Inside the Thunderdome newsroom: heartbreak and hustle

From leadership literature to commencement speeches, the message is: Don’t fear failure. It’s a gift that makes us stronger and wiser.

But that’s a heck of a lot easier to say — and believe — when you’re looking at failure in the rear view mirror, not while you’re in the midst of it.

As the people of Project Thunderdome will attest, failure is terribly painful.

Robyn Tomlin

Robyn Tomlin, Thunderdome’s editor who has taught at Poynter, calls its demise “heartbreaking.” She made her latest hire only a month ago. Things unfolded quickly after that, she said. A week ago she and editor-in-chief Jim Brady alerted staff to expect bad news.

But they did more. And that’s a leadership lesson in itself — about hustle amid heartbreak.

In past week, the Project Thunderdome offices in New York became a job placement center. According to Tomlin, she and Brady have been on the phones, working their wide network of contacts to let other organizations know about the soon-to-be-available talent on their team.

Staffers on that 55-person team have been conducting sessions for each other on resume writing, salary negotiations, and even doing mock interviews. They’ve encouraged each other to polish up their profiles and portfolios on Insidethunderdome.com’s “About Us” page, to make it easier for prospective employers to vet them.

Many of the staff have experienced layoffs before. Some are veterans of the TBD digital initiative Brady led, which shut down in 2011. And though many TBD alums did well after its demise, the transition from joblessness to gainful employment can take a toll on both pocketbook and psyche.

It’s especially rough when the displacement destroys a work group which shared a genuine sense of mission and, according to Tomlin, were carefully hired for their team orientation. That’s underscored in a note Davis Shaver, Thunderdome’s technology strategist, sent to his co-workers today, which read, in part:

Thunderdome is the aggregate of the relationships we’ve made, maintained, and inspired. Thunderdome was an idea, a rallying cry – John and Jim and Robyn trying to tell DFM that we will not go quietly into the night. We weren’t always successful with our efforts, but the fact that we tried, that we were in the business of innovation, that striving inspired DFM journalists, and truly the industry at large. Hence the reaction we’re seeing today.

Thunderdome is the aggregate of the relationships we’ve made, maintained, and inspired. It is our inter-newsroom bonds, and our intra-newsroom communities. It’s Buttry in the field, our educator-in-chief. It’s Tom visiting newsrooms, spreading the gospel of data. It’s Gary, tackling the amorphous hydra that is sports journalism and making connections across myriad markets. It’s Courtney working with Jessica to make those delightful GIFs, Fuentes working with Jason and Daniel to build an awesome content explorer tool. Laura leading her team to think about user centered design, Julie building a kickass breaking news dynamo with the help of people like Karen (who showed us how to write webby headlines) and Kim (who moonlights as the tweet queen behind a prolific journalism chat). These connections… These relationships… That’s Thunderdome to me.

While talking up her “amazing group of people,” Tomlin tells me she hasn’t decided what she will do next in her own career. She’s not sure whether she’ll keep leading in legacy media or try the world of pure plays. Because Thunderdome’s shutdown will happen on a rolling basis, she hopes to guide each person and piece of it to a soft landing.

And, yes, it hurts. In her words, she’s “in mourning.”

Tomlin told me, “We still feel like we’re fighting for the future of journalism. We just won’t be doing it together.”

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  • Jess

    Thinking nothing but the best for all of them!