Pam Johnson

Packing for a New Role

By Pam Johnson

I’m packing up my Poynter office for a new assignment. Physical files and books going into boxes are reminders of things done or discovered in a 35-year career in journalism – the last three at Poynter.

I will cart these reminders to the Missouri J-School that launched my career. (Somewhere in a box are my student journalist newspaper clips) There, I will direct the new Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute. The boxes contain the physical representations of what shaped me. We all save such reminders. 

By far, though, it’s the intangibles — the experiences, the learning, the people – that matter most. What were the lessons I learned? How did they shape my journalism, my role as a newsroom leader? What experiences had the greatest influence on values I held closely?

My newsroom years were full of the intangibles. Among the most valuable: waves of daily stories coming across the desk, the patience of a staff with a young, green editor, teamwork and leadership in the 90s that turned the Arizona Republic into a model of how to move a newspaper company forward. Plus three years years at Poynter. 

I know I am fortunate to have had this time at Poynter, so I want to share my favorite lessons. They include:

  • Experts are only as good as the questions they ask of others.
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The Next Top Editors

By Pam Johnson

Who’s in the wings, awaiting an opportunity to be among the “Next Top Editors” in the newspaper industry? Who is not there? How diverse — in all ways — are the editors who are on their way up? What is the path to the editor’s chair? What experiences are providing the building blocks for a future newsroom leader? What will underpin their journalistic leadership?

Those questions reflect the vision of a recent UNITY/ASNE seminar for 14 editors who hope to, one day, lead a newsroom. The purpose of the seminar, which Poynter helped design, was to provide experiences and insight that could help the editors advance their career goals.

For three days, the participants absorbed advice from executive editors and publishers. They put themselves in the editor’s chair to resolve operational dilemmas familiar in today’s newsrooms — setting priorities, cutting budgets and positions, and creating new initiatives. And they deepened their understanding of cultural and racial differences, through the work of two anthropologists who have worked on diversity issues in the news industry.

Executive editors talked about what they do and what they wish they had known before stepping into the top position:

  • Be aware of how much your words and actions are magnified and how what you say and do must match.
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Editors Preview Plans for RNC Coverage

By Pam Johnson

As the Republicans head to New York for a convention just as scripted as the gathering staged by the Democrats last month in Boston, editors around the country are focusing their sights on key coverage areas for the week ahead. Here’s a sampling of their plans drawn from an e-mail round-up I conducted in the last few days:

  • Fairness and Balance
    How will they and their readers measure their coverage of the Republicans against their coverage of the Democratic convention?
  • Enterprise
    What will they do that is meaningful to their readers and unique to their paper?

Clearly, they have plans. Here is a sampling from datelines across the USA:

Fairness and Balance:

  • Miami: Tom Fiedler, executive editor of the Miami Herald:

Balance is fundamental to our planning. Although we don’t want to make news judgment based on some misplaced sense of fairness-by-ruler, it is important that our coverage of the GOP convention in terms of volume is comparable to our coverage of the Democrats. Also, it is imperative that the coverage be similar in tone — ideally, neutral and politically agnostic.”

  • Atlantic City: Maryjane Briant, managing editor, The Pressof Atlantic City

The Press sent two reporters to the Democratic convention looking for how local delegates and local issues played out.

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Inspiring Commitment

By Pam Johnson

Dean Baquet, managing editor of the Los Angeles Times, says touching the journalism makes his day. Indeed, Baquet and executive editor John Carroll are known for putting journalism first every day.

They arrived at the Times about four years ago to stabilize and re-direct the newsroom after the Staples scandal shook the foundation of the paper’s journalistic independence and credibility. This year, the Los Angeles Times won five Pulitzer Prizes.

Their leadership of the journalism is a lesson for editors everywhere. And that’s why Poynter took 16 mid-level editors attending a West Coast seminar to the Times a few weeks ago. We wanted to hear the stories of how editors at any level of newsroom management can elevate the journalism, help make stories better, and work effectively in the whole sense of a story and its presentation.

Baquet led off the session, followed by editors and reporters, who unfolded for our group the behind-the-scenes stories of shaping successful journalism.

The panel of editors and reporters was put together by Simon K.C. Li, assistant managing editor for development and long-time foreign editor. Li also was a visiting faculty member for the seminar. Panel members were Marc Duvoisin, assistant managing editor who oversees Column One and major projects; Joel Sappell, deputy business editor and senior entertainment editor who supervised the investigation into the Schwarzenegger groping story; Evelyn Iritani, who covers Pacific Rim business and was one of the four reporters on “The Wal-Mart Effect” project, and Jill Leovy, who specializes in homicide and urban violence issues.… Read more


Leading Change While Managing News

By Pam Johnson

You know the problem. You’ve got a tangled newsroom issue that needs your attention – but you’ve got news to pursue (and a staff to manage) in the meantime.

How can you tackle such challenges as reaching young readers or building a training program or putting your online edition to better use when you’re in a constant scramble to do your best for the daily report?

A group of 23 editors – managing editors, deputy managing editors, and assistant managing editors – came to Poynter recently with just that dilemma. These editors are constantly on point for the daily, yet they all also bear considerable responsibilities for leading and managing newsroom change.

So, what were the editors doing here that they couldn’t do back home?

