From AJR, April 2000 issue
Middle Management Blues
Beleaguered midlevel editors can benefit from management training.
By Sharyn Vane
Sharyn Vane has written and edited at papers in Colorado, Florida
EDITORS, IT'S TIME TO talk organizational development. We need to identify the key skill sets needed for knowledge sharing and set some goals for change.
No, you're muttering under your breath, we need to run screaming from the room if you're going to talk like that.
That's what you're thinking, yep, while you're also mentally matching today's budget of stories with your roster of reporters and dreading your rapidly filling-up e- and voice-mails. If they just wouldn't squander my already-precious time with these things. Meanwhile, your reporters are wondering if you're ever going to get a free moment to talk with them about their stories. Your boss, on the other hand, is wondering when those inventive new ideas to revamp your section are going to start flowing.
Welcome to your nightmare. Want to wake up? Sure. But you're not likely to without some of those sessions that offer the right kind of training--management training.
"To be an editor is one thing,˛ says Frank Scandale, assistant managing editor/news of the Denver Post. "To be a manager is quite another."
Indeed. Management training could easily be one of the biggest conundrums of the newsroom: Editors yearn for it at some level, but at the same time they are nagged by vague suspicions that it's unseemly, kind of dorky, even--we should know this, do we really need some nimrod in a suit to come in here and tell us how to do our jobs?
Well, yes, the experts say. And that job will become easier and more productive, to boot.
As newsrooms seek to identify and retain better managers--people who ideally will run papers one day--helping these budding Ben Bradlees develop their managerial and leadership skills should become even more important. Certainly the attention paid to training and the opportunities for it have increased over the past few years.
But we've got a long way to go.
'ONE AREA WOULD BE coaching reporters," says Vicki Rettig of the kind of training she'd love to get. Rettig, an assistant metro editor at Indiana's Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, has been on the job less than a year. Like many new managers, she had a preview of her future life when she filled in on the city desk while higher-ups searched for a permanent replacement.
"I knew all the personalities, I knew the workload, I knew how the day was patterned." But coming from the copy desk, she didn't have as strong a sense as she would have liked of how to coach reporters. "Having never been a reporter works to my advantage and my disadvantage," says Rettig, who adds that her boss has promised to send her to a conference on coaching. "I don't know all the jargon that the official voices throw out to them. They'll say, 'Well, that's how they said it.' I'll say, 'Well, I don't understand it.' My argument is if I don't understand it, then the readers don't understand it. Since I don't have a real strong writing background from start to finish, I don't feel as comfortable coaching reporters."
But even with a reporting background, there's no guarantee that working effectively with reporters will come naturally.
"All of us got our jobs as editors because we were good at something else," points out Edward Miller, a faculty member at the Poynter Institute and a management consultant to newspapers across the country. "One day someone said, 'You're good at being a reporter, [now] you're an assistant metro editor--and you're in charge of these five reporters.'... The best reporters do not necessarily make the best managers, and they certainly don't without training."
And dealing with reporters, of course, is just the tip of the management iceberg. Once you move into that bigger desk, there are suddenly a whole host of new, rather unfamiliar duties. The meetings! The payroll. The evaluations. Dealing With Difficult People. The first time you're caught between your boss and your underlings.
"Because I'm in charge of a department unto itself, there's a separate budget that I have to monitor," says Chris Coppola, business editor at the Tribune in Mesa, Arizona. "I don't want to say it's surprising, but it's a highly complicated venture and something I'm expected to be aware of, to tend to the money and the stringers and the syndicated columns....
"Doing annual reviews and written reviews, that's another thing that comes to mind.... I feel that I was very well-prepared in terms of day-to-day news judgment, but when it comes to the other management aspects--the hiring process, the reviewing résumés, flying them out--that's something that was really an area I felt needed attention and still does."
Coppola's experience is a common one, editors say. And with the unique fillips of the newsroom, difficult situations are likely to present themselves sooner rather than later. Take explaining to Joe Reporter why his work isn't cutting it. Unlike other sections of the paper, where you can, for example, cite sales goals and point out how Joe's not meeting them, in the newsroom you're not safe in a cocoon of numbers. Instead, as an editor, you're making qualitative judgments--this story or this photo isn't good enough. And someone's career rises or falls based on that judgment.
"You can't say to somebody, 'Listen, it's a 20-story quota, and you've only had 14,' " says the Denver Post's Scandale. "Because everybody's different, everybody brings something different to the table. This person is going to be really, really good on the long-term monster shots. He has the personality to persevere and not have a byline every two days. How do you measure that person with someone who's like a scannerhead who wants to run out and cover 19 cop things in one day?"
