The challenge no manager wants: Leading an organization through its grief

Screen shot, WDBJ
Jeff Marks, the General Manager of WDBJ, and anchor Kimberly McBroom (Screen shot, WDBJ)

No manager gets out of bed in the morning expecting to have two of his staffers murdered.

By a former station employee.

On live TV.

But that’s what happened to Jeff Marks, the General Manager of WDBJ in Roanoke, Virginia. In the seconds it took for a man with a gun to fatally shoot a reporter and photographer, Marks’ role changed. Suddenly a man responsible for running his company’s broadcast business was called upon to lead an organization through a nightmare.

It is a job without a ready-made script. There are lots of expert suggestions, but ultimately, the leader has to choose.

In the hours that followed, Marks went on the air to announce the deaths of reporter Alison Parker and photographer Adam Ward. “We cover these things all the time, but this is different…we’ve lost two friends, two co-workers.”

A little later, he went on the air again, this time while reports were coming in that the suspected shooter had been shot and was in critical condition. “I’m not really sure I want him to live or die,” Marks said. “If he dies he took the coward’s way out.”

He continued: “I’m speaking way out of turn,” he said, but “on behalf of WDBJ, I wanted to let that little bit of anger out.”

Shock. Grief. Anger. Normal emotions, expressed honestly.

As the day progressed, WDBJ scheduled staff meetings to help the company deal with the loss of friends and colleagues. And I tried to remember a situation that even approximates what Jeff Marks was dealing with in Roanoke.

I found Zack Stalberg, now retired, living 10 miles south of Santa Fe in New Mexico.

Stalberg was editor of the Philadelphia Daily News in December 1999 when one of his columnists, W. Russell G. Byers, was stabbed to death during a robbery attempt outside a Chestnut Hill convenience store. Byers and his wife were returning home from a Saturday night dinner party when they decided to stop for Haagen-Dazs ice cream. It was on sale: $2.99 a pint. Byers bought four.

Just as Marks said of his staff yesterday, Stalberg’s Daily News had covered stories like Byers’ killing all the time.

Now the staff had to cover their own story.

Because the tabloid Daily News had no Sunday edition, the staff had its first chance to deal with Byers’ killing in the Monday paper. For Stalberg, the night before had been a long one. He had been called to police headquarters and had accompanied Byers’s widow to her home. Now it was Sunday afternoon and, with a paper to produce, a column to write and a $40,000 reward to raise, his exhaustion mixed with the grief of losing a close friend.

“We were working on adrenaline,” he said. “It was crazy but we knew the job we had to do.”

The next morning their work appeared on Philadelphia newsstands, bearing only one story on the front page. Its headline: “A Crime Against Us All.”

While putting out that paper and throughout the next week, Stalberg said, he let his “honest” emotions guide him—at times sounding a lot like Jeff Marks when he expressed his anger.

“I just reacted in a personal way,” Stalberg said. “I made my emotions clear… especially after (the suspect) was caught, I talked about the death penalty for Russell’s killer—even when the family was saying another death won’t help here.”

Byers, Stalberg said, was something of a controversial figure in the newsroom, thanks to his old line wealth and the conservative positions he took on some of the most vexing issues facing cities like Philadelphia. Some staff loved him, others not so much. Those who loved him came to Stalberg early in the week, suggesting a staff meeting so people could express their grief.

“Maybe because we thought of ourselves as an old-time tabloid,” Stalberg said, “the idea of a staff meeting seemed sappy. It just didn’t fit my style. It scared me to death to have to say something meaningful.

“I was wrong.

“I got pressured into doing it, and it was a very healthy thing.”

Despite the staff’s varying opinions about Byers, Stalberg said the whole newsroom showed up for the meeting. And those differences began to dissipate after one Daily News staffer suggested that rather than focus on his death, everyone focus on what Byers accomplished and the journalism values that he stood for.

Current Daily News Editor Michael Days was at that meeting, too. He remembers how the staff responded after the late Leon Taylor paid tribute to Byers.

“The applause,” Days said, “seemed to last forever.”

Stalberg said some at the meeting spoke of Byers’ belief in an activist brand of journalism—one dedicated to getting off the sidelines and making things happen. He said the more people talked about those values, the more the staff began to come together. Stalberg said he looks back on that moment with pride for his staff, that they could put aside differences and focus on Byers’ contribution to the spirit of the Daily News.

In the days ahead, Stalberg spoke, along with others, at the Quaker service held in Byers memory. The staff mounted a plaque on a wall outside the newspaper building, next to the spot where Byers liked to take a smoke.

For a long time afterward, Stalberg said, Byers’ office remained empty.

***

Thankfully, most managers never have to deal with the murder of an employee. I didn’t. Many, however, have to manage their staffs after death — either in the newsroom or in the community —that leaves people in a collective state of grieving.

I remember when Robin Clark, the Inquirer reporter assigned to cover the O.J. Simpson trial, was killed with two friends in a car wreck on an L.A. freeway. And I remember reporters in Gulfport, Mississippi, who told me that after four months of covering Katrina’s aftermath, they couldn’t bear to hear another sad tale without breaking into tears.

Experts like the folks at the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma offer advice to newsroom managers charged with helping their staffs through grief. Dart Center Chair Emeritus Frank Ochberg offers these suggestions in the aftermath of a violent death:

  • Consider whether to bring in an outside journalist to cover the news story.
  • Remember that it's crucial for people closest to the tragedy to feel respected and cared for.
  • Make intelligent choices about offering internal or outside psychological help. Do not bring in counselors or facilitators who don't understand newsroom culture.
  • Search recent events for journalist peers who have gone through similar episodes.
  • If at all possible, deal with the situation face-to-face and personally.
  • Listen to the needs of survivors — including staff, family and friends — before coming up with solutions.

 

To be sure, some of these suggestions will play better in some newsrooms than others. It is at times like these that a manager’s relationship with the staff is especially important.

Having said that, I especially like Ochberg’s last suggestion: Listen.

Hearing Stalberg recount his first reaction to the staff’s request for a meeting reminded me how often I thought I knew what my newsroom needed, only to learn I was wrong. It’s always important to listen, especially in times of great stress.

Second, let me suggest that while focusing on the work might get your staff through some very dark days, it’s not a long-term strategy for healing. I remember those reporters from Gulfport. They were at the ends of their emotional strings. They had been focusing on the work for months, and the pain was just multiplying. Some needed time off; some needed professional help. All needed to deal with it.

Third, the Daily News staff reminds me of the power of embracing values when we are at emotional crossroads. At the heart of our grief in these situations is a question: How can we go on? Talking about what the deceased stood for — and what we stand for — is a way of answering that question and moving forward. The Daily News staff talked about Byers’ belief in activist journalism. Many members of the staff embraced that value. It helped them move on.

Finally, seek help. Whether it’s to help the staff deal with its grief or to help you deal with your own, recognize that this one might be beyond your expertise.

I went to bed last night thinking about the folks in Roanoke. About the reporters and photographers and producers and technicians who lost two friends and colleagues. And about the general manager, who today has to continue leading his organization through this nightmare.

Like I said, there's no ready-made script.

quote-at-the-heart-of-our

Correction: A previous version of this story got the location of Gulfport wrong. It is in Mississippi.

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