News managers: Think like great writers, focus on the right details

Sometimes sadness is like a drug that won’t let go.

On the morning after actor Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead in New York with a needle in his arm, I spent several hours reading news stories, appreciations and old profiles written during his remarkable stage and film career.

With each story that I opened, I promised myself this one would be the last, that it was time to get to work on this column about leadership. Then I read another, and another, unable to shake my need to understand a man I had met in a hundred different ways, yet never really at all.

In story after story, I found myself looking for details — telling details — the ones that good storytellers use to build compelling characters like the Lomans and Capotes that Hoffman played. Characters who make me care, characters I can’t stop watching or reading about; characters who are real.

In many of the stories about Hoffman, the writers detailed his unremarkable physical attributes — “lightly freckled skin,” “the sideways wheedle of a voice,” “the doughy, malleable face and Baby Huey physique of a character actor.” Of all the details they could have chosen, they selected those — and they did so to make a point, expressed by actress Meryl Streep: “Philip is not particularly any one way, which means he can be anybody at all.”

As my mind moved slowly back toward writing this column, I began thinking about details in another context — the role they play in a good leader’s management style. But not just any details.

Telling details.

The best bosses I know, like good writers, select well. They know what to “put in the story, and what to leave out.” They pick their words, their directives, their initiatives deliberately — to make a clear point, to obtain a specific, intended result. As a result, they bring order to the organization’s agenda, beat back the staff’s feeling of being overwhelmed, keep everyone focused.

And they can do it whether the job at hand is implementing a new business product, reorganizing workflow, or editing a story. The best bosses recognize the telling details — the questions, measurements and tactics that help their staffs prioritize their efforts.

Back at The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1992, the company installed new color presses and the newsroom needed to make a number of changes to the newspaper’s design. Editor Max King and Managing Editor Gene Foreman took the opportunity to refresh the newspaper’s look — preserving the Inquirer’s classic design while modernizing a number of conventions.

Unlike most redesigns, however, this one was not intended to be noticed. Aware that readers in some markets had reacted badly to redesigns, King and Foreman wanted readers to wake up in nine months or so and read a newspaper that had undergone a total redesign — without anyone noticing.

Needless to say, the effort required great attention to detail, including a very specific rollout schedule that called for incremental changes to be made over the nine months. Some changes were pretty obvious; some were very small. (I seem to recall that one week, we merely made a minor change to story bylines.)

When it was complete, and you placed a new Inquirer next to the old one, the changes were easily apparent. But King and Foreman had achieved their goal: over the nine months of rollout, only one complaint reached the newsroom — a postcard with a single phrase, “Too much sans serif.”

That’s one story, and you know others, I’m sure. I’m imagining Philip Seymour Hoffman, striped tie loosened, shirttail sticking out of his trousers, and black horn-rimmed glasses perched atop his head, playing one of those bosses right now:

The weekly meeting on the rollout of the website’s redesign is sidetracked. The participants are debating a question about coding. The boss listens for a few minutes, and then interrupts. “As important as this conversation is,” he says, “let’s take it somewhere else. Why don’t we focus on next week’s audience tests, and the most important thing each of us needs to accomplish between now and then? Then we’ll know whether any of our priorities for the next week needs to change in order to be ready for those tests.”

Notice, Philip didn’t just stop a sidetracked discussion and return everyone to the agenda. From a long list of rollout issues, he selected one as most important — the audience’s reaction to the new site. He wanted everyone focused on that telling detail, and ready to hear it next week.

And how about these scenes:

A reporter, back in the office after covering a story, sits down at her desk, opens her notebook and prepares to write. Suddenly she realizes Philip is standing next to her. “Before you write,” he says, “let me ask you something. What do you think your readers will learn from your story that they didn’t know before?” After listening carefully to her answer, they talk about a possible lead and nut graph. “One more question,” Philip says. “What would you say your story is really about?” A few minutes later, as her editor returns to his desk, the reporter realizes how much clearer she feels — thanks to a few carefully selected questions.

Another reporter is receiving a performance review, and the subject is his writing. “I can see,” Philip says, “that the quality of your writing came up during last year’s review.” “I know,” the reporter says. “My boss told me my writing was muddled and asked me to work on it.” “What does ‘muddled’ mean to you?” Philip asks. “I’m not sure exactly; too many words?” the reporter answers. “How about if we do this?” Philip asks. “For the next week or so, we’re going to focus on how many dependent clauses you use. They can slow your story down, often without adding much benefit. Try eliminating as many as possible. Then, one at a time, we’ll tackle another part of speech — verbs, adverbs, adjectives. Think we can do that?” The reporter nods, and leaves the conversation understanding more clearly what he has been asked to try. He has received feedback — detailed feedback.

Newsroom managers are complaining to the boss that two reporters detached for a special report are needed for daily assignments. The boss has listened for several minutes to the managers. “Send any complaints you get about missed daily stories to me,” the boss says. Then he reminds his visitors of the newsroom’s goal: to produce stories that no one else will have — to get a reputation for exclusive content. “Let me add that I appreciate the extra effort you’re expending while you’re short-handed. Believe me, it will be worth it.” The newsroom’s priorities are clear.

Here’s my invitation to you: Think about how you decide what to say when you’re introducing a plan, explaining strategy, critiquing a program, editing a story. Are your choices of words, metrics and tactics leaving the staff feeling more focused — or overwhelmed? Are they clear about what you expect — and what they need to do?

Remember, it’s a matter of what you “put in the story, and what you leave out.”

It’s a matter of selection.

Correction: This article originally misspelled Philip Seymour Hoffman’s name.

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  • JTFloore

    every aspiring journalist and every young journalist should read this column. I say that in the context of having been a reporter at four newspapers of varying sizes and reputations and only one editor every told me: “be specific.” he also might have said “describe it.” I am constantly amazed at how often news stories fail to give the most basic information. reporters haven’t been told, and editors are not very good or are too lazy to be bothered, so they let stories slide by. meanwhile, just a few good edits here or there can improve a story immeasurably. and a few bad edits can make a reporter look unfairly incompetent. I am periodically surprised at how critical information makes it into one news reporter but is conspicuously left out of others, and that applies to print and broadcast stories among the most reputable operations in the business.

  • Karishma Sundaram

    Beautifully written, with excellent advice. Thank you.

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