So it's crucial that the person making those judgments and delivering momentous messages has the skills to do so--to improve the situation, not exacerbate it.
And while there are regimented programs out there for new managers--Poynter and the American Press Institute offer them, and many chains have in-house versions--their schedules don't necessarily run in tandem with when people start new jobs. Getting editors into training at promotion time helps rookie managers start out on the right organizational foot, and lessens the likelihood of green editors becoming overwhelmed by their multifaceted new duties.
"The best thing someone did for me was when I started [editing] at the Elizabeth [New Jersey] Daily Journal, my editor sent me right to Poynter for that handy-dandy How to Be a New Manager thing. I think the subtitle was 'Coaching Writers,' " recalls Scandale. "That was like a four-day trip on a paper that certainly couldn't afford to send anybody anywhere, to teach me how to go from reporter to editor. That helped immensely."
Scandale's experience seems far from the norm, though. Take Faith Van Gilder, who works across the News-Sentinel newsroom from Rettig as the assistant copy chief. Van Gilder was well into her new job when she started the paper's course for new supervisors, which is only offered at certain times of the year.
"The timing was a little off. Writing a performance review was one of the [classes], and I had done one a month earlier. And I did learn some things I should have learned before. So I really needed this course about two months earlier," Van Gilder says.
Much of the course--a five-week seminar for recent promotees across the building that met once a week--was helpful, she says. But there were parts that were a little hard to relate to: "The videos, you know, they weren't for newspaper people. One was a restaurant situation, and one was a factory with foremen, and you had people making pipes or hoses. They weren't geared to us."
THAT'S REALLY THE problem, isn't it? There's something about the concept of "management training" that can turn a newsroom employee's stomach. Yeah, yeah, that stuff works fine at the banks and the marketing companies. But the newsroom is different.
It's a thread of the culture that Miller, a former editor and publisher of Pennsylvania's Allentown Morning Call, confronted early on when he started doing seminars for newspaper employees.
"I tried bringing in some of the real gurus of organizational development," he says. "They had the keys to the kingdom in their briefcase, but they bombed because they could not connect to the reality of the newsroom."
Miller and other experts caution that such a mind-set is ultimately detrimental. Yes, there are special situations and special skills that the newsroom calls for. But to assume that the newsroom is in a universe all its own is foolhardy.
"That's part of our culture: 'We have nothing to learn from the sales department. We have nothing to learn from the business school. We are in the priesthood of journalism,' " Miller says.
"That's an asset, pride. It's also a liability, because it's arrogant as hell and it's stupid. It says we don't have any way to learn from the rest of the world. Management is a different game than it was 20 years ago."
Bill Boyd, who joined Poynter in 1991 as a faculty member specializing in management, shares Miller's view. When Boyd started as a trainer, he found he had to combat the attitude that since he came from outside the newsroom--he'd spent the previous seven years as an independent management consultant--he had nothing to offer the denizens of the city desk.
"It's one of those things that you have to clear your mind of," Boyd says.
Sure, Miller and Boyd do this training stuff for a living. But listen to Business Editor David Haynes at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel talk about what he has his new editors and even reporters do: "I don't know if this sounds corny or not, but we do have a relationship with FranklinQuest [part of the FranklinCovey training seminars with Stephen Covey, of "7 Habits of Highly Effective People" fame].... I've sent everybody I could persuade to go. If you use it right, it does help you manage your time better." Corny?
"Well, I think it has sort of a feeling that it's corporate-like--you're carrying one of these books around," Haynes says. "But the folks who have tried it by and large have thought it worked pretty well."
Just the fact that Haynes is vaguely apologetic about his adherence to something so "corporate" is indicative of that same culture that resists learning something from other departments. And it's the same worldview that keeps new editors from admitting frustration or an inability to cope with the hassles of managing people. The point is to do the job, not to necessarily feel good about it.
"I started fresh out of the University of Missouri journalism school in 1972, and the very notion that I would dare to discuss my need for personal fulfillment with my boss--that was truly bizarre," says Sharon Peters, who held top editing jobs at USA Today and the Lexington, Kentucky, Herald-Leader before earning a doctorate in organizational development and consulting at newspapers around the country. "And the idea that I would want to communicate about how we could best meet each others' needs! No! ... It's the softer stuff that embar-rasses a lot of us in the business--you know, you do your 60 or 70 hours a week or you're not passionate about it, and you ought to get out of the business."
