May 31, 2016

The week of my 64th birthday began with an email from Ben, my editor.

“This is too good,” read the subject line.

No one recognizes a story pitch faster than a former editor.

I braced myself.

“There’s a new sitcom about a veteran, decorated journalist managing a bunch of millennial reporters…. Would you take a look and let me know if you’d be willing to write something instructive?”

A veteran journalist managing millennials. Hmm, I wondered: Which point of view was I expected to represent?

A few days later, still undecided what to write, I arrived home to a handmade birthday card from Cassidy, my 4-year-old granddaughter.

It was decorated with dinosaurs.

No use fighting it, Butch. Write before the meteor hits.


Editors frequently ask me the secret to managing millennials.

After all, they say, they act entitled, quit on a moment’s notice and seem more concerned with how much vacation they get than whether they should work some extra hours.

Of course, editors also ask me how to manage veterans who, they say, are resisting the need to learn the skills everyone needs in a digital newsroom.

Stereotypes might contribute to good comedy, but they rarely contribute to effective management. I know lots of millennials who work a ton of hours and lots of veterans who’ve learned more new skills in the past decade than they ever thought possible.

Fact is, people of all ages and experiences populate newsrooms (as they always have), and they bring a variety of talents, motivations and ambitions to their jobs. Asking how to manage discrete groups of people is the wrong question.

Instead, here’s the question I think editors should be asking:

How can I best manage an entire staff of individuals — some young and inexperienced, others seasoned by work and life — and help them discover how to learn from each other, work with each other?


So I watched the sitcom trailer and, sure enough, I saw the situation that editors tell me they’re facing — resistant veterans and entitled millennials.

The show is called “The Great Indoors.” Jack Gordon is the reporter-turned-editor whose boss wants him to give the young staff some direction. “They’re really smart,” the boss says, “but they don’t know what to write about.”

Reluctantly, Jack gives it a shot, but quickly the clashes begin: millennials with their journalism-by-listicle (“Name one thing to do when a bear attacks”) versus Jack and his life-calloused experience (“You die”).

When the staff excitedly tells Jack they’ve found a video of bear cubs playing in a kids’ swimming pool, the new editor loses it.

“You guys don’t know what it’s like,” he says, “to look at a creature who’s the last of its kind.”

“Yeah,” they grumble in unison, “we do.”

So let’s go back to your newsroom for a second, and let’s say life decides to imitate art, and your staff actually divides pretty cleanly between millennials and veterans. And let’s say you were to actually discover the secret to addressing all of those negative stereotypes and (voila!) your two groups become more productive.

You’ve still got an issue:

You still have two discrete groups, not the ideal recipe for seamless collaboration. And face it, some pretty strong forces are conspiring to convince them they are, indeed, separate.

When I think back to my first days in a newsroom, I realize I had a lot in common with millennials. The newsroom was run by my parents’ generation. My bosses and most of my colleagues were veteran journalists; they associated my generation with a host of stereotypes, and they disapproved of many of them. Here I was, anxious for an opportunity to show off my skills, and I spent many days feeling like a visitor in someone else’s house.

So yes, there are similarities in our experiences, but millennials face one big difference: The news industry associates them, digital natives that they are, with a set of very important skills. How important? How about crucial to the survival of journalism?

No one told me I was crucial to the survival of anything (in fact, they blamed me for putting a lot of barbers out of business).

That fact alone — that millennials are associated with a distinct and crucial set of skills — can create divisions in a newsroom. Are you a “digital have,” a key player in the newsroom’s future? Or a “digital have-not?”

To be sure, digital skills are important to the future of journalism, and all journalists need to master a certain level of those skills. But journalists need other skills, too — and often the digital “have-nots” possess them.

That’s the situation: People sitting in the same room possess a host of different skills, are capable of sharing those skills, and yet are often unaware that their colleagues have them. What a shame. Because when people discover that they have something worthwhile to learn from each other, they are much more willing to work together.

The leader’s role is to help them make that discovery.

Ultimately, of course, your staff of individuals will each choose how to interact with their colleagues. Some millennials are eager to share their digital skills and equally eager to learn skills that veterans have mastered. Some millennials resent their assigned role as digital experts. Some veterans have embraced the need to master digital tools; some (and they’re not all older) are resisting mightily.

So, yes, the choice to build a collaborative atmosphere belongs to everyone in the room.

