Energise the newsroom

If content really is king, then getting the best out of the people who produce it is critically important. Alan Geere has seen the inside of many newsrooms in a long career; here are his thirteen tips for lifting the performance of your team of journalists.

By Alan Geere

“The staffing will vary depending on the kind of media company, but one key role is essential: someone in charge.”

Fine words from a former New York Times editor. Sadly, too often in today’s enlightened times, the concept of having someone in charge is frowned upon. Empowerment and enablement are the names of the game with everyone their own ‘brand-manager’ or ‘individual digital publisher’ but the fact is that there still needs to be someone who is the driving force at one end of the operation and responsible at the other.

The concepts of management and leadership have become confused. Management is defined largely as a ‘process’ while leadership is an ‘action’. Today’s newsroom leader has to encompass skills, attitudes, positions and knowledge that are sometimes new, often baffling and always challenging. And for everyone working in the fast-paced media world, there are more ‘noises off’ than ever from industry whizzes telling everyone how to do their job to instant experts taking to social media to tell you where it’s all going wrong.

Never before has there been such a need for strong leaders who know how to energise their newsroom. Here are some ideas to pull that off:

1. Where are we going…?

Have a clear vision of where you are going and how you plan to get there. Communicate this by whatever means works best for you (meeting, newsletter, emails, awayday etc) and set some clear measurable outcomes. I don’t see anything wrong with productivity targets – stories written, social media updates posted, pages designed – which are a good place to start, but have gained a bad name over the years being viewed more of a stick than a carrot.

2. Are we there yet…?

Managed in the correct way, with a blend of robustness, professionalism and humour, the productivity targets outlined above can help determine levels of achievement both individual and collective. Everybody likes to know where they stand, so there’s nothing wrong with keeping them on their toes!

3. Sharing means caring

Share whatever you can about what’s happening in the business. There isn’t actually that much which qualifies for ‘state secret’ status, although your company may be less than forthcoming on profitability than it is on revenue.

For years, we sank or swam on the back of circulation figures, which were available within a day or so of publication. Now we’re as likely to be driven by page-views, which are constantly updated all day, every day. Make sure these numbers are shared with everyone, but only in a meaningful way (up? down?) with some narrative to explain particular jumps or falls.

When the newsroom team can see how ‘we’ are performing rather than how ‘they’ are doing, it makes delivering changes in policy and approach easier as it won’t all come as a bolt from the blue.

4. Involve the reader

It’s easy to get absorbed in the cut and thrust of the newsroom and forget who we’re doing it for. Invite readers into the newsroom to see what’s going on and ask their views on what you’re doing (open minds required, please!) and even go out and find out what they think.

Grab a couple of the newsroom team and head for the supermarket and see what readers make of your story selection, your treatment and even matters of taste and decency. I have a long charge sheet on this one, M’lud, and have never yet been let down.

5. Play musical chairs

Like your granddad with his chair by the fire, people get comfortable – sometimes too comfortable – in their surroundings. I’m all for people feeling at ease but often that can lead to complacency. Consider where people sit. Does it make sense? Are the right people sitting together?

Moving the chairs, and even desks, around brings its own energy. It also sends the signal that you are not prepared to accept the status quo. Even consider specific desks for roles rather than people – one of the better ideas I picked up from Fleet Street! – and encourage a clean and tidy approach with a small transportable collection of ‘personal effects’.

6. Play the team game

Encourage people to work together, not just from different parts of the newsroom, but across the organisation. I guarantee that your merchandiser (the person who keeps the shops happy) knows more about what’s happening in the area than your new trainee reporter. Team them up to mine an area for those ‘new, better, different’ stories that are the lifeblood of today’s modern media.

And why not – sharp intake of breath – team up an advertising and editorial to look not just for those elusive stories but also commercial opportunities.

7. Get out of the office (1)

Too often, I have heard the lament that today’s journalists are tied to the desk, but I’m afraid that is all too often a convenient smokescreen for lethargic staff who would rather let the email and phone do the talking rather than their legs do the walking.

