Why don’t more photojournalists become news directors?

Michaelsen

Michaelsen

Sinclair Broadcasting Group named Lane Michaelsen its new corporate news director, Rick Gevers reported Aug. 3. Sinclair, the biggest local television ownership group in the U.S., now has three former photojournalists in top news division leadership positions.

Michaelsen became a national award-winning photojournalist at WSMV (where I worked with him) and at KARE-11 in Minneapolis. After a one-year residency at The Poynter Institute, he rose to news director in Little Rock, D.C., Tampa, Miami, Cincinnati and Atlanta.

Photojournalist Stan Heist is Sinclair’s news talent manager and in 2006 was the National Press Photographers Association national TV Photographer of the Year. He started his career as a news photographer and a live truck operator at WKEF-TV in Dayton, Ohio. Scott Livingston is the group’s vice president of news. While he worked at WBFF in Baltimore, Livingston was twice named Photographer of the Year by the Associated Press and was honored three times by the National Press Photographers Association.

It’s fairly rare for photographers to become news directors. I wanted to know what others could do to move photojournalists into glass-office jobs. In addition to Heist and Livingston, I asked other former and current news executives to offer some advice.

John Lansing, the former head of Scripps Networks Interactive, started as a photographer in Paducah, Kentucky, and over the years worked as news director at WCCO Minneapolis and WBBM Chicago. He rose to general manager in Detroit and Cleveland. Bruce Carter, the news director at WLEX-TV Lexington, Kentucky, began as a photojournalist. Bruce and I worked together in Bowling Green, Kentucky, back in the days of film.  I also asked my esteemed colleague Jill Geisler to add her thoughts, since she trains news executives around the world and has been working in and around newsrooms for more than 40 years.

How does your photojournalism background inform your decision-making as a news executive?

Livingston

Livingston

Livingston: We’re big believers in the power of our pictures and sound. Our news corporate team has a great grasp on what makes a memorable story. Just as photojournalists look for those special moments which will connect with the viewer, we look for a connection in every story we choose to put in our newscasts. Not every news item is a full package, but every news story needs to be told in a way that has value to the viewer. We respect that every viewer has access to myriad news sources. Their choice to watch us is because of our commitment to make the ordinary extraordinary.

Carter: A successful photojournalist has to have a considerable bank of skill sets. They tend to possess strong people skills. They not only deal with the stresses and strains of the daily newsroom work environment but they also interact with public officials in difficult times, people in tragic situations, victims under duress and the like. Photojournalists learn to work and create in a collaborative team environment, they tend to be highly organized, excellent problem solvers and know how to meet extremely demanding daily deadlines. In addition, I find most photojournalists to be creative and engaging people that love a challenge, love storytelling and have a true passion for what they do.

Lansing

Lansing

Lansing: To be successful as a photojournalist you must focus on every aspect of the assignment; the visuals you record are the end result of your ability to manage a complex set of variables such as: understanding as much about the assignment as the reporter, planning and logistics, technical competency with equipment, problem solving on the fly, engaging people in often tense situations, excellence in sound recording, understanding lighting advantages or restrictions, managing competitive concerns, meeting deadlines, managing expectations of the assignment desk and producers and of course understanding how to tell great visual stories that will engage and inform an audience, have a keen sense of your mission as a journalist and its ethical underpinnings.

If you are constantly thinking one or two steps ahead, and taking full responsibility for the final product on air, you are enhancing your chances for success.  I can’t think of a better job description for a news director.

Heist

Heist

Heist: As a photojournalists, we’re driven by video’s unique ability to capture moments — and for me that’s a big driver in my decisions. We understand that the content our stations produce must be compelling, informative and relatable for the audience, every day. So when I review work, it’s always through the lens of creating an authentic experience for the viewer, and helping them better understand the issues that affect them every day.

