December 7, 2015
Acknowledge that your newsroom has lost people. Don't pretend it didn't happen. (Photo by Deposit Photos)

Acknowledge that your newsroom has lost people. Don’t pretend it didn’t happen. (Photo by Deposit Photos)

The note from management hit the bulletin board on a Friday afternoon. It was October 1981. The note said that in two weeks, 30 members of the newsroom staff of 150 would be laid off—a 20 percent reduction. Those interested in voluntarily accepting their severance were encouraged to approach newsroom management.

We hoped for a lot of volunteers.

In the managing editor’s office I had inhabited for just eight months, I spent the next two weeks sitting with staffers, trying to answer their questions:

“Is this the beginning of the end?” (We certainly hope not. But there are no guarantees. Things are tough for evening papers.)

“How will the layoffs be determined?” (If you’re a union member, by seniority within job classifications.)

“Should I take the severance?” (That’s a very personal decision. Do you and your family have a plan?)

In the end, 15 volunteers came forward; 15 staffers were laid off.

It was my first newsroom downsizing—and not my last.


The season of giving is upon us — a season that media companies count on for a huge percentage of their annual revenue budgets.

Unfortunately these days, the season of giving — like the rest of the year — just doesn’t give enough to satisfy those companies and, in most cases, the shareholders they represent. So it is that we annually observe another fourth-quarter season:

The season of downsizing.

And what a season it’s been.

Across America, newsrooms are dealing with the impact of buyouts, layoffs, merged staffs, bankruptcy filings and anticipated company sales. Details differ from newsroom to newsroom, but every situation has one thing in common:

People are afraid. And left unaddressed, fear can become a newsroom’s defining — and debilitating —characteristic.

Some of the fear involves people who will be leaving shortly. The laid-off need to find a job. Their worry increases with the number of people who depend on their paychecks.

Some of the bought-out worry, too, despite the check, the medical coverage and sometimes a new job. They fret about what lies ahead; many wish they were running toward their future instead of fleeing the relentless uncertainty.

Then there are the staffers who remain: They worry about how their jobs will change, what they’ll be expected to learn (and whether they can do it), and how long it will be before they, too, might be told to move on.

And managers? The people the newsroom is depending upon to lead it through these difficult times are fearful, too.

Not only do they have all of the same personal concerns as their staffs — changes in responsibility, new skills to learn, a future that makes no promises about job security.

Managers also worry about something else: How to help the staff move forward, refocus and produce good work in the aftermath of a downsizing — an aftermath that too often asks everyone to do even more, some of it requiring new skills with less.

Managers fear their staffs will greet their strategies and assurances with skepticism. And why wouldn’t they be skeptical? Newsroom staffs have endured more “last layoffs” and “right-sizings” than we’ve had farewell tours by The Who.

This is one tough leadership challenge. Where to begin?

Many managers suggest you lead a newsroom through the aftermath of a downsizing by “focusing on the work.” That’s a good start. Journalists care about the work, and many find it a welcomed distraction from all of the business talk.

But focusing on the work without addressing the fear ignores this reality:

Effective management takes place at the intersection where work meets life, where the staff’s work meets their lives.

It’s the most important intersection in town.

It’s the intersection where people make crucial decisions about things like commitment, perseverance, buy-in. It’s the intersection where they decide whether to ask the subject of the interview one last (and most difficult) question; whether to work an extra hour and miss another family dinner; whether to chuck it all and seek security in another business.

It’s the intersection where you are reminded that these workers whose journalism you are managing are people. And people are complicated.

Just like you.

The intersection where work meets life is where managers need to set up shop, I would argue, permanently, if you want to lead your staff through difficult times. Because it’s at this intersection that you can make it clear that you care about both the work and the people who do it.

Let’s be clear about two things: Even the best leaders cannot eliminate fear (the future is scary, period.) What they can do is help their staffs believe in the value of their work, and believe that their newsroom — even a smaller one — shares a commitment to that work.

(Of course, you have to mean it.)

Second, despite your hard work, you cannot expect anyone to stay with your organization indefinitely. You probably won’t stay indefinitely, either. You can, however, aspire to building a staff that, despite all of the uncertainty, produces journalism that serves its community — a community that desperately needs it.

If you’re up for this challenge, here are five ideas to keep in mind.

1. Check your own commitment. Managing a newsroom through these times requires leadership that is authentic. That requires you to believe—and to be able to tell others why you believe—that you and the staff are capable of achieving the newsroom’s ambitions. Ask yourself: What do you, personally, want to achieve? Do you believe, even after the downsizing, that you can still achieve those goals? Can you explain why? If you mean it—and can explain it—you can be authentic.

(And give your staff a gift: help them wrestle with these same questions, either in the privacy of your office or with groups of colleagues.)

2. Check your language. Staff can smell an impostor a mile away—after all, we pay them to be skeptical. So avoid assertions like: “We will look back on this downsizing as the best thing that ever happened to us, because it forced us to make tough decisions that will make us better than ever.” Pardon me if I dispute the idea that saying goodbye to a boatload of my colleagues will make us better than ever. Now I’m scared and angry. How about acknowledging how sad we are that people who contributed to this organization are gone? And that we hope our commitment to serving the community in the future honors their work?

3. Remember what you can control. Managers, too, often forget that you only control two things: The assignments you give and the way you choose to spend your time. That’s it. You can’t control how staff will do the work. You can only create an environment in which staff can choose to do good work. Which brings us to ideas 4 and 5…

4. Remember what really motivates us. Researchers like Kenneth Thomas and Daniel Pink remind us that extrinsic motivators like money and promotions are important, but not nearly as powerful as intrinsic motivators like Competence (We like to do work we’re really good at); Choice (We like to believe we own the work we’re doing); Meaning (We want to do work that has an impact), and Growth (We seek work that teaches us something.) How can you awaken those motivators in your staff? How can you assign your staff stories and other work that appeals to their competence, gives them a sense of ownership, makes a difference, and/or makes them smarter? You might begin by learning—for each member of your staff—what kind of work triggers those motivators.

5. Talk with people—more than ever. I’ve told this story many times: At the end of my first day as Managing Editor at The News American back in 1981, my boss came to my desk at day’s end and asked how my first day went. “Terrible,” I said. “I didn’t get anything done.” What did you do all day? he asked. “Just talked with people,” I said. “That’s why I gave you this job!” he shouted at me. I never understood how right he was until those days, eight months later, when staffer after staffer trooped into my office to talk about the downsizing, their confusion, the paper’s future, their fear.

These are days when it helps to remember what makes a great reporter so effective. Ask good questions. Be patient. Show sincere interest in the people and their issues. Listen. Really listen.

Your staff has gone through a lot in recent years. So have you. Make a date to meet your staff at the intersection of work and life, and help each other get through this. The work—and the people who do the work—are too important not to get this right.

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Butch Ward is senior faculty and former managing director at The Poynter Institute, where he teaches leadership, editing, reporting and writing. He worked for 27…
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