Editors, don’t waste time reminiscing on the glory days
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. 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.
Gregory Favre was born in New Orleans and grew up working on the family newspaper in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. He was assistant sports editor at the Atlanta Journal; managing editor at the Dayton Daily News; editor of the Palm Beach Post; editor of the Daytona Beach News-Journal; news director at WPLG-TV in Miami; editor of the Corpus Christi Caller-Times; managing editor of the Chicago Daily News and the Chicago Sun-Times; he served as executive editor of The Sacramento Bee from 1984 to 1998.
He was appointed vice president of news of The McClatchy Company in 1989 and retired from there in 2001 before becoming a distinguished fellow of journalism values at Poynter Journalism Institute until 2013. In 2015, he was the founding editor of CALmatters, a non-profit journalism venture headquartered in Sacramento. He now is editor of PolitiFact for Cap Public Radio in Sacramento and serves on the CALmatters board and on the board of a group of family-owned newspapers in Texas.
He is a past president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors and past president of the California Society of Newspaper Editors. In 1992, the California Press Association named him News Executive of the Year.
Change can be difficult for news organizations. What is one piece of advice you could give leaders of today’s news organizations?
Change is never easy, and that is especially true for journalists. And that is strange because our palette each day is filled with the elements of change. But we have to recognize, as Commander Spock once said, “Change is the essential process of existence.”
Related Training: Poynter Leadership Academy
I would tell leaders to drive the process of change and acceptance of the changes, but remember that the resistance you will encounter is not irrational because most of us fear change; be honest and realistic and inspire those you lead by making their work meaningful and get some early victories so they can celebrate their successes; model the behavior that you are asking of others; and maintain a sense of optimism, but deal in realism.
Tell them to examine what you are doing, set aside that which is not essential, distinguish what is important and what isn’t, tell everyone what you are doing and why you are doing it, tear down those silos; don’t hesitate to respond to the dreams of those you lead, and don’t forget the importance of diversity; find the voices of those who are different and teach others to understand that we become better when we share ideas and opinions and our different life experiences.
You don’t have the luxury to reminisce about the glory days of yesterday or wade in the woes of today. If you do, you will miss the opportunity to create tomorrow.
I will finish this answer with a quote from Daniel Goleman, author of the trailblazing book, "Emotional Intelligence":
“No matter what a leader’s strategy or vision may be, it can only be achieved through the combined efforts of everyone involved—never by the leader alone. The leader needs to communicate, inspire, listen, dialogue, motivate. And all those require emotional intelligence.”
If you have to deliver bad news to your team, how would you suggest doing it?
If you have bad news to deliver, don’t put it off, as too many leaders do. And try your best to gather everyone in the meeting so that all can hear your message at the same time. If this is not possible, seek out the remaining colleagues and tell them before the word spreads. Always zero in on the main issue and don’t ramble.
Know what you want to accomplish before you start the process. Craft your message so that it is clear and with the hope that you will achieve the best and most desired results that can come from bad news. Listen carefully to the questions and be prepared to answer them with openness and honesty. If there is something that you cannot disclose for whatever reason, explain that to the group.
I have always tried to meet with department heads shortly before the full meeting so that they will be informed and can react with more clarity and empathy with the people who answer to them. And while I know it is not always possible, do your best not to deliver bad news on a Friday afternoon, which allows people to stew on the negatives throughout the weekend without any chance for meaningful conversation.
In times a great change, your relationship with your boss can be more important than ever. What one piece of advice would you give to managing your boss?
When hiring, what are three attributes that would be at the top of your list?
Integrity and other values that you would never surrender; I also try to judge as best as I can what’s in your head and your heart, your passion, compassion, sense of humor, judgment, vision, and intellectual courage; and, obviously, talent. (I also would refer you to the interview I did with 21 hiring editors asking them how they hired and what they looked for in candidates.)
Tell me about a time you failed as a leader. What did you learn from it?
There are a number of failures in my past. And I don’t think any leader can succeed without some failures, not if you are really seeking to get better and to raise your standards and to be innovative. But I guess the one that hurt the most was the failure to rescue the Chicago Daily News. I was the last managing editor.
I don’t think I ever really knew how much the gift of being a journalist meant to me until there came a night when a friend and I walked through the newsroom and turned off the lights in the Daily News newsroom for the final time. A great newspaper, whose staff read like a Hall of Fame lineup in Chicago journalism, was laid to rest.
Our dreams for the Daily News were left behind in that empty newsroom. But the darkness of night was soon replaced by the sunrise of morning and we all found jobs to go to and new newspapers to care for and new challenges to tackle. And out of that failure, a wonderful lesson was re-enforced.
I knew then, as I had never known as clearly before, what it meant to love and to care for what we do as journalists.
We all learn from watching others. Give me a leadership lesson you learned from observing someone else?
I have had many wonderful mentors, men and women I worked for and who worked for and with me.
The short and quick answer would be: Among the keys legs of the leadership stool are humility, nothing is too small to make right, be true to the core values that you would never give up, build a bridge across our differences, bring passion and compassion to the job, and find time to have fun.
A longer and more complete answer would include:
Be a genuine and active listener; don’t be afraid to cut short what isn’t working; confront your own fears and the fears of others; occasionally escape from your comfort zone.
Invest in the work of others with meaning; connect them with a purpose and build a structure of fairness.
Be approachable and accessible and confident, but always allow differences of opinion without being defensive.
Foster a spirit of inclusion, constantly striving to make your newsroom a tolerant, diverse and creative place.
Acknowledge that because of continuing change there will be scarce room for the ordinary in the future.
Continually remind yourself, and your colleagues, about the need for respect and civility, about collaboration and communication, and about valuing creativity.
Remember to give the gifts of a smile and laughter, the gifts of action and openness, and, when needed, the gift of forgiveness.
Is there one thing you wished you did more of as a leader?
I wish I had been able to find the right balance in life between my work and my home life. I missed too many of my children’s activities, too many family dinners, too many date nights with my wife. I have tried to make up for it with my grandchildren in my semi-retirement days. As my wife, a clinical psychologist, said when she led a discussion at an ASNE convention titled “I married the paper,” "Gregory gave at the office.” She was correct. We give so much emotionally in helping others and we give so much of our energy and attention in feeding the daily beast, or now the minute-by-minute beast. Find the right work-life balance.
Readings that helped Gregory as a leader: “Good to Great” by James Collins. “Start with Why” by Simon Sinek. “Team of Rivals” by Doris Kearns Goodwin. “First Break All the Rules” by Marcus Buckingham. “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell. “On Leadership” by John Gardner. “The Practice of Adaptive Leadership" by Marty Linsky and Ronald Heifetz, “Emotional Intelligence” by Daniel Goleman and I just finished “Hillbilly Elegy” by J.D. Vance, which has a lot of lessons in it, especially when zeroing in on interactions in an extended family.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece tagged Gregory Favre as the author. Marty Kaiser interviewed Favre, and Kaiser is the author. It has been corrected. We apologize for the error.