Perhaps as a more practical matter, from our photojournalism past, we’re used to working with all types of people both inside the newsroom and out on the street. We’ve made tough calls in the building, and been challenged by the pressures out in the field. Even though we were news employees, we had to have very good relationships with engineering, graphics, production, and others inside the building. At least for me, understanding how to build those relationships took time–but it was key to being able to move up and see the bigger picture. This pays off now, because in order to be successful in my job I need to understand and connect with every type of news employees, not just photographers.

Why is it so rare for photojournalists to rise through the ranks as producers, reporters and sales executives do? 

Heist: A great question, and one I hope to explore more in my role here at Sinclair. I think as an industry we can all do a better job of developing leaders from within the ranks and giving them the tools they need to succeed as leaders earlier in their career. The way this business moves so quickly, sometimes it’s hard to get the right management training in before the opportunity to lead presents itself.

I do think a big reason is that people in the roles you have mentioned have so much more time inside the building, where the decisions are made. That’s why it’s so important for photojournalists to get involved in both the day-to-day operations, and the big picture, if they want to get involved in management. Leaders have to think about things on an organizational level, which means understanding how their newsroom fits within the station and within the community at large. Producers have the inside track with this, at least as far as being a news director goes, because they are in the building when decisions are being made.

Lansing: It’s rare because photojournalists are naturally prone to making other people look good, and making it look easy, which I assure you it is not.

If you read the great business book “Good to Great,” author Jim Collins describes the best business leaders as those who follow the “Hedgehog Principle”, meaning they are goal oriented, focused on leading teams by example rather than ego.  These leaders work in service to the team, not the other way around. I think that is a good description of the best photojournalists I have known and the best leaders I have encountered.  But like many businesses it’s easy to assume the people who work more closely to the money or the power somehow understand the most of what makes the business work. I think that is a risky assumption for a television station that relies almost entirely on having viewers choose their content over 4 or 5 other choices. It seems more logical to choose those closest to generating engaging content versus counting money.

Carter

Carter

Carter:  I think the fact that most creative and talented photojournalists have a passion for what they do, being creative visual storytellers, so many stick with doing just that for most of their career. Some leave the business and go to work for production houses or start their own photography-based business. Others continue their career in television news, which I think is great! If you love what you do, then do it.

There is one group of photojournalists which I feel is a tremendous untapped resource for future news and station managers, that group being chief news photographers. These are people that usually rose up through the ranks and became proven respected leaders by their staff and newsroom peers. They are organized managers and team leaders. With a bit of financial/sales training, this talented group of photojournalists could be a great talent pool for any company.

Livingston: Probably because being a photojournalist is way more fun than any of those other jobs!  Seriously, no other time in my life did I exercise more creativity, more autonomy than when I had a camera (and deck) on my shoulder.  Historically, there have been great photojournalists in news management: Butch Montoya, Bruce Carter, John Lansing, to name a few. In our current climate, photographers also act as reporters, producers and multimedia journalists.  I predict that with photojournalists having more of an obvious editorial voice, we will see more photojournalists evolve into news managers.

Geisler

Geisler

Geisler: I think it’s more likely than ever for photojournalists to grow into newsroom leadership roles, but there have been obstacles. Namely: training, geography and culture.

  • Training: In the past, photographers came from a variety of backgrounds, including a more trade-school model that focused on the art of making pictures and not necessarily the full spectrum of media history and law, communications theory, and writing. When an organization is led by people who place a strong value on writing (as print AND broadcast newsrooms traditionally have been), they can undervalue talented people for whom that’s a lesser skill.
  • Geography:  In the days of film, photographers and their gear were housed in walled-off areas of TV stations, thanks to OSHA requirements related to the chemicals used in processing film. They didn’t live in the newsroom, where decisions are made.  As technology changed, it took time to physically knock down walls, and that was often done by forward-thinking newsroom leaders who realized there was  buried treasure in the building — photographers who didn’t want to simply be dispatched to assignments, but were eager to be partners in brainstorming and developing them.
  • Culture: As photographers began to work in tandem with reporters, producers and managers, and as many came into the business with more broad-based liberal arts education, their status changed from “helper” to “partner” — and from there, much more easily to “leader.”

