Down with Top-down  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   August/September 2003

Down with Top-down   

The New York Times and Salt Lake Tribune implosions underscore the perils of the top-down management style. Is a more enlightened approach to running newsrooms on the horizon?

By Lori Robertson
Lori Robertson (robertson.lori@gmail.com), a former AJR managing editor, is a senior contributing writer for the magazine.      

Related reading:
   » Implementing Change

The lessons are painfully obvious.

Top-down management, bad. Communication and fairness, good.

It took a lot of news space and airtime, a number of internal New York Times memos posted to Poynter's Romenesko Weblog (not to mention comments e-mailed from Times staffers) and finally the resignations of Executive Editor Howell Raines and Managing Editor Gerald Boyd for the newspaper industry to arrive at these simple, fundamental rules of good leadership.

The question now is, was all that really necessary? The Times' top editor seemed to be doing the opposite of what any newsroom leadership guru or business management textbook would tell you is needed to create a vibrant workplace and a successful enterprise. Raines centralized power, concentrating control among masthead editors and away from department heads. The result? People felt that they weren't listened to, that their voices didn't count. Change, particularly when it comes to personnel, is difficult to institute at any paper. And what's the best way to make changes and not alienate your staff? Communication--discussing why a certain direction is necessary, so that people can participate in decisions and understand them, even if they don't agree with all the steps taken. As the Times itself reported, this did not happen. Raines' "handling of changes in the national staff and elsewhere at the paper was viewed by many editors and reporters as brusque," the paper said.

Morale, despite its reputation for never being super-cheery at newspapers, matters. If bosses treat too many of their employees badly, a general lack of support will result. Another painfully obvious lesson.

Of course, it's difficult to see things so clearly in the moment, particularly when you're the one in charge and the way you see yourself is always different--even if you're the open and fair type--from the way others see you. Plus, there is a certain amount of workplace griping that's to be expected. Newsroom management needs to decide whether routine grumbling should include such labels as "Republic of Fear," a moniker Times staffers told the Village Voice's Cynthia Cotts about in mid-April.

Yet, the Times is hardly the only newspaper to have top-down management issues. It wasn't the first. It won't be the last. It might not even be the last time that paper itself sees a decidedly autocratic leadership style. The common sense rules aren't always put into practice.

As media coverage of the Times' Jayson Blair was just warming up, another editor was more quietly becoming a victim of his own personality. At the Salt Lake Tribune, Editor James E. "Jay" Shelledy was criticized for mishandling an incident involving two of his top reporters. But what caused Shelledy to quickly submit his resignation wasn't so much the concern that he was slow in disciplining those reporters, it was the built-up anger at his management style in general, anger that found a release once the editor came under fire (see "Salt Lake Blues").

Similarly, plagiarist and fabricator Jayson Blair was not the true downfall of Howell Raines. The revelation in early May that Blair had lied, cheated and stolen his way up the ranks of the newsroom merely put the first chink in the armor of the top leaders (see "All About the Retrospect," June/July). The masses were then free to air their grievances.

New York Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. put it succinctly at the National Association of Hispanic Journalists' convention in late June. "At the end of the day," Sulzberger was quoted as saying in Newsday, "Jayson Blair gave voice to what were underlying concerns existing in the newsroom about the way that the newsroom was managed, about communication, about humility.... It really was about management style, about openness, about access and about the ability to dissent."

Editors across the country were quick to go public after the Blair story broke, making promises to their readers that such behavior would not be tolerated at their respective papers, convening meetings on policies regarding anonymous sources and following up on reader complaints, asking those in the industry how we could ferret out plagiarists and fabricators in our midst. It's interesting that few have jumped up to say they'll do a better job at promoting and training good managers and leaders, emphasize their commitment to fostering open communication in the newsroom, and declare to the industry that top-down, fear-inducing management styles are not acceptable.

