September 20, 2018

No matter the size of our shrinking newsrooms, many news organizations are part of a larger conglomerate that sets standards and practices — including performance reviews. Managers in these organizations won’t have the ability to shapeshift the entire process, but there are ways every manager can get the most out of annual reviews.

Kelsey Proud, the managing editor for digital at WAMU in Washington, D.C., knows this well. Her station is licensed to a university, meaning the staff are all technically employees of the university and follow the same performance review structure. That’s not stopping her from taking the time to make it better.

After fully filling out the required form, she takes the time to talk with her direct reports around three themes:

  • Reflecting on how things have gone this past year.

  • Articulating how things should go in the next year.

  • Looking toward the future with a focus on what they are working toward three to five years out.

“It helps me to know how I can help them more immediately, but the real key part is connecting the where we want to go in the next year and the three- to five-year discussion,” Proud said.

She said she looks for ways she can elevate them throughout the year, such as having them lead a project or give a presentation.

“It helps them, I hope, feel more consistently fulfilled with what they are doing and how we are working together,” she said. “It’s more sustained support throughout the year.”

These conversations lead up to a formal goal-setting process, which is also part of the university’s performance review structure. After talking it out in a one-hour meeting, Proud creates a shared document with notes from the conversation. This allows both her and the employee to think about it more and add notes to the document before they formalize the goals.

Kristina Budelis, the cofounder and president of KitSplit, said her organization recently reworked its review process and now asks employees similar questions about goals. It also asks employees to list their three to five biggest achievements over the past year.

“People enjoy talking about this,” Budelis said. “And it gives you a sense of what they’re proud of and what they think is important. Sometimes that differs from what you think is important, which is really helpful to know.”

Some employees may need a bit of coaching when it comes to listing their accomplishments. This may involve reviewing what they think are achievements or how they phrase them. Kari Cobham, the senior manager of digital content at Cox Media Group, provides this example: “Set up instant articles” is very different from “Led collaboration between editorial and product for the launch, rollout and adoption of instant articles across six verticals.”

“We don’t always sell ourselves the way we should,” Cobham said.

Budelis also carves out time to get feedback about herself as a manager and what she can do to better support them.

“I think the best reviews feel like a two-way street,” she said.

If you do have the opportunity to rethink your performance reviews, 360 degree reviews are an option. Stephanie Backus, the national desk editorial manager for Hearst Television, said her newsroom bases reviews on two questions: What have you done well in the last year? What development areas do you have for the next year? Each employee answers these questions, along with the same reflections from their colleagues and managers.

“We compile the feedback into a review. There are some negative aspects of employees’ performance, but it really helps to frame them as areas of development so they know that the plan is for them to work on it,” Backus said.

It’s common to be anxious about getting feedback, so Proud said she makes sure to tell her direct reports what to expect before the conversation.

“There should never be a surprise in a performance review. Ever,” she said. “It’s a constant process of making sure that you’re checking in with your direct reports and you’re constantly asking how things are going. ‘Are you feeling challenged? Am I helping you? Is there any more direct feedback that you’d like from me?’ Make sure that’s a sustained effort, not just during the performance review time.”

Annual reviews are the most common time for employees to ask for a promotion, title change or raise, but, Proud said, if you’re checking in regularly, you should be able to anticipate these conversations.

“I prep by looking at the evaluation the employee has filled out about their own work, and I can typically tell whether someone might be poised to have that conversation,” she said.

And if she thinks it might be coming, and she has the ability to make some changes, she sets them up to ask.

“Sometimes I’ll be proactive and have that conversation with them, asking, ‘We all think your work is really excellent. What can we do to make sure you feel fulfilled staying here?’” she said.

And in cases where managers need to discuss points of improvement — we can’t all be Beyonce — Proud said performance reviews are a great touchpoint to follow up and ask them to reflect on how they are progressing toward their goals.

“It’s an important moment to reaffirm progress toward something you talked about previously with that person. Like, ‘I know we talked about X, and I really appreciate the progress you’ve made, and I’d like to see more of it in the coming year,’” she said.

If a direct report is learning a new skill or changing his or her job duties, annual reviews are also an opportunity to provide clarity and make sure he or she knows what’s expected.

Links Worth Clicking

  • The transcript of Sisi Wei’s 2017 thought-provoking talk on the downfalls of the journalism hiring culture where recommendations are basically a requirement.

  • 101 questions to ask in one-on-one meetings.

  • “If fathers did the same kind of work at home that mothers have always done, women’s careers could flourish in ways we haven’t yet imagined.”

  • How the New York Times removing bylines from the homepage shows us that communicating the reasoning behind decisions is important.

  • Source is hosting a two-day conference to investigate how power operates in our newsrooms, in our relationships with communities, and in the algorithms and technologies that are reshaping our work.

  • 10 DIY decor ideas to give your basic cubicle actual personality.


Do Your Homework

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a Taylor Swift concert (it was awesome). There was a moment where she was having technical issues, and she asked the crowd, “Is it OK if I just keep talking while we figure this out?” The captivated crowd yelled back affirmatively. The weight of the moment — a woman asking for permission to talk and being told yes — struck me in two ways: 1. Women have the space to talk, and we don’t have to ask permission. 2. We shouldn’t dismiss the voices girls and women want to hear. Your voice matters, so this week, I challenge you to speak up one time where it’s easier to stay silent.


Focus On The Work

Created by BuzzFeed’s Alex Laughlin, Wake Me Up Gently is an alarm clock skill for your Amazon Echo device that helps you start your day in a more mindful way. Spend five minutes each morning stretching, practicing gratitude, listening to calming music and hearing inspirational readings.

“I built Wake Me Up Gently because it was something I needed in my life,” Laughlin said. “I always try to have more mindful mornings, from exercise to meditation to journaling, but as hard as I’d try, my mornings would always eventually get away from me and I’d be back at square one: Hitting snooze and feeling like garbage. As an audio producer, I spend my days thinking about how we can use this extremely creepy emerging technology in a way that would improve people’s lives, so when the idea struck, I knew I needed to build it.”

(BuzzFeed is dissolving its podcast team next month, so feel free to reach out to Alex if you’re hiring or looking for freelance or consulting audio work.)


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