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.


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.… Read more


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.… Read more

Creative management (Depositphotos)

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?… Read more

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.… Read more

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One simple question that can change a manager’s relationship with staff

When I was a little boy, I remember grown-ups had a favorite question:

“And what do you want to be when you grow up?”

With each year, my answers changed: Cowboy, firefighter, priest, Perry Mason. (Not sure I ever wanted to be an astronaut, probably because I didn’t like roller coasters.)

In college, people kept asking me the same question, and with more urgency; after all, I needed to get a job someday. And over four years, my answer still kept changing: lawyer, teacher, writer.

I finally settled on the writer idea, and the search for a paycheck led me to the rewrite desk of the News American in Baltimore, my hometown. There I faced a new challenge: figuring out how my daily output of crime briefs, obituaries, dictated staff stories and occasional news features would get me to the cover of the Rolling Stone.… Read more


To change your leadership style, rewrite your leadership story

Have you ever been at a funeral and, as the clergy or relatives or friends offer tribute to the deceased, found yourself wondering:

What will they say about me?

While the Irish Catholic in me winces at thinking about myself during another’s tribute, I must admit the moment of introspection can get me thinking, both personally and professionally.

Now I’ll stop short of recommending that managers attend more funerals. But I’m thinking that those of us who take responsibility for leading others would do well to pause on a regular basis and ask, “What will they say about me?” Especially when we’re still in a position to influence the answer — and we are, every day.

Think about it. Leaders are the authors of their own leadership stories.… Read more


How managers can put themselves in a position to succeed

Anyone out there recognize my conundrum?

With each passing year I became more aware that I wasn’t getting enough exercise. Sure, I walked a lot: to and from work, to the supermarket, pretty much everywhere. But nothing that broke much of a sweat.

I even knew what exercise I wanted to do. While I’ve never been a runner, I enjoy fast-walking. The problem was finding the time to do it.

On many a night, I’d go to bed planning to get up early and start the day by walking several miles. Then come morning, I’d wake up and check my email. Or decide to get to the office a little early to get organized. Or just sleep an extra half hour.

So much for good intentions.… Read more


Irish journey reveals important reminders about storytelling, leadership

The two-room cottage is a shed now, a white-washed place for Jimmy O’Toole to store hay for the livestock, a few pieces of farm equipment, a cupboard, a china cabinet and the family stories that he keeps alive for visitors to Ireland like me.

Gone is the thatched roof that kept the home a wee bit dryer in the raw Irish winter, replaced by a corrugated roof and proper downspouts. Gone, too, are the 11 children whom my great-grandparents raised on this rocky land against the sea – including my grandfather, Coleman, whose decision to leave for America 100 years ago redirected his life and, a generation later, helped shape my own.

My grandfather’s two-room cottage.

I have come here with my wife Donna after talking with her for many of our 38 years together about visiting the home of my ancestors.… Read more

Optimism boulevard plaque

Tough times signal need for managers to express genuine optimism, not ‘happy talk’

When I ask journalists to reflect upon the qualities of their best bosses, they almost always include “optimistic.”

That’s not surprising; one dictionary defines “optimistic” as “hopeful and confident about the future.” Most of us are grateful when we work for (or with) people who help us feel good about what lies ahead.

That’s why it’s a shame so many managers misunderstand what real optimism is. Their staffs are looking for reasons to believe, and what they get is happy talk.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Communicating genuine optimism is the result of a process — a straightforward, and potentially wrenching, process.

Any leader, at any level of the organization, can do it. In fact, all leaders owe it to their staffs to rigorously seek genuine optimism that they can share with others, credibly.… Read more

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Managers, making sure someone can do your job is your job

On the day my editor at The (Baltimore) News American offered me the job of managing editor, he gave me my first assignment:

“Your first job,” he said, “is to make yourself obsolete.”

OK, I said.

I had no idea what he meant.

His message became clear to me several months later when I took my first vacation. Within the first three days, I received about 20 calls from work, the last one from him.

“I want you to come back to work tomorrow,” he said. “And you can go on vacation again when you’ve taught someone how to do your job.”

Some lessons we never forget.

This one highlights one of a manager’s most important responsibilities: to build systems that keep the operation running in the face of changing and sometimes, unexpected circumstances:

Someone calls in sick.… Read more