And in fact, that's what may be happening, some say. Training isn't just important to keep people doing their jobs well--it's also important to keep people in their jobs, period, experts like Miller argue. "I can't prove that," he adds. "I just know it's true." (Perhaps the flip side of that theory is forwarded by the Charlotte Observer's Michael Weinstein, who coordinates some of the paper's training. Journalists "want training, and they say so. And that is frequently the deciding factor in going to a newspaper.") And it certainly makes sense that without the skills to do their jobs well, editors can become disillusioned and disenfranchised--particularly the newest members of the desk.
"[That's] the place where we're losing the most people," Miller says. "Some of the best people get out of journalism at that point. They feel a lot of frustration, they look a level up and if they don't like what they see, there's going to be an exit decision at that point. They can get very frustrated by the responsibilities."
Part of that may be because the top problems cited by reporters and managers in a recent study are managerial-related. Of those surveyed at newspapers by Peters for "Caught In the Middle: How to Improve the Lives and Performance of Middle Managers," a study published in 1999 by the Northwestern University Media Management Center, few said newsroom managers fell short in journalistic skills (see Books, January/February). Instead, they cited such traits as "poor communicators" or "disorganized/poor planning." When asked why middle managers typically do a bad job, reporters and middle managers themselves cited lack of communication; top editors pointed to insufficient management skills or training.
A minority of editors, in fact, felt that enough training was available at their newspaper. Peters found that depending on the size of the newspaper, 68 percent to 75 percent of those surveyed answered "no" or "don't know" to the question. And some respondents were less than enthralled with what they were getting when they were signed up for seminars. One small-newspaperite reported peevishly, "We're trained more how to be politically correct than to be managers."
HERE'S THE GOOD NEWS: There's more attention being paid to management training in newsrooms. And you don't necessarily have to get on a plane to do it.
"A lot more [newspapers] are spending more time and money on in-house training--although not as many as I would like on the upper level of management," says Poynter's Boyd, who pushes for ongoing training no matter how high an editor has risen. "I'll ask them, 'How do you decide who gets it?' They'll say, 'Well, department heads.' And I'll ask, 'Who decided what training the department heads get?' Blank stares. Implicit in this is that you don't need it once you get to a certain level, and that's scary."
At Knight Ridder, new managers from all newspaper departments are sent to "Stock Your Toolbox,'' billed as a primer on supervisory skills. It includes sessions on interviewing candidates, financial issues and even personnel requisitions.
Weinstein, at the Charlotte Observer, also helms editing classes at least once a year that delve into leadership and management issues as well as writing and editing. And a new program called "newsroom leadership" will bring together fledgling editors and promotion candidates four times a year to teach these neophytes the skills they need to "survive and thrive" at the Knight Ridder paper.
Gannett has run leadership training seminars for editing at the top and at the department-head level at most of its newspapers, says Phil Currie, the chain's senior vice president for news. (Newer editors are often sent to API, Currie explains.) And since the mid-'90s, he has overseen in-depth management seminars that include about 15 editors and focus on everything from establishing better relationships with employees to refresher courses on coping with difficult staffers.
Cox Newspapers has launched Cox Academy, a series of training seminars aimed at both reporters and editors. "We strongly encourage editors to take training with their staff," says Michael Schwartz, the Atlanta Journal and Constitution's manager for news administration and training who oversees the academy classes for all of the chain's newspapers. "I call it 'team training.' They're both being exposed to the same message and the same information--they're not going to be talking to one another in a vacuum."
Schwartz says the Journal-Constitution has also launched two in-house training programs that deal specifically with managers, including the "AJC Newsroom Leaders" program, which tethers nine midlevel editors from across the paper for seminars and speakers that included non-newsroom experts like a Georgia State University professor on project management.
"We needed to make sure that we were, first of all, identifying the people who had high potential and whom we didn't want to lose," he explains. "Then we needed to provide them with training that would be useful to them, that would keep them challenged and productive and make them feel that this was a place that they were not going to be stagnant. And the third part was that we wanted to keep track of these people and make sure that they don't get lost, that their development doesn't stop at a certain point."
Formal programs are good, of course. But there's also value in the day-to-day training that can go on in newsrooms without the benefit of a brown bag, consultants like Peters say.
"There can be a very limited definition of what training is.... A lot of people in the [managing editor] position didn't have the benefit of someone saying, 'Here's what I can teach you.' Well, things were different then," Peters points out. "Now I think they need to realize that possibly the best thing they can do for their staff is share whatever wisdom they have. They need to broaden the definition of the trainers to think of themselves as trainers."
But the most important thing is to make sure that some training takes place, experts say. Otherwise, managers will lose valuable new talent and suffer unnecessary trials with the ones they keep.
"You're either going to have to get under the rock, or you're going to have to learn that life is about learning," Boyd says. "You can't teach without learning."