But it needs to begin with the newsroom’s leaders.

How? Let me suggest five ideas:

  1. Create an inventory of your staff’s skills. You can do this alone, involve other members of your leadership team, or involve the whole staff. The goal is for you to discover and, hopefully, appreciate the skills that each member of your staff brings to work. Who knows how to code? Who does excellent interviews? Who is a social media whiz? Who speaks Spanish? Who is an expert on your community’s history?

    In the pressure cooker that editors are working in today, an individual’s skills are often overlooked or forgotten. As a result, people can become undervalued. And when the current strategy focuses so much attention on certain skills — digital in this case — those who don’t possess them can be written off. Just as it’s true that some staffers need to post more effectively to Facebook, others need to know how to ask better interview questions. Who on your staff can teach those skills? Is it someone who is struggling to play an important role?

    A true learning environment depends on knowing what everyone can do.

  2. Explore how those skills can be utilized. Get beyond the obvious. You know how you’re using that staffer’s social media skills to promote stories and events. Could that staffer help reporters discover how to more effectively crowdsource? Could she help you use social to identify the conversations taking place in your community — and thus help you identify stories that are likely to resonate? Could that staffer help you use social to organize a community of experts with whom your reporters confer before and during their news gathering?

    And what about that visual journalist who is an authority on the history of your community? Could he do brown bags for staff, explaining how events in the past provide important context for issues you’re covering now? Could her library of historic images be the starting point for a visual history site that the community helps to create? Would that staffer be willing to assist reporters who are looking for sources of information about the community’s past?

    Don’t be limited by the roles staffers have played in the past. People often have talents and skills that you don’t even know about. How could they put those talents to use?

  3. Talk about people’s skills. You congratulate staffers for good journalism. You applaud good reporting, visuals, design, display type, production and much more. You salute good work.

    What if you specifically saluted skills?

    What if, in addition to applauding the reporter who got a great interview, you shared the interview technique she employed? The kinds of questions she asked. Or what if, in saluting the visual journalist who produced an excellent story, you pointed out what sort of planning contributed to the good outcome? Or what if you wrote about the spike in traffic that occurred on your website when, in response to a disappointing real-time metric, a producer rewrote a headline and added some links to related stories? Can you include what made the headline work? Can you point out which links attracted the most attention?

    The message would be clear: These journalists have skills we all could learn from. Get to know them.

    And this isn’t just about written notes. You can talk about skills in news meetings, in casual conversations, in 1-on-1 feedback sessions.

    Again, the magic will occur when, thanks to your spotlight, staffers discover a previously underappreciated colleague’s skills.

  4. Encourage mentoring (or assign it). The coming together of staff might happen organically; with your encouragement, staffers might begin to seek out colleagues from whom they think they can learn. And you can encourage such relationships by making sure you and the others on your leadership team each are mentoring someone.

    But if it doesn’t happen naturally, why not assign mentors? Look for ways to defy stereotypes of age or role. A recent college graduate can mentor either a fellow recent grad or a veteran; it all depends on the skill the colleague needs.

    The most lasting value of these mentoring matchups probably won’t be the skill-transfers that take place; it will be the relationships that form between people who otherwise might never interacted—but who now will likely interact again, helping you build a more collaborative environment.

  5. Look at who’s on your project teams. Mix ‘em up. There’s no better way to introduce people to each other than to give them something to work on together. Project teams offer this opportunity. And instead of bringing together the same players, look for opportunities to populate your teams with people who don’t routinely work together.

But don’t stop there.

Use that skills inventory you created to bring together people with disparate talents. Add rigor to the project by including the reporter who asks great questions. Your best data journalist sitting next to your best “big idea” generator can produce ambitious ideas and a plan for achieving them. Could a visual journalist or an artist enrich the group’s vision?

What all of these ideas have in common is this: they help the leader who wants to bring a staff together to focus on the full range of individual skills that fuel collaboration instead of perpetuating the stereotypes that discourage it.

In the end, of course, it’s an individual decision. Each staffer gets to decide whether to reach beyond his or her comfort zone and build meaningful relationships with colleagues. You cannot decide for them.

But your vote matters a lot.

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Butch Ward is senior faculty and former managing director at The Poynter Institute, where he teaches leadership, editing, reporting and writing. He worked for 27…
Butch Ward

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