What do photojournalists need to do more (or less) to improve their odds of rising into leadership jobs?

Livingston: Be involved and engaged in the editorial process. We all remember when photogs liked to hide in the back, waiting to be called by the assignment desk. Those days are gone. We not only encourage but expect our photography staff to provide just as many story ideas as the rest of the staff. Frankly, they have a great grasp on what’s going on due to the fact they are out in the field all day. By definition, photographers are great observers and listeners and have the ability to get genuine evolving soundbites by making those observations.

Carter: If a photojournalist wants to climb the ranks into a managerial role they need to inform their manager(s) of their career aspirations. Managers look for people that show interest in exploring new things. I suggest spending time with your general manager, news director and other department heads. Ask questions, be inquisitive. Volunteer to take on additional tasks and responsibilities. Make yourself indispensable. Learn everything and anything about every single department and how the station functions as a whole. Be involved in the daily operations, exhibit leadership, be a mentor those around you with lesser skill sets. Managers will take note.

Geisler: Avoid silos and us/them thinking. Be a presence in the newsroom, immerse yourself in storytelling rather than just visual journalism, be a continuous learner, coach and mentor others, ask for feedback — and read this column I published last week.

Lansing: Be well informed and act as a professional journalist, not a camera jockey.  Show up at editorial meetings with good story ideas. Dress like a professional even if you have jeans and boots for some stories. Understand your station’s strategic plan and ask questions at staff meetings. Learn how sales works, embrace mentors and friendships from all departments. Ask the GM for a chance to learn more about how you can help the station succeed.

Heist: Get involved. It’s very easy for a photojournalist to respond to the needs of the newsroom, especially when the job is so taxing by nature. Photographers and reporters can easily have their daily schedule upended at any moment during the day. It’s in their nature to be on standby. If a photojournalist has an interest in leadership, it’s important to take a view of the news operation as a whole. You can’t be worried about only your assignments of the day. Look for opportunities to help the newsroom be stronger, and don’t wait for them to come to you. I’ve seen it several times from those who have worked with me when I was a chief in Richmond and in Baltimore. I remember one photographer in particular who would ask me repeatedly if he could help organize and maintain the live trucks for me. It didn’t take long before I “delegated” that task to him — and he embraced it. He saw a need and he filled it. Today he’s in management for an international broadcaster in D.C. There are plenty of ways a staff photojournalist can begin the path to management by helping the organization as a whole. Helping less-experienced staff grow by giving critiques is another great way to develop the feedback skills that are absolutely necessary to succeed as a manager.

Getting involved in the editorial meetings is another must. If a photojournalist wants to improve their odds in being a leader, they need to be where the decisions are made. They need to know how each decision affects each different role inside the newsroom. This knowledge occurs when you’re involved in the process, ask questions and seek solutions to make the overall product better.

Never stop growing. Now that I’m in this role, I take as much time as I can to understand the industry at large. I read the trade magazines and check in on conferences when I can. Inside the organization, I try to learn as much as I can about the other departments we deal with so I have a better understanding of how we fit in the big picture. It really never stops.

How often do you wish you could just pick up a camera and go shoot a story?

Lansing: All the time. I miss the sense of mission and teamwork that ended each day with great satisfaction when we knew we kicked ass.

Carter: I absolutely miss being a photojournalist. I miss the creative storytelling and sense of accomplishment once a story is aired. I still have vivid memories of the first story I shot and watching it on television in the newsroom. I thought to myself, I actually get paid for doing this?

Heist: Typically I get the urge just a few times a year. If I’m spending a few days at a station doing storytelling training and talking shop with everyone I absolutely get the itch. And I always want to shoot something after a week at the NPPA workshop. But I find now that a lot of that desire to tell stories can be channeled into helping our operations get stronger. These days I get excited when I watch journalists in our group develop their storytelling skills, or when a newscast improves their look and feel, and when a news operation improves their ratings from book to book. The work environment is a lot quieter in corporate, but the passion to win is very much still there.

