How managers can lead newsrooms in a digital age

Digital First Media Editor-in-Chief Jim Brady doesn’t know who Olivia Pope is, but is more than willing to find out about the central character in the TV series “Scandal.”

That openness to the interests of diverse workers can be counted among the new skills required of leaders managing today’s digital staffs, the topic of a workshop Saturday at the Online News Association conference in Atlanta.

Brady said when he first became a manager, he modeled himself after Lou Grant, the grumpy, bombastic editor in the television series of the same name who ruled his newsroom with a top-down management style. By doing so, Brady admits, he probably alienated his reporters.

“Today, you have to listen to everyone else or you will fail,” he said.

Managers further need to empower workers and encourage experimentation. Callie Schweitzer, director of digital innovation at Time magazine, recalled that when the government shutdown caused the National Zoo’s panda cam to go dark, the magazine set up its own livestream with a stuffed animal, drawing a devoted audience.

In an earlier day, the fake panda cam might not have flown at the magazine, but there are no rules in the digital age, Schweitzer said.

“You have to try different things outside of your wheelhouse,” Brady agreed.

Time management may be among the most challenging issues for editors making daily choices about which tasks get their attention.

Schweitzer advised managers to concentrate on the things that matter the most. She said she regularly asks herself if she is doing the work that will get her closer to her goals.

Journalists can also get flustered by the apparent need to do everything. Brady advised managers not to overwhelm their reporters, but to allow them to pick the right tools — whether video, audio or photos — for their story, as opposed to all the tools.

“Let the journalist be the journalist,” he said.

Young journalists looking to move into management should raise their hands whenever an opportunity presents itself, Brady and Schweitzer said. Brady’s advice: Don’t wait, but step up as soon as a position opens.

Management is very hard today, Brady acknowledged. But the industry faces a dearth of good managers, he said, and newsrooms should be looking for those who can be coached and can grow into those important roles.

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