While journalism leadership is hardly in a state of crisis--there is less autocratic leadership today than there was 20 years ago, there is more interest in training than ever before--the studies that have been done and the anecdotal evidence one can easily gather suggest that most leaders could, at the very least, improve their people skills. Communication--the very business that journalists are in--doesn't happen as smoothly or freely inside newsrooms as it should. As in most workplaces, candor is not often valued. And there's the problem of how the industry picks its leaders. Sometimes great journalists just don't have the skill set required to manage people. Yet many interviewed for this story talk about learning by trial and error and a sink or swim mentality of moving up the ladder. The commitment to training and mentoring has grown, but some say not enough.

The plea for leadership isn't about creating happy, warm and fuzzy workplaces; nor is it about corporate mumbo-jumbo. It's about journalism and business sense: Toxic newsrooms don't retain, or attract, talented, productive journalists, and--from a purely self-preservation standpoint--they don't foster support for leaders, support that is vital in a time of crisis.

Jill Geisler, a former TV news director, is head of the leadership and management programs at the Poynter Institute. She says news organizations are paying more attention to the culture of their workplaces because of recruiting and retention concerns. But Geisler thinks change has been slow. As proof, she points to a 2000 study by the Readership Institute that found most newsrooms surveyed to be "defensive" as opposed to "constructive" cultures. Her own work at Poynter shows that supervisors get high ratings for their journalism skills, not so for their abilities to talk, listen and provide feedback.

"Up until this moment, Howell Raines was one of many leadership styles. And it made for an interesting Ken Auletta story," Geisler said in mid-June, referring to the prophetic piece in the June 10, 2002, New Yorker. "I think it was only because of this extraordinary circumstance that the focus ended up on top-down leadership. Top-down leadership is going on in lots of organizations."

Gallup Organization author and lecturer Marcus Buckingham popularized the idea that people join companies but leave bosses. They "either physically or psychologically quit their boss," he says. In the media world, "you may join a newsroom because you love journalism," Buckingham says. "But how long you stay and how productive you are while you're there depends massively on the person you're reporting directly to."

Yet most companies, he says, don't understand that message. When there is a problem with turnover or productivity, most businesses will alter some kind of central policy, whether it's the pension program or compensation packages or the cleanliness of the cafeteria, says Buckingham, coauthor of "First, Break All the Rules: What the World's Greatest Managers Do Differently."

Catherine S. Manegold, who teaches journalism at Emory University, also says the responsibility for the workplace culture lies at the top. High morale, she says, is crucial to foster the best work, and she emphasizes that a clear mission, one that encourages a shared purpose and transcends the individual, is vital. "When you start to lose a sense of mission, it becomes more about careerism and getting your name out front," says Manegold, who was a reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer, New York Times and Newsweek. "You start to have a toxic environment."

Manegold's students tell her they are scared of newsrooms. "They hear this awful stuff about how caustic the newsroom is," she says, and she can't tell them it isn't true.

But the top leadership has the ability to make the place less scary and more productive. "If you tolerate a kind of dog-eat-dog culture in the newsroom, then that culture's going to grow," Manegold says. But if the leadership makes it clear that that's not acceptable, "you can choke it back."

The editor, she says, is ultimately the one who sets the tone and creates high morale. "At a newspaper, all roads lead to that desk," she says. "I have been both profoundly inspired by and really distressed by some individuals in top management. But it's a very real dynamic. You can't ignore the personality at the top."

Essentially the top news executive is not only responsible for the final product, and too many budgetary concerns, but also how people feel. It's a tough job.

And editors aren't doing all that badly. In 2001, Sharon Peters, then a media consultant, conducted a study of newsroom leadership for the American Society of Newspaper Editors. About 75 percent of respondents said their editors and immediate supervisors were "very" or "somewhat" effective; the low marks came in the area of communication. Top editors were seen as least effective at 1) ensuring managers are skilled, 2) keeping abreast of employee concerns, and 3) encouraging open debate. The most significant failings of top editors were similar: Participants said they were out of touch with staff concerns, fostered little communication with staff and provided insufficient feedback. About 1,100 journalists at various levels of newspapers participated in the study.