Livingston working as a photojournalist in 1991.

Livingston working as a photojournalist in 1991.

Livingston: Whenever I see a really good story, I am jealous and wish I had the opportunity to tell it.  I don’t think there is anything better than seeing a great story with a beginning, middle and end, memorable moments, a video surprise and an emotional tug.  It’s truly a privilege to be able to tell someone’s story.

How does having former photojournalists in leadership jobs help newsrooms?

Geisler: It can have an extraordinary impact.  I know.  I lived it. When our station was acquired by Gillett Communications, several news execs — Bob Selwyn, Dave Goldberg and Mark Shafer, had photojournalism backgrounds. They encouraged our newsroom’s participation in the National Press Photographers Association. They evaluated newsroom success on the strength of enterprise storytelling produced by reporter/photojournalist partners — and equal partners at that. We began to attract up-and-coming talent who wanted to work in a culture that celebrated top-notch visual journalism. Our creativity and quality soared. We won awards. Our ratings went up. It was one of the most fun and rewarding times I spent in my newsroom.

.  .  .

 

I think there are other advantages for news executives having a photographic background. When I became a news director, I found my own photographer training and association with the National Press Photographers Association helped me stay on top of rapidly changing equipment needs. I understood why photojournalists hated flimsy tripods and why they needed durable and more expensive wireless microphones and batteries. I also had an appreciation for what it feels like to hump around a camera for hours and how much steady skill it takes to edit a story on deadline. It also made it more difficult for a photographer to snow me with excuses.

It is also my experience that photographers know their communities in intimate ways that can serve them well as decision-makers. I find photographers often better reflect the communities they serve. In order to have been successful as a photographer had to have good listening skills, they had to know how to handle high-profile personalities and work under pressure. The best photographers I know can talk easily with criminals, governors, children and old folks. They understand why their employees want to take a few minutes to light an interview, why they can’t both “go-live” at and gather video of a breaking news story. They know why they should never ask someone to raise a live truck mast in a lightning storm or cover a hurricane without first-rate gear and a way to stay dry.

Hail to photographers who find ways to stay in the business and shape it. May they improve journalism, nurse their sore backs and never forget what it was like to work in the field.

I hope you will use the comment section to add the names of photojournalists that you know who have become news executives in all media. I also would appreciate thoughts from you readers about how we can get more photojournalists on the management track.

 

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  • atompkins

    Stacey, Others have contacted me with some additional names whose backgrounds I didn’t know or didn’t remember including:

    -Cesar Aldama was a staff tv news photog at WSVN in Miami for years. He was news director at WFOR TV, the CBS O&O in Miami, a couple of years ago…then moved on to Comcast Sports Net Mid-Atlancitc to be their Senior Director of News.

    -Blaise Labbe, the ND at the Sinclair station in San Antonio started as a photographer.

    -Karen Lafleur (Houston NBC)

    - Steve Weinstein

    -

  • Stacey Woelfel

    Great piece, Al. Add me to the list of photogs who became news directors. It seems to me my fellow photographers and I have the advantage of being the utility players of the newsroom–able to work with just about everyone and be the go-to person when it counts. That puts us in a place of watching it all happen and sort of figuring it all out. I know when I finally got into the news director’s chair, I had helped put a lot of newscasts together in a lot of different ways. I also find most photogs who become managers are extremely level-headed. They aren’t the red-faced yelling types, and tend to lead with an even keel. Like your interview subjects, I still get the itch to go out and shoot–and actually pick up a camera and do it from time to time. Guess what guys? They are a lot lighter now than that old TK-76 and BVU-110 I used to lug around the hot streets of Florida!

  • Mark Muller

    Great article! Nice to see that there is life after the Lens and upward mobility in the modern newsroom. Something to shoot for if my knees give out. : )