October 20, 2021

The Lead is a weekly newsletter that provides resources and connections for student journalists in both college and high school. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every Wednesday morning during the school year.

By Barbara Allen, Poynter

It’s one of the weirdest things that college journalists experience.

One minute you’re equals with your friends in the newsroom — staying up too late, eating terrible pizza, dating each other. Suddenly, by the stroke of a pen or vote of a board, boom. You’re the boss — and your friends are looking at you with an odd mixture of admiration and fear.

You all are wise to be nervous. Scads of friendships have been decimated in college newsrooms because the boundaries of brotherhood and sisterhood and personhood were challenged by the demanding rules and ethics of journalism and management.

As editors and news directors for next year and semester are being chosen, it’s smart to have a plan to handle potential conflicts with your ride-or-dies.

Here are my top five rules for student newsroom editors, leaders and managers. These should give you a good start in wrangling your buddies into productive, respectful coworkers and help keep you from becoming a power-drunk autocrat.

No. 1: Make sure you’ve got it in writing.

This is my No. 1 for a reason. Your employee handbook is your new best friend. You need a policies and procedures book or an instruction manual with job descriptions so that everyone knows the rules and their roles. Lots of these exist — ask your adviser where you can see copies of other papers’ or better yet, coordinate with your adviser to create or update yours each semester.

  • Consider the potential points of conflict or confusion in your newsroom, and address them in writing.
  • Brainstorm the elements you might include (accepting gifts, how to get on payroll, travel policies, ethics, chain of command).
  • Make sure everyone is familiar with it. Have new employees sign a statement that they read it and understand it.

Why this is critical: Having a policy manual means that it’s not just you making up rules arbitrarily — you know them, everyone knows them, and there’s a standard of conduct that everyone adheres to. You can’t truly be the bad guy when you’re merely enforcing the rules.

No. 2: Know what you’re talking about.

If you’re not an expert, how can you expect to lead your newsroom? Here’s what I mean.

  • News editors should stay up on news, sports editors should be ESPN junkies, etc.
  • Not only should you know a lot about what you’re covering, you should be familiar with your policies, job descriptions and responsibilities — along with everyone else’s.
  • Know your newspaper, your business office and your campus. One of the fastest ways to gain people’s respect is by being able to answer their questions authoritatively, whether they want to request travel paperwork or submit a FOIA letter or find a professor.

Why this is critical: There’s no faster way to lose credibility as a leader than to allow your staff to correct your facts or current affairs knowledge. On the other hand, there’s no better way to command respect than by knowing a little bit about everything. And it’s great to be humble. If you don’t know, be honest by telling the staffer you’re not sure but you’ll find out. And then make sure to follow up.

No. 3: Follow the Golden Rule.

Most student journalists have a horror story from their first experiences at their now-beloved student news outlet. Maybe they were ignored when they walked into the newsroom the first time, or their first editor was callous and cold. Ask your staff about the barriers and bad experiences they had as newbies, and consider how you could model better behavior.

  • If you’re going to change someone’s work, talk to them about it, no matter how big or small the change is.
  • Do live edits virtually or IRL, explaining out loud as you go why you’re making the edits.
  • Communicate with your staff regularly, either through Slack or email or text. Make sure they see and hear from you regularly, and not just when you want or need something. Offer praise publicly often. State your appreciation of their hard work. (And remember to follow this important business adage: Praise in public, criticize in private.)

Why this is critical: You have the future in your hands. One of your younger reporters is your future editor-in-chief. Were you a good mentor to them? Did you lead by example and show the paths of righteousness? Or is that young staffer going to grow up to be the editor-in-chief equivalent of a serial killer?

No. 4: Be impartial.

Apply the rules of journalism to leadership as well as journalism.

  • Treat people fairly.
  • Don’t promote your friends for the cash or the cred. Put the right people in the right jobs.
  • Follow the chain of command.
  • If you can’t be objective, consult with your adviser or delegate to someone who can.

Why this is critical: Creating a newsroom where people are valued, respected and protected will yield a better working environment, and in turn, better products for your customer.

No. 5: Use your adviser … in the right way.

Your adviser’s job is to help you produce the best news product possible while facilitating your growth as a professional. They aren’t a crutch for avoiding conflict or being ignorant.

  • Don’t treat your adviser as Google. Don’t constantly ask them for information you could easily find out on your own.
  • Go to them with genuine issues and problems that you want feedback and advice on.
  • Don’t ask your adviser to handle conflict for you. Do keep them up to speed on what’s going on in your newsroom so that if there’s an eruption, they’re moderately informed.

Why this is critical: You are learning not just journalism skills but management and leadership skills. Some of you will go on to be leaders in newsrooms far and wide, and it’s best to practice now. Just because there’s a seasoned veteran in your mix doesn’t mean you should rely solely on them. You’ve got this, and the further in the year you get, the more you’ll have it in the bag.

Especially if you follow Rule No. 1.

Barbara Allen is the director of college programming for Poynter and a former student media adviser at Oklahoma State University. She writes Alma Matters, a weekly newsletter for journalism educators.

Editing and managing

This is part of The Lead’s series on editing and managing. Other recent issues:

One story worth reading

ESPN reporter Adam Schefter found himself part of the story last week when an email surfaced as part of an NFL investigation. Schefter sent an unpublished story to a Washington Football Team executive with the note “Please let me know if you see anything that should be added, changed, tweaked. Thanks, Mr. Editor, for that and the trust. Plan to file this to espn about 6 am.”

The revelation immediately raised red flags for journalists across the industry. “To share an unpublished story with a source before it runs — and to solicit suggestions on that story — is way over the line journalistically. It cannot happen,” Tom Jones writes for Poynter.

Schefter put out a statement that said sending the full story was “a step too far,” but said “ it’s common practice to verify facts of a story with sources before you publish in order to be as accurate as possible.” This is true, but verifying facts is not the same as sending an entire story for review before publication. This might be acceptable in rare cases with particularly vulnerable sources, but an NFL executive does not fit that bill.

Opportunities and trainings

💌 Last week’s newsletter: The fact-checking process can help you sleep better at night”: Tips from PolitiFact on bulletproofing your stories

📣 I want to hear from you. What would you like to see in the newsletter? Have a cool project to share? Email thelead@poynter.org.

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Taylor Blatchford is a journalist at The Seattle Times who independently writes The Lead, a newsletter for student journalists. She can be reached at blatchfordtaylor@gmail.com…
Taylor Blatchford

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