Demand that everyone, even those with supposedly desk-bound jobs, leave the cosy confines of the office and mix with the Dear Reader in the outside world. Task the staff with, at the very least, finding out what people are talking about and what is bothering them. Or they could gather contributions for a bigger ‘team story’.

8. Get out of the office (2)

As the leader and go-to guy, you’ve got to be in a position to be gone to. And that means not living it up behind the office walls. Even the mythical ‘open door’ won’t do. The detached office immediately sends the message of ‘I’m not one of you’. Very little (high finance, HR issues) needs to be done in private so find somewhere out on the floor where you can be based most of the day.

That way, the problems won’t come to you, you’ll see them bubbling up. Time will be saved by instant intervention, the right things will be done at the right time by the right people and the need for long, tedious meetings (aka news conferences) will disappear because you will know what’s going on.

Health warning: Many editors and newsroom gurus disagree with me on this point as they feel the leadership gets sucked into both menial jobs and tasks they enjoy doing rather than what they should be doing. I’m not saying you should sub the obits every day (been there, done that) but it doesn’t do any harm to show you are on the case day-to-day. You can still do the strategy and big picture thinking in the big room.

9. Celebrate

There are some long-standing ‘Story of the Week / Month’ style ceremonies where a bottle of Aldi’s finest is given out to a revolving door of undeserving characters played out in newsrooms across the country. I’m not decrying this, but it does need to be kept fresh. Mix up the award criteria and involve some guest judges. I also like to give out spot prizes. A cup of coffee for the best word used in the next hour always goes down well!

10. Give feedback

Everyone likes to know how they are doing. It can be the formal review of how we did, but that too often becomes a back-slapping exercise with the heat of the action long cooled by both distance and time. Far better to do it there and then. When the story is written or the page designed or the picture taken, sit down with the author (in their space wherever possible) and give an honest critique and offer instant improvements.

This can easily lead on to ‘How are you doing?’ in a more general sense to take the temperature of how the employee is getting on. And why not try a quick ‘How am I doing?’ while you’re at it to put your own performance in some perspective.

11. Encourage learning

Tom Huang, Sunday & Enterprise Editor at The Dallas Morning News, puts it quite delightfully: “I can’t think of another business where you can learn as quickly, widely and, potentially, as deeply as in journalism. Whether you are challenged to understand the latest trends on your beat, how to comb through an obscure public record, or how to employ a classic narrative-writing technique, you are learning something new every day. We make our living by our wits and curiosity. We get paid to ask questions. That’s pretty cool. So even when learning is scary and exasperating (um, what’s that latest tech tool?), let’s embrace that part of our jobs.”

Encourage learning on both a formal and informal basis. Hold workshops on topics that are best learned in a structured environment, like technology updates, while also looking out for ‘Instant Learning Opportunities’ as they come up. Perhaps someone has come up with a great headline, or a new way of tracking down an elusive person; just get everyone to stop for a few moments and listen to what has been achieved.

12. Make everyone a mentor

Everyone has something to share. Formalise that arrangement with a buddy system, partnering the experienced with the new starters, the locals with the incomers and the tech-savvy with the technophobes. The benefits to both parties will quickly become apparent, as anyone who has done any teaching will tell you.

13. And finally…

“One myth about the success of great newsrooms persists because of the word itself: that a newsroom has to be a physical room. That isn’t true: a newsroom is an organisation, not a place. Some of the most effective newsrooms today are virtual, and almost every successful publisher — from GQ to CNN — employs remote staff and freelancers for reporting, shooting, writing, and editing.” So says Shane Snow, co-founder of Contently, a New York City-based technology company that ‘empowers brands and journalists to connect and tell stories’.

He is, of course, right, and maybe my vision of the newsroom leader as conductor of many disparate parts will soon be consigned to the spike of history. But however we’re doing business going forward, I still contend that there will be someone in charge and hopefully energising the newsroom.