Favre on Favre
It was three years ago and it was the first week after I had left the Sacramento Bee to become full-time vice president for news of the McClatchy Company.
For more than 40 years, 50 if you count those kid days on the family weekly, a newsroom had been my noisy neighborhood. And now I sat enveloped in the near silence of the corporate suite.
That's when the phone rang.
"Are you okay?" my daughter, Monica, asked as soon as I answered.
"Why shouldn't I be?"
"Didn't you hear about the big story, the shooting at the Capitol in Washington?" "Yes."
"And you are okay? "
It took a few minutes to convince her that I was doing fine, no withdrawal pains, no panic attacks.
"That's not what I miss, " I said. "The stories come and go and there will be another one tomorrow. What I miss is the interaction with the people in the newsroom, the conversations, the smart aleck remarks, the good feelings of knowing that we share something special."
That brief exchange goes to the heart of where newsroom leadership should start: with people. Everything else in those 9,000-plus books on leadership I am told you can find on Amazon.com, comes second or third or fiftieth.
And now that I look back on more than four decades of journalism from another quiet location, I know that is one of the things I got right. That is one of the things I wouldn't change.
I think there were others:
Setting clear goals and articulating a vision for the newspaper and, with lots of input, charting a course to achieve our expectations. Spelling out the values and the ethics that would guide us, although I never did them in writing.
Believing in talent and giving those with it chance after chance to show it. Investing more time in the really good ones than in others. Ignoring some of the rules to help all staffers when personal problems overwhelmed them, even though some would kick me in the rear later. Knowing that to have a writer's newspaper, you need to have good editors.
Talking to every candidate for every job opening, clerk to managing editor, and insisting that there must be at least one qualified minority in the final three before a hire can be made. Interviewing everyone, as someone once said, as if I were interviewing for a friend.
Being the last read on every major story, every project, every sensitive piece, on every legal question, even if by long distance. Signing off on page one design and story selection almost every day. (Right and wrong.) Getting out of that glass office and walking through the room as often as possible, or going out into the community, or accepting speaking invitations, or holding public forums, or participating in telephone nights for readers to call in, or talking to the customer service people or the telemarketers in our building. Inviting an outsider into our daily news meetings, as long as they would stay for five-day hitches.
Living within our budget, so that our monetary voice would be credible, at the same time fighting to make sure there was enough there to do what we needed to do to get better. Participating in the newspaper-wide strategic planning and making sure that news had several seats at the table. Making sure that newsroom MBOs were heavily weighted toward content and management of people. Reinforcing the church and state relationship, while building trust within it.
Having less tolerance for the mistakes of those who rose in the ranks, with the least amount reserved for my own. Always remembering to write praise and speak criticism. Always recognizing and rewarding good work (psychic hugs are the elixir of newsrooms).
Knowing that we would harm some, but keeping that pain to a minimum and never reaching the point where I enjoyed hurting others. Involving others in ethical decisions and then being able to justify what we did when that first reader called. Answering my own phone and listening to anything anyone had to say, as long as they bought the paper. Listing my home number in the phone book.
Never being so swayed by the siren song of technology that I lost sight of the fact that it was the quality of the content that counted, the power of our words and images that made the difference, not the tools we used. Not allowing editors to edit without some face-to-face time and conversation. Admitting my mistakes, and I made many, and allowing others to make them so they would stretch themselves.
Grooming my successors and others with the same ambitions and helping them find jobs if the time came for them to move on. Learning what people wanted to achieve in their lives and then, with them, mapping out a plan that would get them there, if they worked at it. Being an active listener and giving more of myself than I ever dreamed I would give to someone other than my immediate family.
Caring for those who worked with me and nuturing them as best I could, but also setting standards of quality that everyone had to meet. Never forgetting that the institution was more important than any one individual or any collection of individuals and none of us had the right to damage it. Making diversity a priority and making it work so that the paper presented a richer, more complete reflection of the community.
Never losing the passion I brought with me from the beginning, or the compassion I hoped I gained along the way. Loving what I did and those who do it. Being honest and consistent and separating the personal from the professional.
There are others, but there is also a flip side. Those things I did wrong, and I am sure there are many who would gladly add to this list:
Losing my temper too quickly, although aging helped moderate it some. Punching a hole in the wall in the sports department in Atlanta. Intimidating too many, which meant only the strongest would disagree. Too often relying on instinct and intuition and not contemplative behavior.
