Why do journalists remember nasty editors fondly?

Dean Baquet said it was “nuts” to elegize “‘the city editor who changed my life because he was really nasty to me for six months and it made me a better person.’” I noted earlier today that John Robinson had recently tweeted some wisdom about the peculiar devotion some journalists have for tough editors, but I was curious what Jill Geisler, who directs Poynter’s management and leadership training programs, thought about J. Jonah Jameson types.

Geisler recently wrote about what a good management style looks like, and talked about the “bad old days” when “bosses could be behave like tyrants” as long as their team “cranked out some good work.”

She didn’t dwell on those days in the piece, though, so I put it to her: Why do so many journalists think fondly of jerks? Here’s what she wrote back:

The fond remembrances are very likely the result of several things:

1. It’s all seen through the rear view mirror. Those who are fondly recalling their super-tough, idiosyncratic bosses are proud of their survival, just like those who make it through fraternity or sorority hazing. They put greater emphasis on the positive outcome and tell war stories about the hardship. There’s a “coolness” factor to telling those “I was one of Mr. or Ms. X’s crew — what a wild ride that was. If you made it there, you know you had what it takes.”
2. The bosses weren’t ALL bad. They weren’t fundamentally evil. In fact, there WAS a pony under all that poop. The pony was smart and taught them some skills that made them better. That’s why the managers got “idiosyncrasy credits” for the other boorish (but not dishonest) behaviors.
3. The bosses made some personal connection with the employee in spite of everything else. When the meanest SOB in the valley tells you, “Kid, if you get your head out of your butt you might actually make it in this business,” some kids feel special — and they cling to that. (“He/She yells at everybody but actually kind of likes me.”)

Having said all that, there’s a reason Bob Sutton wrote “The No Asshole Rule” and why it was such a hit. Let him explain.

And I know of no one who tells me that what they’d like in an ideal boss is a large measure of screaming, sarcasm, immaturity, unpredictability, moodiness, substance abuse, cronyism or bad hygiene.

Honestly, I think it’s so patently obvious that people deserve better, that I find those who put a glow on their old war stories to be a bit tiresome. It’s over. Times have changed. Move on.

In case you hadn’t heard the pony/poop metaphor before, here’s a good explainer of it.

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  • Kumar Chatterjee

    I was 23 when one evening someone called me to offer the job of a reporter at a fledgling website. The next morning I found that certain someone was a frustrated alcoholic who had spent years writing for one after another newspaper without making much of a progress in profession. But I was awed at his ability to churn out stories out of vernacular papers. I was perhaps too naive to understand how he had actually been cheating by merely translating those stories and adding a few fake quotes to them. He would crush every first print of my story and hurl it to the centre of the room without even looking at it and ask me to write it all over again. I could never comprehend where I had gone wrong. A couple of hours later, he would call me and open the file on his terminal and ask me to sit on my knees beside him and see how he would create gold out of garbage. It didn’t take long to understand his tricks and learn that my stuff wasn’t really utter trash. A decade and a half later, when I look back, I feel that grind wasn’t needed but the learning out of that grind was of great value, though I know, he was always more focused on bragging about his “brilliance” than grooming up his juniors. Had he been a little more focused on the work, I would have loved to remember him fondly, no matter how nasty he would get after a couple of swigs.

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    It’s a picture of J. Jonah Jameson, the editor from Spider-Man. –Andrew

  • JohannaHolkhamred321

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  • Egg Man

    I mean, the cartoon could just as well as done the trick without the Hitler stache. WTF?

  • Egg Man

    Andrew, why does the cartoon on this page carry a Hitler moustache? Yr choice?

  • canardnoir

    “Why do journalists remember nasty editors fondly?”

    Likely nothing more than faux memories combined with a passive personality.

    How else could one forget the obnoxious editor whose loud and boisterous demeanor rang through the newsroom as he stood and tore a phonebook in two?

    Or the one who verbally threatened staff members saying “…if you don’t like it here you can get the f—— out!” Even though he was later discovered having an affair with a female reporter which caused him some marital difficulties…

    And don’t forget the female one who found it impossible to remain gender neutral, simply by virtue of her ongoing relationship with a younger female deputy, even traveling together & sharing the same hotel rooms?

    Not to mention the one who recently disclosed his use of racially discriminatory practices to hire, and was subsequently rewarded for his actions.

    More than any other business entity, newspapers employ more than their fair share of that 4% that deviate from the norm.

    And within that business entity their failing management styles show that…Editors, especially those within newspapers, moreoften suffer from character flaws that tend to cover up their inability to equitably manage their employees.

    Subsequently, for a period of time labor organizations have found these outlets to be ripe for organizing.

  • David

    I wouldn’t call it vindication, but I was mildly surprised to see a former editor arrested years later in an incident that seemed straight out of Breaking Bad.