too many interviews with the same sources become predictable and distort reality. Too much negotiating story length and deadline instead of brainstorming better story ideas leads to a preoccupation with production concerns — at the expense of the stories.

At the expense of doing the work well.

On the other hand, the right routines, applied appropriately, can help you survive and pursue excellence. The challenge is to choose routines that enable the pursuit of excellence, not frustrate it.

Said another way, the right routines provide a framework for creativity. They not only protect against every day becoming an unstructured, “reinvent the wheel” experience, they also enable an environment for pursuing new ideas and more ambitious work.

Here’s my challenge to you today: Identify three routines that you could adopt to enhance your staff’s creativity.

Here are three examples:

1. Meetings. Start on time and end on time. Every day. (If you’re not running the meeting, show up on time anyway. And then ask if others could, too.) Meetings that start late and go on forever encourage attendees to view them as burdens instead of opportunities. And stick to the agenda — it will help you end on time. If the meeting is about tomorrow’s morning show, it’s not the time for discussing the company’s new health insurance plan.

Those two practices — honoring start and end times, and sticking to the agenda — are useful routines. They give your meetings structure. Once you have that structure, you can defy routine in the cause of creativity:

  • Deal with mundane issues quickly. They are mundane.
  • Rotate responsibility for running the meeting.
  • Encourage discussions you want more of — the ones that take coverage deeper, beyond the obvious.
  • Assign attendees to share with the group examples of best practices.
  • Be clear about next steps, timelines, and who’s responsible for them.

2. Coaching ideas. Every story starts with an idea. Maybe it’s a tip from a source, maybe it’s a suggestion from a neighbor, maybe it’s a thought that woke you up in the middle of the night. Whatever the idea, pursuing it usually involves a routine.

In too many newsrooms, that routine is heavily weighted toward production concerns. How long will it take to get the story? When can you file to the website? What visual support do you need? How long will it be? Does it need graphics?

These concerns are important. But they seldom guarantee that the story will leave viewers or readers talking afterward. Why not adopt a routine of asking, for starters, three questions about the idea:

  • If this story is totally successful, what might our audience know that they didn’t know before?
  • What questions do you need to get answered?
  • Who do you need to talk with?

Yes, you caught me: the answers to those questions might lead to more questions — and they should. Because done well, this routine can lead to reporting that both you and your reporter are invested in from the start. The rest of the day — including deadline — may well go more smoothly.

3. Access to you. The busier you get, the more difficult your staff finds it to talk with you.  Yes, you have lots of conversations with them about story budget lines, deadlines, web postings, etc. But your busyness discourages the kinds of conversations that staff are referencing when they call their manager a really good listener. Here are two routines that can help you increase the number of those conversations you hold.

  • Stop, at least once, on your way from the newsroom entrance to your desk. This routine gives you options. You can stop at the desk of someone you’ve been meaning to check in on, and spend five minutes there. But once you establish this routine, your staff will feel comfortable stopping you on your way across the room. Maybe the 10 minutes you spend at someone’s desk or at the coffee machine just lets you catch up on how someone’s kids are doing — but they might be spent hatching a great story idea.
  • Schedule one conversation a week on how someone’s job is going. Daily feedback is really important, and the more useful feedback you can give your staff, the better. But routinely checking in with staff to talk about how their job is progressing over time can allow you to realign expectations, shift course, brainstorm new ideas. It also lets you communicate your commitment to the staffer’s success. And if you’re looking for motivational tools, that’s a big one.
  • Linger after meetings. Yes, it’s really important to end meetings on time. It also can be helpful to hang around afterward with someone, or walk back to your desk with a staffer. Maybe you’ll talk about something related to the meeting you just attended. Or maybe it’s something you or the staffer has been hoping to talk about. The important thing is your accessibility — and the fact everyone in the newsroom can see your accessibility.

So go find three routines. And then find three more.

If you pick the right ones, they’ll help you get your work done — and do it well. Read more

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Newrooms can co-exist with online comments with moderation and a strategy. (Depositphotos)

Can reporters help repair online comment sections?