Peters, now the editor of the Gazette in Colorado Springs, says in her years as a researcher, the most prevalent shortfall she saw among top leaders was that they talk much more than they listen. "Most people when they get to the top think they have to operate like some all-knowing, all-seeing, Wizard of Oz character," Peters says. "When people enter their offices, these people talk a lot...thinking that that's somehow reassuring to the staff."

This is an understandable reaction to getting the lead job, but wrong. "If you're a top editor who is not demanding that people talk to you," Peters says, "then you're not going to have the information you need to chart the right course and make the right decision."

Ben Bradlee, former executive editor of the Washington Post and now a vice president at large of the paper, puts it another way. "You've got to have people who will speak frankly to you," people who are encouraged to do so. But, he adds, an editor "can't say to people, 'Tell me when I'm an asshole,' and then turn on them when they do."

Bradlee didn't learn that from a textbook--he notes that he didn't have much management experience before taking the reins at the Post and says Katharine Graham thought she was taking a risk by hiring him--but the message bears repeating. Often.

Leadership experts say the top boss is usually the last person to know how people really feel about him or her. "The higher you go in any organization, as a leader, the less information and feedback you get about how you're performing as a leader. Because people are afraid to tell you," says Daniel Goleman, coauthor of "Primal Leadership," and a former journalist--he worked for the New York Times from 1984 to 1996. "You don't even know how hated you are," he says, adding that there's often a No. 2 or No. 3 who is constantly assuring you that everything is OK.

The New York Times' leadership was surprised at the level of discontent expressed after the Blair story broke. The top brass experienced a we-don't-like-your-management-style intervention at a staff meeting at a Times Square movie theater in mid-May. Among the staff comments included in the Times' story on the meeting was this: "People feel less led than bullied."

Says Goleman, "Of course [the leadership was] shocked at what they heard.... I bet if that happened at every other paper in America, a very high percentage would have a similar story."

Well, the stories might not be that ugly, but editors and publishers are sure to hear things they didn't know before.

Peters talks about something called a 360 review she did when she was the managing editor of the Lexington Herald-Leader in Kentucky. The 360 is popular among businesses, including newspaper companies, and involves getting anonymous comments from people above and below you, and possibly your peers. The person directing the exercise will then break the news to you gently. "It was quite startling to me to get this for the first time," Peters says. "It wasn't devastating.... It was just, 'My God, I don't see myself that way.' But, who cares? They do. So you better fix it."

Elizabeth Cook, editor of North Carolina's Salisbury Post, likes to sit out in the newsroom instead of in her office. "People only come in my office when there's a problem," she says. Sitting in the midst of the troops could encourage them to talk to her more often. Still Cook, admits, "Sometimes I can be just as much in the dark as anybody else. That's why I need to be out in the newsroom."

When the Washington Post was building a new newsroom, Bradlee says he put a stop to the cinder-block wall that was about to go up between the row of editors' offices and the desks of the rank and file. It's all glass now--so staffers can see what editors are doing, and, he says, so the managers can see what the staff is up to.

These techniques may send a message and foster more open communication, but many say top editors need something like a 360 to really gauge their performance and the state of morale.

Through research, Buckingham and Gallup have found that employee satisfaction, what they call "emotional engagement," directly affects productivity, profitability and retention. Gallup uses 12 questions--the Q12--to measure how engaged people are at work. (The Q12 includes inquiries about job expectations, development and feelings of importance.) The findings show that about 70 percent of the American workforce is either not engaged or actively disengaged (not only disconnected but likely to be spreading their mistrust). What's more surprising is that the CEOs Gallup studied can't identify which divisions of their companies are strongest or weakest in the morale department.

Buckingham suspects newspaper executives would also have no clue about their workplace cultures. Unlike metrics for sales and revenue and circulation, employee satisfaction isn't consistently measured. There should be a short, simple way to ask employees questions every six months, Buckingham says, to find out how engaged they are. If all of the other measurements were low and engagement was high, that would be bad, he says. But if all others were high and engagement was low, "that would be stupid too. That's like going 60 miles an hour in second."