They were focusing and testing their thinking:

FOCUSING on their newsroom challenge by identifying and digging into a challenge or an aspiration in their newsroom. They couldn’t put off dealing with challenge. They had a deadline. They had to write about it – an exercise that helped them sift and sort what was most important, including what stood in the way and what contributed to a good outcome.

TESTING their thinking by turning to seminar colleagues, whose role was to challenge the editor’s thinking.… Read more


Leading by Listening

By Pam Johnson

You’re a leader. Lots of people want your ear. You know it’s important to listen — so you make time as best you can.

The people who want your attention can be clever about meeting up with you. A mid-level editor at a Poynter seminar told me how she noticed that her top boss visited the vending machine at the same time daily. So she occasionally showed up at the same time. She might want to share something – the good job a reporter did on a story — or to just take the opportunity to say hello.

Those random conversations are valuable. They help make connections. They present an opportunity to learn something, hear about a success or share concerns. But your staff shouldn’t have to find you. If you want listening to become a hallmark of your leadership, then you’ll want to apply some serious energy to initiating and increasing your efforts. It’s not always easy to listen.

A dozen years ago, I learned straight up what it meant to be a good listener. I was managing editor when our company began surveying employees about how they felt about their jobs, their bosses and the company.… Read more


From Diversity to Parity

By Pam Johnson

In the 25-plus years of effort spent on diversifying newsrooms and content, inspired and dedicated leaders have kept the torch lit.

Journalists of color, their organizations, foundations, individual newsrooms, and news companies remain steadfast behind the ultimate goal: journalism that reflects the growing diversity of communities across the country. And, year by year, the band of believers grows while the percentage gains in newsrooms –- the main measurement of progress –- slowly inches along.

No one is satisfied with progress to date. Yet neither are the believers bending. Take Juan Gonzalez, president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and a columnist for the New York Daily News. He is driving a new NAHJ initiative, The Parity Project, that bears watching. His vision and leadership of the project reflect the resilience associated with the long trek to parity in newsrooms.

Why another new project?

It’s important to re-invent our efforts, to keep looking for bold ideas that spur greater momentum. This NAHJ effort is bold.

What makes The Parity Project different?

  • The project pulls all the players into the fold -– the newsroom, the community, the journalists, potential journalists, and the catalyst, in this case NAHJ.
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Stretching in the Role

By Pam Johnson

“Play to the edges of the box.”

That was the advice Paul Tash, editor and president of The St. Petersburg Times, gave mid-level editors at a recent Poynter seminar. The editors were being challenged in the opening session to see their potential beyond the basic work of getting the paper out everyday.

The reality of newsrooms is that the “daily miracle” relies on groupings of people consistently working the same routines. And that re-enforces images like “working inside” boxes and boundaries.

Thanks to Readership Institute culture studies, many newsrooms are trying to free people of such tight confines in their job responsibilities. But much ground needs to be gained.

As faculty listened, the editors talked across the table about the often overwhelming feeling that there just isn’t enough time to effectively juggle the many things they do. And the list is often task-oriented:

Editing stories or photos.

Coordinating with other desks.

Absorbing questions from their direct reports and ideas from bosses and others.

Zigging or zagging with the changing forces of stories or plans.

Coaching the reluctant ones.

Planning for tomorrow and the weekend.

Taking calls and answering emails.

You get the idea.… Read more


The Unforgettable Miss Bluford

By Pam Johnson

We often ask seminar participants to share stories about people whose values or leadership helped shape them. The stories inspire and teach us about leaders who make a difference in other people’s lives or circumstances.

One of the stories I like to share is that of Lucile Bluford, the longtime editor and publisher of The Kansas City Call, one of the leading black newspapers in the country. Miss Bluford began as a reporter in 1932, became editor in 1955, then publisher in 1983. She never truly retired, and her mark on Kansas City — over seven decades of leadership — will remain for decades to come.

She was so familiar in the community that simply saying Lucile was enough of an identifier. Yet, many who knew her referred to her as Miss Bluford -– a demonstration of the respect she engendered.

I met Miss Bluford a few times during the 13 years in the 70′s and 80′s that I worked for The Kansas City Star, the city’s major daily newspaper. Our building faced 18th Street, a main street that a mile or two east led to the long time center of black Kansas City, its jazz, its commerce, and its newspaper, The Call.… Read more


Questions Prepare You for Difficult Conversations

By Pam Johnson

For newsroom mid-level managers, the difficult part of addressing a performance or behavior problem is often how to get started.

These managers encounter many situations that involve getting a staffer back on the right road. In more serious personnel situations — when probation or possible job loss are involved — they often have well-defined processes and expertise to help them achieve a fair and effective resolution for all.

But when a staffer hits a pothole that requires a course correction, mid-level managers are often on their own. Without clear steps to take, they delay taking action — for many reasons, including these that we hear repeatedly in Poynter leadership seminars:

  • They are concerned that the individual will be emotional and they wonder how they will handle it.
  • They don’t like confrontations in general.
  • They have relationships with the individuals and fear harming the bond with a friend or peer.
  • They are uncertain how to approach a difficult conversation.
  • They say it’s hard to find time.

They also see more good than bad in the staffer’s situation. They cite the good work or dedication that mitigates what’s amiss. They don’t want to make the situation worse.

In these cases, a good place to start is with key questions that get to the heart of a particular situation.… Read more