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From AJR,   January/February 2000  issue

Managing from the Misunderstood Middle   

Caught in the Middle: How to improve the lives and performance of newspaper middle managers

By Sharon L. Peters
Northwestern University Media Management Center
72 pages; $17


By Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     

If I had to pinpoint one reason for the difference between excellent newspapers and the also-rans, I know what I would choose. It is the quality of middle-level editors--the section editors and their assistants--who most influence day-to-day content.

While almost all newspapers have a stable of fine writers, they struggle to find outstanding editors. Even very good newspapers are lucky to land more than a handful.

So this small new book, a pamphlet really, tackles an important and neglected issue. How can newspapers better recruit, train, equip and support the mid-level editors so essential to quality?

First, the disappointing news: The book does not live up to its subtitle. It is not so much a "how-to" guide as a concise, evidence-filled evaluation of the problem. Top editors hoping for fix-all advice will find help but no cures.

As an analysis of the issue, however, "Caught in the Middle" provides some insights that should prod newspapers toward relieving the problem.

Peters, an experienced reporter, editor, consultant and Ph.D., surveyed more than 500 journalists from 19 newspapers. In an ingenious twist that pays off handsomely, she divides her sample into three groups--top editors, middle editors and subordinates--and discovers significant differences among them.

She also finds reinforcement for the widely held belief that the mid-level editor's role is "the worst job in newspapering today: long hours, intense pressure, little respect from below, little support from above." Editors tell her the job is getting worse, not better. Among the reasons: "ever-changing technology, shrinking newshole, reduced staffing, shifting public perceptions, ever-evolving competition and a regularly metamorphosing workforce."

Here are some of her key findings:

Top managers and the rest of the newsroom have a "decided disconnect" in their thinking on the problems of middle managers. For example, top editors give section editors higher ratings than their subordinates do. Subordinates want more time from their editors, but neither top editors nor middle editors saw that issue as critical.

When the three groups evaluate middle editors' job skills, they give low ratings to their ability to coach, show vision and communicate; they give high ratings to their news judgment and commitment to journalism. "In general," Peters writes, "the participants gave higher marks to managers' professional/journalism skills, and lower marks to personnel management skills."

While middle-level editors see overwork as a huge problem, top managers and subordinates are less convinced that's their chief impediment to better performance. "If they had half as much work they would still be bad," one reporter commented. Another said that effective editors "know how to prioritize and work efficiently and they give the best of their attention and energy to the things that matter."

In another set of questions, Peters tried to determine the qualities of good and poor mid-level editors. The three groups agreed that effective editors should be "organized, collaborative and possessing the technical skills to improve subordinates' work." How did they describe the worst? "All three groups," Peters reports, "agree that the worst middle managers are disorganized, lazy, out for self, inflexible, bad communicators who are yes men and women."

Tellingly, she points out, these characteristics are, "quite simply, bad behavior" and not "the unavoidable byproduct of being in a difficult, stressful role." Peters doesn't get into the matters of why good editors are scarce or where the poor editors come from. Nor does she compile an action list of suggested reforms. She does offer some modest advice.

For instance, she sees too little "empowerment" as a leading problem. Many middle editors lack, or believe they lack, sufficient authority from their bosses, which leads to uncertain decision making and loss of respect from their staffs. "It is difficult to foresee any of this being remedied in the absence of clarifying middle managers' authority and roles," Peters concludes.

Among those surveyed, few innovative remedies emerged. Mid-level editors recommended that "top managers should get out of the way and let middle managers do their jobs." They also recommended hiring more editors and rethinking editors' assignments. Improving pay and training also were suggested.

Based on my own consulting in several dozen newsrooms, I think Peters has identified a serious problem and started a useful conversation. I tend to disagree that mid-level editors have the toughest newsroom job; I think they are in second place, behind copy editors. But I can think of no steps that would more enduringly improve newspaper quality than upgrading the gene pool for these editors whose hands and brains touch every item that goes into the paper.