The Media Management Center at Northwestern University, which offers training programs for media executives from the editorial and business sides, tells its students how to make sure they're getting the right information from their staffs. Explains Michael P. Smith, managing director: "Generally when editors run meetings, the people who could add value to decisions being made aren't necessarily the ones who are heard.... So we teach techniques on how to get information that is not confirming." Then Smith relates a common theme to leadership training. "When you can give people voice so they feel that what they say contributes" to decisions, that builds loyalty, morale and commitment.

Everyone can agree that those are good things, but this is not just about making people happy. "From a business point of view," Smith says, "it's less expensive than always dealing with disgruntled people." If you have to spend a lot of time with unhappy staffers, others, who may have something valuable to say, are ignored.

Even Wall Street is interested in more than cash flow statements. Buckingham points to the story of Bob Nardelli, a former General Electric executive who became the CEO of Home Depot in 2000. Last year, the company posted a 35 percent increase in first-quarter profits, yet its stock price fell more than 10 percent. One of the Street's concerns: Analysts, said Fortune magazine, were critical of Nardelli's strict management style, the antithesis of Home Depot's free-and-open reputation. They were worried about the culture.

Jill Geisler starts most of her leadership seminars by asking people to write down some of the characteristics of great leaders in their lives. People usually jot down "integrity," "vision," "a passion for journalism." Personalities are wide-ranging--"some hard as nails and others, the mom who loved me," Geisler says. But in every case, those responding say that "the individual left me...feeling that I was important to them. They knew me, they knew how to talk to me."

Edward Miller, the former editor and publisher of the Morning Call in Allentown, Pennsylvania, who now runs his own coaching and consulting company, The Newsroom Leadership Group, gets similar results from this exercise. "The substance," he says, "is far more important than the style." Being liked isn't as important as being respected. "In a newsroom authority situation, you need to be respected. You need to earn the trust. It does not come with the title."

But beyond the necessity of establishing trust, there is no cookie-cutter personality for leaders. Even if a news executive can't be the coaching type, Miller says, he or she can hire or bring in a teacher.

Some interviewed for this story believe leaders need to develop a number of styles; others, like Miller, say they simply need to bring in associates who exhibit traits the boss lacks. Either way, the job requires self-awareness.

One leadership style that's definitely on the way out: command and control. Geisler says it's good in a crisis, when people need a leader to give orders and do it quickly. "In crises, people don't necessarily want a democratic style," she says. They want "a leadership with a clear sense of where we need to go." (Think Rudy Giuliani on 9/11.) But once the crisis subsides, the authoritarian, top-down, I-have-earned-the-right-to-tell-you-what-to-do attitude needs to go away as well.

Miller and others say there are fewer of the old, stereotypical newsrooms featuring gruff editors who scream, yell and throw things at their staffs. In fact, this was not the way all newsrooms were run 20, 30, 40 years ago. But just as certainly, top-down is still pervasive.

"Most newsrooms are really old-fashioned, 19th-century, industrial-model, command-and-control environments," Miller says. "They mean well, and they want to do well, but the structure, even with teams...it's a very top-down hierarchy." The younger generation, Miller and others say, doesn't fare well with autocratic, hierarchical rule. The workforce today just isn't going to put up with it.

Rob Sheehan, director of executive education at the Academy of Leadership at the University of Maryland at College Park, says there are much fewer autocratic organizations for a number of reasons: More people are talking about leadership issues, and "they're feeling entitled to having a workplace where they can have a say and be involved in things." And it's a generational change. "People are saying, 'I'm not going to work somewhere like that,' " Sheehan says. "A lot of talented people have choices and the generation coming out of school in the last 15 years," they'll go someplace else.

Interestingly, Sharon Peters says it's been 15 years since she has seen someone hurl an object across the newsroom, adding that it hasn't been that long since she has witnessed an editor yelling at the top of his lungs. The behavior has certainly changed, she says, but "I can't tell you that the notion that it's mostly top-down has changed."

