July 21, 2017

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 funded by Democracy Fund and is being co-published by Poynter. 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.

Michael Davis is the author The New York Times Best Seller “Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street” and co-executive producer of the feature-length documentary adapted from his book.

Davis has had an array of top editorial leadership and creative roles at digital news sites, magazines, newspapers and broadcasting outlets in New York, Chicago, Baltimore and beyond. During that span, he was a senior editor and Family Page columnist for TV Guide, coordinating, editing and writing major feature and cover projects for America’s largest circulation weekly and for tvguide.com, at the time, the nation’s most-visited entertainment website.

He was a sports broadcasting columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times; assistant managing editor of the Baltimore Evening Sun; executive editor of Sun Magazine, the Baltimore Sun’s historic Sunday magazine; executive editor for Gannett’s Statesman Journal Media, publishers of Oregon’s capital city newspaper and multi-platform digital news service; and executive editor of Journal and Courier Media in Lafayette, Indiana. He spent the 1986-87 academic year at Harvard University as a Nieman Fellow.

Change can be difficult for news organizations. What is one piece of advice you could give leaders of today’s news organizations?

Be mindful that humans are hard-wired to need news. Reporting is as old as campfire story sharing and cave paintings. News delivery systems come and go, but the importance of sharing information remains constant and vital to our survival. And so…embrace change. Revel in it. Run up to the front of the line. If nothing else, it’ll provide wonderful stories to share some day with your grandchildren. Around a fire, maybe.

How do you instill in people the motivation to develop new skills or improve needed skills?

Leading by example is powerfully persuasive. Make certain that you not only understand each digital advancement but are able to master it as a practitioner. When the people you lead see you using a new tool or improving a skill out in the open, it sends the perfect message.

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I was fortunate to have a mid-career fellowship that encouraged participants to shed an old skin and grow a new one. For me, it was the chance to evolve my photographic skills. In the 2000s, I continued to grow as a visual journalist by shooting and editing video, exploiting the iPhone’s ability to capture still and moving images for social media. When it came time to encourage my staff to use their smartphone journalistically, they actually had to catch up to me.

A great leader never rusts.

Put yourself in the shoes of a start-up news organization. What advice would you give to build the needed culture?

Make experimental mistakes. And when you do, share the experience with others. Mistakes too often take a bad rap in our culture. It helps to remember that some of the greatest scientific advances in human history evolved from mistakes at earlier stages. Franklin Roosevelt said. “It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”

Is there one thing you wished you did more of as a leader?

I wished I’d taken group photographs of every staff I led.

In recent years, I made certain to do that on an annual basis, sending out word about the chosen date and inviting staff members to bring in their children. We’d take one group photo with just the staff and another including the children. It is so rewarding down the road to look back on those photos, especially when the little ones grow up. I made certain everyone who wanted a print received one, and I also made sure that no photographer was left out of the shot by having to shoot it. It was always worth hiring someone for that job so that no one was left out.

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We spend way more time with our colleagues than we do with our families. Those universes in our lives matter more than we realize. Ask any retiree.

What is a good way to learn how to be a leader even if you aren’t in a leadership position?

If you sincerely live by the Golden Rule, you’re a leader, not a follower. What you do in life lingers far longer than what you say. Proceed with care. Be responsible. Admit when you are wrong. Give thanks. Spread joy.

Did you ever wish you could push the pause button on life?

I did on a morning in the recent past when a reporter refused an assignment in front of me – and many of her colleagues.

Said reporter was our standout rookie covering statehouse politics, a young woman of high potential and, at the time, a tendency to let unfiltered statements fly out of her pie hole. Let’s call her Angie.

I had turned to her during a discussion about a rising state pol. “We are really overdue to prepare a profile on him. It’ll be an enjoyable assignment.”

That’s when Angie said, “Not me. I’m not the one to do it. I can’t write profiles and nothing can convince me I can.” A hush fell across the newsroom as staff members stared at their shoes or at each other in disbelief.

Angie’s eyes were darting around the room searching for reactions. Given the public nature of her outburst, I should have found a way to communicate to the staff how her behavior was inappropriate and unacceptable, without a public shaming.

Had I my wits about me, I would have turned to her and said, “I would never assign you – or anyone else in the room – a story you couldn’t handle. My job is to make certain that you gain a range of experiences while you work here, and that includes taking on things you’ve never tried or that presented extra challenges. My purpose here is to take you from can’t to can, to help you understand your full capabilities. I owe that to every one of you. And you owe our audience your best work on every story, regardless of who got the ball rolling. Does that make sense to everyone?” My mistake was not realizing her outburst provided a teachable moment for the staff.

Postscript: The profile won a regional award. I treasure the thank-you note from Angie.

Reading that helped Davis as a leader: The best of many good leaderships books this century is “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.” I recommend it to anyone engaged in transformational change, and the reasons are found within the opening pages of Charles Duhigg’s tidy, 286-pages of prose. Once you understand the science behind how habits work, you’ll feel like you can conquer most anything.

Correction: An earlier version of this story bungled a quote from Davis on the importance of work families. It has been corrected.

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