New Year’s Resolutions for Newsroom Leaders

By Scott Libin

Original New Year’s resolutions are as rare as volunteers to work holiday shifts.

Let’s stipulate, as the lawyers say, that we all want to:

  • Maintain a healthier diet.
  • Exercise more regularly.
  • Get control of e-mail.
  • And paperwork.
  • Blah.
  • Blah.
  • Blah.

All worthy goals. What now?

Here are a few suggestions specifically for those whose job is leading journalists to do their best work. These ideas are inspired by colleagues, visiting faculty, and participants in the Poynter seminars I’ve been privileged to be a part of recently, and by the many other smart people I’ve been fortunate enough to work with at Poynter and in newsrooms across the country:

Don’t get carried away with the Golden Rule. Jill Geisler, who heads Poynter’s leadership faculty, sometimes shares this shocker in the context of teaching about differences in personality types: Doing unto others as you would have them do unto you is fine -– as long as everyone is just like you. Not everyone is.

In 2005, try doing unto others as they would have you do unto them. Don’t reward an introvert by asking without warning that he stand up and tell the entire department how he worked such magic on that last story. You might love such attention. To an introvert, it probably feels more like punishment than praise. Don’t bombard your boss with hourly updates because that’s the way you like it; she might prefer a scheduled weekly meeting. Manage up, down, and sideways not according to what works best for you, but according to what works best for those you are attempting to manage.

Know at least the names of the significant others in the lives you so routinely disrupt. Journalism is such an intrusive line of work. There’s no avoiding calls to colleagues’ homes at all hours, on the birthdays of children, and when such interruptions are otherwise unwelcome. It’s the nature of the news business, and there are plenty of other ways to make a living for people who don’t want to be disturbed while “off the clock.”

But it can make all the difference in the world simply to know the names of spouses and other adult cohabitants, so that when you wake such innocent civilians at 3 a.m., you can at least address them politely: “Hi, Joan, this is Scott in the newsroom. I’m so sorry to call you at this hour, but I’m afraid I need to speak with Joe.” Beats the daylights out of a terse “Is Joe there?” (Caution: If you attempt this humanitarian gesture during the coming year, or ever, be sure your list of home numbers and significant others is up to date. Life events occur. A call in the middle of the night is bad enough. A call in the middle of the night to a former spouse, or addressing someone by the name of some other significant other -– that can get really ugly.)

Strive for excellence, rather than perfection. I’m not sure who deserves credit for originating this idea, but I heard it most recently and most effectively articulated by Kevin Benz, news director at News 8 Austin. He points out that the only possible result of striving for perfection is failure. Excellence, on the other hand, is within reach even of humans.

Neil Brown, executive editor of the St. Petersburg Times, says something similar when he urges news leaders not to let perfect be the enemy of good. Holding off on an innovation, new enterprise, or effort of any kind until conditions are absolutely ideal and all room for error is eliminated probably means nothing will ever get done.

Stop hiding behind that open door. Can this please be the year we admit that an “open-door policy” is sometimes an excuse for lazy leadership? It’s a lot easier to sit behind a big desk and congratulate yourself because anyone is free to come talk to you anytime about any topic, than it is to get up from that chair and go find out for yourself what’s really going right and going wrong.

An open-door policy grants permission for passive management. It also sends the signal that, on the rare occasion that the door closes, the world must be about to end. Try closing that door for a little while every day. That way people won’t panic when they see it closed, and you’ll get more work done. Then open the door, walk through it to the newsroom, and see for yourself how things are going — rather than waiting for the newsroom to come to you.

Don’t give up on “old media.” As 2004 ends, shrewd pundits are again falling all over themselves in the rush to declare the death of the network newscast. Again.

Do the math. The creaky old “Big Three” still command a nightly newscast audience many times the size of their cable competitors’ most popular programs. Newspapers show signs of life, too.

No one who’s been paying attention can dismiss the influence of relative newcomers like Fox News Channel, and no one who hopes to compete can afford to ignore them.

While some of us still grimace when forced to use made-up words like “blog” (or, worse, “blogosphere”), there’s no denying the impact these popular purveyors of opinion and rumor have had, especially in 2004. Like a newly-arrived puppy perturbing a more dignified old dog, they nip at the heels of established media outlets and force them to move faster than they’ve had to in a long time. Sometimes that’s good for the old-timers.

Read again the words of Poynter’s broadcast and online group leader Al Tompkins, who wrote this past year:

“Old media” journalism is vital to a democracy when it observes, verifies, provides context, offers analysis, clarifies, explains and appropriately comforts or alarms us. Responsible news organizations provide many truths, not just those truths that serve their interests.

I wish I’d written that.

In the new year, I’m going to try to come up with something as wise as those words from Al. In the meantime, consider the insights of Poynter’s Steve Outing, who writes about both what bloggers can learn from journalists and what journalists can learn from bloggers.

 

And finally: Don’t believe everything you hear — or read — about journalism. Media-bashing is a time-honored tradition in our culture, and it’s never been more politically fashionable than it is today. I still believe that what you do matters a lot, even if it doesn’t always feel that way. It matters, too, that you be the one to do it.

I’m saddened by the loss of the hundreds of journalists laid off, downsized, or otherwise unemployed through no fault of their own over the course of 2004. I find it almost sadder that so many others decided for themselves to leave journalism. Some did so for the best of reasons, such as taking back the time their families deserve, lost for so long to the demands of news. I respect that. I also respect those who love their families every bit as much, and whose work as journalists and as leaders serves their families, as well as their neighbors, and even perfect strangers. Now and then, that work might even make their loved ones proud of them.

I resolve to remind myself of that now and then in 2005. And I know I’m in good company.

Happy New Year!

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