Peters also talks about generational shifts. For example, she says there's a clear understanding among members of Generation X and Y that bosses should be engaged in career development--a concept unheard of, she emphasizes, in 1972.

"I'm old," Peters says (she's 53), "but my dad was older, and when I think about the stories that he told about what he had to put up with from his boss, I'm startled. But my stepchildren are startled with what I put up with in the early '70s.... Society evolves, so do organizations, and so do the societal expectations of how things will be when you go to work every day."

It's been a long, slow evolution, though, and few believe top-down, however prevalent it may have been, was ever the way to go.

"I certainly think there were times when you could be more top-down about family considerations, because that was the ethic in the '30s and '40s and '50s, that you sign on for the cruise, you go to the end of the line," says Gene Roberts, former executive editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, one-time managing editor of the New York Times and now a professor of journalism at the University of Maryland. "And I think the kind of upheavals of the '60s and the change of family norms, gender norms has produced a different work atmosphere for everybody. But I don't think there was ever a time when you could treat people as less than human and not pay some price. Obviously, people will put up with more in a bad job climate than they will in a good job climate. In a bad job climate, they don't vote with their feet, they just sit there and seethe."

But for a manager, Roberts adds, "having them sit there and seethe is almost the worst of all worlds."

Of course, with a top-down, no-dissent, anti-communication environment, a manager may not be aware of the ferocity of the seething. That is, until the boss needs help.

Sheehan talks about credibility and integrity, trust and respect--all characteristics of good leadership. If the leader is someone the staff doesn't trust, someone who has kept people in line by wielding power, "the first sign that they're trouble," Sheehan says, "hasta luego." It's the exact opposite with someone who has the staff's trust. "Things can go wrong and they'll be behind you."

Sounds simple. Yet, Sheehan, says, "it's so frequently not done. Arrogance gets in the way, wanting things my way gets in the way, wanting to be in control gets in the way.... And people rationalize why it's OK for them to act that way." Goleman calls the positive feelings toward a leader "emotional capital," something that a leader builds up at every opportunity, something a boss can draw upon in an emergency. If there's no capital, there's no support.

A lot of leadership headaches could be solved by picking the right people for the job, and giving them the training they need to do it. This is a lot harder than it sounds--you don't always know what kind of traits a person is going to exhibit once you give them a little fiefdom of their own to control.

But a number of people inside and outside journalism complain that newsrooms don't evaluate people on the right criteria. Good reporters become editors, without a lot of thought about what leadership skills they may or may not possess.

"For such a savvy, skeptical, sharp bunch of people, my experience is that journalists are really clueless when it comes to what makes a great leader," says Goleman. He says smart organizations promote people to leadership positions based on their strengths in certain areas, such as self-awareness, flexibility, initiative and conflict resolution. "Newsrooms almost never do," he says. "What newsrooms do is find someone who is a damn good reporter and make them the head of the desk."

Goleman hears the same complaints from journalists around the world. When he's interviewed on these subjects, "journalists always say, 'Yeah, that's exactly the situation. We've got so many editors...that never should have been promoted.' "

But Buckingham doesn't see this as a solely journalistic problem. The get-ahead-by-climbing-the-ladder mentality is to blame. If someone is really good at a certain job, companies start talking about how they can move the person out of that job--to reward him or her, he says. There are exceptions. Buckingham points out that in sports, "We know that the best players don't make the best coaches--it's just bloody obvious."

What companies should be doing, Buckingham says, is finding ways to ensure that any job done excellently is revered and admired.

Mary Jean Connors agrees and emphasizes that promoting the wrong people isn't solely a problem of reporters becoming lousy editors. Connors, senior vice president for human resources at Knight Ridder, says, "I see the same kind of mistakes that we talk about in the newsroom being made in the business side." A great salesperson, for instance, is promoted to advertising director, even though the skills required are completely different.

