This is part of a series of Q and As with leaders at news organizations. I asked leaders to think about the challenges they face in their news organizations and to share guidance and advice. Whether your news organization is small or large, a start-up or more than 100 years old, the issues are often the same. This series on managing change in a newsroom was supported by Democracy Fund, which is co-publishing these articles. Subscribe to Democracy Fund’s Local Fix newsletter for more of the best writing, ideas, and tips for those working in local news in your inbox every Friday.
Sandy Banisky is the Abell Professor in Baltimore Journalism at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism, the University of Maryland, College Park. Previously, at The Baltimore Sun, she was deputy managing editor for news. In that job, she supervised the metro, foreign, national, sports and business desks and developed front-page stories from every department of the paper. She also served as The Sun’s deputy managing editor for metro. In 2002, the metro staff’s coverage of the Washington Beltway snipers was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. She earlier was national editor.
As a reporter, Banisky covered City Hall and the State House as well as abortion issues, and she served as national correspondent.
Her Baltimore class’ reporting on the problems poorer citizens face in finding quality health care – a collaboration with other classes and with Kaiser Health News – was named 2016 national collegiate winner of a Society of Professional Journalists Mark of Excellence Award. A graduate of Boston University, Banisky holds a law degree from the University of Baltimore and was admitted to the Maryland bar.
We all learn from watching others. Give me a leadership lesson you learned from observing someone else?
The best role model I had was a metro editor who found value in everyone on the staff.
He wasn’t a goody two-shoes. He didn’t think everyone was a star, and he certainly appreciated the hardest working people the most. I’m sure he had favorites. But when it came to making his team effective, he put aside office politics and personal issues.
That guy I found loud and annoying? This metro editor reminded me he was great on breaking news. The woman I disapproved of because she didn’t stay late? Deep contacts in the legal system. The old gent who complained perpetually that things weren’t as good as they used to be? A terrific resource we relied on to add perspective to a range of local stories.
And of course, he let those people know – often in just a phrase or two in office conversations – how he relied on them for their special skills.
He made everyone believe they were on the team. And that team was the strongest one I ever worked on.
If you have to deliver bad news to your team, how would you suggest doing it?
Directly. Calmly. Tell as much as you can. No excuses. And never say, “We’ll do more with less.” That’s never going to be true, and everyone knows it.
When someone is given a role supervising people for the first time, what is one piece of advice you would provide?
You know more than you think about being a leader. Trust that. Oh, and don’t be a jerk.
Is there one thing you wished you did more of as a leader?
I wish I’d confronted the (very) few men who worked for me and who seemed to think that the way to deal with me was to condescend – usually while wearing the stiff little smile people wear when correcting someone else’s misguided child. I always tried to ignore their condescension and continue making my case. (You, sports guy who tried to explain to me what baseball fans want to read about: I can name the 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates starting line-up. You can’t.)
My approach actually was just avoiding the problem. And it wasn’t effective. And in each case that I recall, my failure to assert myself meant we missed a story. I wish now that sometime later, maybe the next day or the next week, I had met with them privately to make myself clear and to tell them that I expected things would go differently next time.
What is a good way to learn how to be a leader even if you aren’t in a leadership position?
Study a good leader – or leaders. Try to tease out what it is they do that works for the team. What is that you admire, that you respond to? Is it that they stay very visible? Is it their enthusiasm? Quiet confidence? Ethics? Frankness? What is it they do that motivates people? Why do you enjoy working for these people? Figure that out and you’ve learned a lot about leadership.
What is one mistake you made as a leader where you learned from your mistake?
I wasted time being tentative, as if I had to let people get comfortable with the fact that I was the editor. People are looking to the editor to be in charge. Understanding that freed me up.
Reading that helped Sandy as a leader: “All the President’s Men.”
It wasn’t written as a book on leadership. But reread the book from an editor’s point of view: Two young reporters were making phone calls and knocking on doors and piecing together a story that challenged the White House. Katharine Graham and Ben Bradlee and a team of editors had to decide how to proceed. We know how the story ends, so in retrospect, it all looks so exciting.
But think about the stakes. Think about what tough calls those editors made. Look at what they weighed as they made their decisions. Consider their sleepless nights as they wondered if they’d done the right thing, knowing they’d have to go back into the office and face more problems. That team wasn’t perfect, but the book lays out some great examples of leadership.