Several years ago during a seminar at Poynter, we were talking about engaging our audiences.

“We ask our readers and viewers to comment on our stories,” one participant said, “but unless we respond to them, how will they know we’re listening?

“Their assumption,” he said, “is that we’re not.”

In the years since, I’ve heard from a lot of journalists who confirm that, indeed, they’re not listening. They don’t read users’ comments for a variety of reasons: no time, no interest, no stomach for the cesspools they often find there.

Meanwhile, I’ve heard other journalists and newsroom leaders say that journalism’s future requires a different, more interactive relationship with the audience, one in which people outside the newsroom share their expertise and engage in productive debate. That’s how democracies thrive cheap nike air max.

Which brings us back to those cursed Web comments sections. What can be done to make more of them places for productive debate?

Three ideas I hear most often are these:

  • Comments need to be moderated.
  • Comments sections need to be more than fenced-off areas for the public to talk among themselves. They need to be part of a newsroom’s coverage strategy.
  • Reporters and editors need to participate in the conversation.

For starters, moderation. Conversations on websites that moderate comments tend to be more substantial and less venomous. So why aren’t more comments sections moderated?

Money, of course. Many newsrooms have decided they don’t have the resources to invest in good comments sections. A few are “deputizing” members of the public to police comments, and the verdict is still out. The others? Well, as my mother would say, you get what you pay for.

Does your newsroom moderate comments?

Often, the same newsrooms that don’t moderate also lack a strategy for comments — beyond the idea that news organizations have an obligation to make space available for a public forum. Like abandoned properties, comments sections without strategies quickly become neglected and fall into disrepair. The best comments sections reflect a plan for hearing the public, benefiting from its expertise and promoting meaningful discussions of issues.

Does your newsroom have a serious strategy for comments?

A third contributor to better comments sections — especially when accompanied by moderation — is the involvement of reporters and editors in the conversations. But talk about a hard sell.

Yes, newsroom staffs are handling more responsibilities than ever. And this does amount to new work. But the truth is, most journalists have never been anxious to mix it up with the public. Newspaper editors and reporters for years responded to unhappy readers with one, or both, of these scripted responses: “We stand behind our story,” and “Why don’t you write a letter to the editor?”

And remember the reaction to publishing reporters’ email addresses at the end of stories? As that debate unfolded, I remember becoming increasingly uncomfortable that we who demanded unlimited access to those we were covering, wanted desperately to limit anyone’s access to us.

Today, we publish reporters’ email addresses, are (generally) more willing to look into complaints and publish far more contributions from our readers and viewers, at least their comments. And slowly, a growing number of newsrooms are requiring or strongly encouraging reporters and editors to wade into those comments and talk with the users who post them.

One such newsroom is the Financial Times. Sarah Laitner, the London-based newsroom’s communities editor, told me during a recent visit to Poynter about the FT’s efforts to involve reporters in the comments sections, and the results they’ve seen. The FT moderates comments. They are part of a strategy, as is the desire for the journalists to participate in them. Sarah is quick to point out that the effort is evolving, but she says the FT already has seen benefits.

Here is a Q&A I conducted with Sarah and her colleague, social media journalist Maija Palmer:

Ward: The FT has embarked on a serious effort to have its reporters engage readers in the comments section on articles on your website. Why? What role does that play in the FT’s strategy?

Laitner: Readers’ comments on our site inform us, reward us and often surprise us. The comment box is a space in which readers can agree, disagree, foster connections with each other and challenge us. When our journalists join in, they show that we listen and have our readers in mind. This is particularly important for a subscription site such as ft.com.

When I comment online, I’m usually thrilled if a journalist or fellow poster answers me, and I hope my colleagues are able to provoke the same reaction in their readers.

Palmer: I think the way that journalism is conducted is changing. In many cases, there is a lot we can learn from our readers who can be real experts in particular subjects. We should be moving more to taking suggestions from readers on what we are covering. Some journalists have found that one astute comment under their story can provide the starting point for another article.

