How newsroom managers can invest more time developing their staff — and why it matters

It was the day I finally got it — what it means to be an editor.

My first day as managing editor of the old News American in Baltimore was almost over. I was sitting alone in my office, looking at the To-Do list I had created 10 hours before — and hadn’t touched since.

My editor stood in my doorway. “How did your first day go?” he asked.

“I didn’t get anything done,” I said, holding out the list. “All I did was talk to people.”

“That’s your job!” he shouted at me, laughing. “That’s what I need you to do!”

Call me slow. But what I began to realize on that March evening in 1981 is that managers who take responsibility for a staff and its work have two primary jobs:

Product and People.

And here’s the important part: They are equally important, but rarely treated that way.

I had worked in a variety of editing jobs before that day, and I had always devoted some portion of my days (or nights) to talking with my staff. But as I looked back, I realized that I had been focusing most of my energy on the “Product” — whether it was stories or pages or headlines or visuals.

The “People” — and their development — received my attention when I had time.

And on most days, getting out the “Product” required all of my time.

Sound familiar?

That was more than 30 years ago, and I know that managers in today’s newsrooms find getting out the Product more consuming than ever. But that reality hasn’t changed the dual nature of the manager’s responsibility:

Product and People. And they remain equally important.

Yes, managers who are responsible today for staffs of journalists need to produce comprehensive, timely, insightful coverage. They need the writing and visuals to be engaging. And they need to direct their staffs in a variety of other activities (social media, blogging, etc.) that deepen the coverage’s impact on the community.

That’s a lot. Too much on some days.

But it’s still just half the job.

Organizations also expect managers to help their staffs improve. To become better interviewers, better researchers, better writers. To deepen their expertise. To learn and use new technologies. To grow.

Think of it this way: The manager’s responsibility to the Product focuses on the short-term: today’s news report, Sunday’s package, maybe even November’s election. The other responsibility — to the People — focuses on the long-term: how, over time, we will improve the journalism we provide our community, broaden the ways we engage our readers and viewers, and distinguish ourselves from the competition.

I can hear my boss now: “That’s your job!”

Finding time to focus on your staff’s development is challenging, but not impossible. Let me suggest three steps, each of which require an initial investment of time, but which together promise a payback for months to come.

  • Be absolutely clear about your expectations. Think of it as establishing a baseline. Meet with each member of your staff and share what you need from his or her coverage. Explain what they do well and what needs to improve. Make sure you address how you will help them.
  • Provide regular feedback. Referencing the clear expectations you established, update each staffer on her or his progress. This feedback can be delivered over coffee, one-on-one at the staffer’s desk or in your office. But it also can be delivered while you are editing the staffer’s work — or during any other normal, daily interaction. The key to useful feedback isn’t how long you devote to delivering it; the key is how useful it is: how timely, how clear, how applicable to the staffer’s work.
  • Find out your staffer’s aspirations. This can be a game-changer. Once you’ve learned what a staffer wants to be someday, you can not only be clear about your expectations, but equally clear about what the staffer needs to work on to be qualified for the job they aspire to. And think about this: Once you have established that you care about a staffer’s personal goals, he or she will process all of your future feedback through a very different all filter — their own ambitions. Their commitment to improving will no longer be just about what you and the organization want — it becomes about their needs, too.

One final suggestion. I said these initial steps will require an investment of time. Be reasonable. You don’t have to visit with everyone today or even this week. But be deliberate. Don’t rely on best intentions. Use your schedule. Put aside 20 minutes for individual meetings — maybe 20 minutes at the very beginning of your day, before the world hijacks your agenda.

On the days you hold one of these sessions, I promise you’ll go home with a feeling of accomplishment — a feeling that you moved the staff forward.

A feeling that you’re doing your job.

Join Butch Ward, Jill Geisler and managers from all over the world for Leadership Academy, Poynter’s premier management seminar, this October 20-25 in St. Petersburg. Apply here now to guarantee yourself a seat.  

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  • JimRoss96

    Great advice from a great teacher. A strict efficiency expert might not approve, but the most important thing I do all day as a city editor is sit down with reporters, talk about stories, trade jokes, throw around ideas. There are no substitutes for time and attention in this recipe.

  • davegehring

    Great post! This applies to management positions beyond the newsroom…in fact, these principles could equally apply in the Tech Industry as well.