January 29, 2020

With more than 3,000 journalists laid off in 2019, newsrooms in 2020 are reallocating, readjusting and rethinking their workforce. One effect, according to Poynter leadership faculty Cheryl Carpenter, is an increase in “battlefield promotions.” 

A battlefield promotion is a military term that was common during World War I, World War II, and the Korean and Vietnam Wars. In effect, someone inherits power by sidestepping the traditional requirements for advancement, whether it’s because they are extraordinary or their circumstances are extraordinary. Sometimes, the term applied when the person in charge was killed in the field and the next deserving person in the chain of command took their place. 

The situation is thankfully less macabre in the journalism industry, but it’s still tricky to navigate.

“When a manager departs, and the newsroom needs to shrink, that attrition can often mean a reporter or non-supervisor gets tapped on the shoulder and asked to join the leadership group,” said Carpenter, who manages most of Poynter’s leadership-related training. “It’s just-in-time reorganization that can leave everyone scrambling to figure out roles.” 

Gone are many experienced middle managers. In their place are talented rising stars with newfound power, whether they wanted it or not.

For ambitious journalists who envisioned editing or managing in their future, a battlefield promotion could be a lucky jumpstart to their careers. However, Carpenter warns that these newly minted managers will often lean on skills that distinguished them at their former jobs, and those aren’t always what their employees need. 

For journalists who wanted to deepen their own expertise in the craft, a battlefield promotion forces them to pause their vision and try to embrace the one that’s been imposed on them. These managers need new skills, and as Carpenter has observed in workshop after workshop, they often overcompensate by working longer hours. That leads to premature burnout. As leaders, they aren’t just responsible for themselves anymore; their burnout cascades to others. 

None of these scenarios are good for newsrooms coping with a smaller workforce or for the wellbeing of those promoted. 

“We offer a leadership program for new managers twice a year now, and our most recent seminar had a record 44 participants,” Carpenter said. “We see the need for more support for middle managers and recipients of battlefield promotions, so we’ve started building in these scenarios to our teaching. The fundamentals of leadership — self-awareness, journalism excellence, ethics, and team building — are the same. We just teach them through a different lens.”

If you find yourself in a battlefield promotion, Carpenter strongly encourages applying for formal leadership training, like Essential Skills for Rising Newsroom Leaders (there’s one coming up in April/March and one in December this year). 

In the meantime, here are Carpenter’s tips for transitioning into your newfound role as newsroom leader:

  1. Ask your boss or someone above you to be abundantly clear about the nature of your role and specific expectations.
  2. Be patient; you won’t be competent in this new job for months. And don’t think you need to have all the answers. Questions are your most important tools.
  3. You can still be friends with your former peers; you will need some new boundaries though.
  4. Resist being pulled back into your former job. Learn to delegate. 
  5. Leadership means you are responsible for the success of others. What does your team need from you?

Apply for Poynter’s Essential Skills for Rising Newsroom Leaders, offered this year March 29 – April 3 and Dec. 6-11

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Mel Grau is the senior product specialist at The Poynter Institute, focusing on Poynter's training experiences and newsletters. She previously edited The Cohort, Poynter’s biweekly…
Mel Grau

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