Ward: Specifically, what have you asked FT’s reporters to do with online comments? Is it a mandate or a suggestion?

Laitner: We have asked our colleagues to read the comments on their ft.com stories and we strongly encourage them to reply. We know everyone is busy, but we do ask them to take a few minutes to review comments on their stories from the past 24 hours. We don’t expect them to respond to everyone and it doesn’t have to be at length, but we do want to show that we are listening.

A great example of reader interaction is on FT Alphaville, our finance and markets blog, where our journalists chat to their loyal band of readers pretty much all the time, and know them well. Our UK personal finance team talks to readers through its live Q&A series. Here’s a recent example, featuring the British pensions minister: http://on.ft.com/18HdhDi

Palmer: Our columnists regularly answer the comments under their articles and often can end up in debate with readers. It can be enjoyable and it has raised the level of the comments a great deal.

Laitner: Our news editors also have become more involved in comment threads, which helps to spread the load.

Ward: How are you communicating the effort about engaging with readers’ comments on ft.com and the strategy behind it?

Laitner: The message has come from the top, from the editor. Training sessions with me and Maija, emails, blog posts and water cooler moments also help to get the message across. We explain the value of reader interaction and point out the benefits of getting to know readers who may be experts in their fields. We also try to share examples of when conversations with readers can be really helpful for the journalist. Here’s one such case: http://blogs.ft.com/ft-long-short/2013/08/13/the-cape-of-less-hope/

Web traffic is another incentive. Our homepage has a box featuring “best comments” from our readers. We invite our journalists to make suggestions for the homepage box. If a comment posted on their story appears in the box, their article usually has a surge in traffic.

Also, Maija and I try to show our journalists how effective timely and judicious use of Twitter can get the ball rolling in traffic and commenting.

Ward: What was the reporters’ reaction to the new work? How did management respond to the response?

Laitner: As with any new initiative, some people take to it readily and others need more persuasion. We point out that reading comments can improve colleagues’ knowledge of their beats and potentially lead them to make new sources.

At the same time, I think it helps if you recognize your colleagues’ concerns. We want to protect our journalists from the abuse and unpleasantness that comes with some online comments, especially on topics that stir strong emotions or opinions. Even the thickest-skinned of colleagues can be unsettled by hostile comments. We try to help by intervening in comment threads and acting against fiery users who verbally abuse our journalists. We also remind colleagues that commenters tend to write criticism more than they do praise, but if you foster a community then readers will stand up for you and intervene against hostile types.

We have found that if our journalists and moderators intervene early in uncivil threads then the decorum tends to improve. In some cases, we simply need to accept that a civil debate isn’t possible and close the thread instead.

Ward: Can you point to any results this effort has produced? Have your readers noticed?

Laitner: Yes. We have received story ideas, picked up readers’ dislikes and raised the tone of some debates on our site. And readers have noticed our efforts. One (Ex NHS Surgeon) wrote recently: “The beauty of FT is not so much the articles themselves, but the treasure trove in the comments. Not that I can pretend to understand more than a fraction of the total.” And another (@khakieconomist) wrote: “I really like that the @FT puts top reader comments on the front page. Creates a real incentive to make worthwhile comments. Why not copied?”

We are curious about our commenters on ft.com, many of whom post using pseudonyms. My colleague, Lisa Pollack, head of new projects, had the great idea of a survey to ask them what they thought about our commenting functions. She dipped into comment threads and posted a link to our questions. Several readers told us to “keep up the good work,” which was heartening! Respondents expressed appreciation for our journalists who regularly wade into comments to reply to readers and further the discussion. FT Alphaville was mentioned as an example of the right amount of interaction.

Ward: What have you learned from this effort? Would you do anything differently next time? Any advice for other newsrooms?

Laitner: Explain the advantages of going into comment threads; someone who is an expert in their field could be posting on there anonymously and sharing valuable insights.

Remind journalists that it’s a compliment that readers are taking the time to post their views.

Remember that you are dealing with the emotions of your colleagues and your readers. Always try to put yourself in their shoes. Read more

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