Never learning how to say no and overbooking myself so that I didn't have enough to go around (at a management workshop I once flunked the course on calendar keeping). Taking every mistake too personally, forgetting that our work at best is imperfect. Not communicating enough with readers about what we did and why we did it.
Raising my voice and using words my father would never have allowed, even though those outbursts were normally and thankfully of short durations. Mumbling instead of speaking more clearly (my late mother-in-law said I got ahead because no one could understand me and they were afraid to ask what I said and just did what they thought was right. I think she was kidding). At times, letting disagreements fester instead of dealing with them immediately.
Not embracing, and therefore not fully understanding, the emerging technology and what it could do to help. Not delegating enough and, therefore, encouraging the awful practice of mid-level managers who would say, "Gregory says," or "Gregory wants it done this way," or "Gregory would never allow that."
Taking too long to realize that becoming a manager at 21 didn't allow me enough time to fully understand just how those who work for you view editors and how they read your moods, your body language, your words, your lack of attention. Sometimes dwelling too much on the negative and not enough on the positive. Forgetting that humor often hurts and that saying no too quickly can discourage innovation and fresh ideas.
There are others, but the granddaddy of all my mistakes was not finding the right balance in my life, missing more than I should have of our children's blossoming years, too many recitals, parent-teacher conferences, Little League games, school shows, homework discussions, lunches and dinners and goodnight kisses, and so many other things. And leaving my wife, Bea, with much more than half of parental duties.
In l995, the day after I spoke at the ASNE convention about "The Passion at the Center of Our Lives," meaning journalism, Bea moderated a program at the convention called, "I Married the Paper." She asked a question: "What does it profit a man to educate the whole world and not have time to teach his Little League son to bat?" The best place to reach me, she said, "was at the paper when he is at his best. When Gregory gets home at 8 or later, he is drained. He has already given at the office."
Then she posed some questions we all need to ask: Is it only the workaholics who are going to be promoted at the papers? Are the publishers and owners partially to blame when they move editors to other papers, apparently without regard to the impact on children? Is it different when the editor is a woman? Are younger couples doing things differently?
All good questions. And, yes, I think younger editors are doing things differently. Are they better or smarter? Would I do it any differently if I were 21 again? What side would win the internal conflict? Sadly, I suspect I know. But, obviously, the culture has changed and editors have changed with it. In the 50s, 60s and 70s, most fathers were not as involved in raising children as they are today. And much to our shame, there were mightily few women editors.
Asking for a paternity leave would have been greeted with derision. Yet, I approved several in recent years. Job sharing wasn't even in the vocabulary. Yet, I okayed several such arrangements. Crafting jobs in a way that would allow men and women to put family first wasn't an option. Yet, I've done that numerous times.
Stories come and go, I told my daughter, and do we ever believe them to be perfect? The same for front pages, and story and picture selection. So why didn't I let go, as some of my closest friends and colleagues have done? Amidst all of the other duties an editor faces, this was the most fun. The most exhilarating. And even editors should get to enjoy their jobs.
I wish I had an answer as to how you find the right balance, a formula that would work wonders. I don't. Each of us has to look inside ourselves and make those choices. As an editor, I respected and encouraged, and even envied, those who made a choice different than mine.
Recently, there were two stories in The New York Times that caught my eye. One was in the A section, the annual collection of excerpts from college graduation addresses, the other in sports, about Vince Carter going to receive his diploma on the day of an NBA playoff game.
The historian Doris Kearns Goodwin talked of Lyndon Johnson. A month before he died, she said, he spoke with sadness in his voice. He was being forgotten, he believed, and he was beginning to think that his quest for immortality had been in vain. Perhaps, he said, he would have been better off focusing more time and attention on his family.
Vince Carter made it clear that what he achieved at North Carolina was as important as what he did in pro basketball, and more so for his family. As one writer said, Carter's personal life took priority over his public life. And all good leaders must know that life shouldn't begin and end at the office.
"It's the people that really matter," I told my daughter. But what we all need to remember is that those who matter most are your family.
And a hug from our granddaughter, Melitta, adds an exclamation point to that fact.