This is not to say that journalism skills are totally irrelevant when it comes to management. Tom Curley, president and CEO of the Associated Press, stresses that journalism is a great way to prepare for a leadership position. "I remember getting my masters in business with a bunch of engineers," Curley says. They were very successful in courses that Curley had more difficulty with--statistics, he says, comes to mind. But "in other areas that involved communication or analysis or strategy, I felt very comfortable." The engineers felt "terribly ill prepared."

Sometimes people with great individual skills also have the qualities needed to be a leader, Connors says. And sometimes they don't. "Are there ways to tell the difference?" Connors asks. "Yes. Is it easier to say theoretically than to do it? Yes."

She continues, "Our motives are sometimes the wrong ones. We want to reward someone... and we can't think of another way to do it" other than by promoting him or her. "You're not doing them a favor when they end up in a role" where they can't play to their strengths.

You're also not doing them a favor if you put them in the position and don't give them training on how to do it.

"I think traditionally, newspapers haven't done enough to help people when they moved into [a management job]. It's been a sink-or-swim approach," says John Drescher, managing editor at Raleigh's News & Observer. There is more talk--and action--regarding training today, says Drescher, noting Poynter and Edward Miller, who held a workshop at the News & Observer in June for a day and a half.

"If you go in a newsroom and say, 'Who'd like to be a better writer?' all the hands go up," says James M. Naughton, president of the Poynter Institute. Because of that motivation, Poynter created the National Writers Workshops. The National News Leadership Workshop, says Naughton, is "not quite catching on to the same extent.... Not everyone wants to acknowledge that they need to be a better manager."

But training has increased, and leaders are voicing more need for help. Knight Ridder offers a number of programs, including executive training, a yearly review that identifies aspirations and potential future leaders, and a recent mentoring program that pairs midlevel managers with those in the company who have been at it for much longer. Connors says Knight Ridder has, on occasion, provided coaches for publishers, top editors and corporate officers who have requested them.

Executive coaching has become a mini-industry, and it's something Goleman says he'd "absolutely" suggest for media organizations. (Goleman says he doesn't know Howell Raines, but "I always thought, you know, in some ways he's really good, but in other ways, he could really use a coach.")

There are numerous other training opportunities: Curley says he's been impressed by the way the Associated Press trains and develops people. Many organizations send staffers to Poynter, the American Press Institute, the Media Management Center and conferences sponsored by other groups. Miller produces seminars for the Associated Press Managing Editors.

But some--Peters, Goleman and Anders Gyllenhaal, editor of Minneapolis' Star Tribune, among them--say one-day or one-week workshops aren't enough. "There are things I can remember about various training sessions I've been through that I do find very useful," Gyllenhaal says. "But it doesn't do any more than give you an idea.... You have to go out and put it into practice."

And putting it into practice doesn't mean throwing a person into a job and letting her flounder around on her own. Peters says some companies make the assumption that when a person gets to a management position, that's just the beginning. They'll give the person training, and if it doesn't work out, companies will say, well, you're not a manager anymore. What news organizations tend to do, Peters says, is "put them in that role and say, 'Do what you can.'... There isn't a lot of training; there certainly isn't nearly enough monitoring by those above this person." And there's "very little opportunity to do group problem solving," so a manager can say, "This probably wasn't the right way to handle this, what would you suggest?"

"I think that's where we're falling down, partly for reasons that we don't really have the resources we did," Peters says, "partly because of the economy," partly because of time constraints and partly because "most newspaper people don't want to ask for help."

When asked what kind of leadership style she has, Elizabeth Cook at the Salisbury Post answers: "Imperfect."

Admitting you are not the Wizard of Oz, and that it's OK to not know everything, may be the first step in leadership development. How's that for a painfully obvious lesson?

"A problem with leaders," says Naughton, is "they think they suddenly have to become geniuses and know more than anybody else and disregard common sense." The truth is if they use logic "and have a process for thinking their way and talking their way to a decision, the chances are, they're going to be just fine."

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