Journalism has a huge management problem

One way we can better manage and support journalists with technical skills is to help their managers.

A session on journalist residency fellowships at NICAR ’18 in Chicago. (Djordje Padejski)

Last month, I attended my fifth NICAR conference. I caught up with old friends, had wonderful discussions with new people, and took an incredible all-day workshop. But over the course of the conference, I became increasingly troubled as a number of people shared with me their private stories about struggling in their newsrooms. What I’m discovering through conversations and interviews in my research as a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford is fairly simple and straightforward: for non-managerial journalists with technical skills, their bosses are strong motivators — or de-motivators — of the work they produce and the quality of their work lives.

Of course, poor newsroom management is a problem for every journalist, whether they’re a reporter clashing with an editor or even a manager struggling with “managing up.” But it’s of particular concern to journalists with skills and tasks that don’t resemble those of leadership’s. Journalists who work in code, design, video, photography, or audience engagement — among other non-text efforts — must constantly negotiate their work on the terms of the writers and editors who make up the majority of the masthead and other news sections. Ultimately, managers of technical divisions need to be even better trained to coach their teams and navigate the newsroom than editors who manage writer-reporters.

Meanwhile, findings from a new Tow Center study on employment trends signal a gradual “core transformation in the news media industry, as companies shift to integrate technical skills into the newsroom workforce.” How do newsrooms plan to integrate these groups without effective managers?

As I listened to my colleagues’ stories, I realized that there’s no single way to be a bad manager. They can be of any gender, any race, any technical ability, any temperament. Bad managers don’t know how to give design or behavior feedback. They’re not sensitive to issues surrounding race, gender, or mental health. They enable toxic co-workers in the workplace by saying “that’s just how they are.” Bad managers don’t know how to negotiate across departments or with their own bosses so that you can do your best work. They act out when they’re intimidated by your skills. They take credit for your work or take over projects that you pitched. Their advice and compliments sound disturbingly like negs.

If the demoralization of individual journalists is not enough of an argument to invest in developing good managers, then consider the bottom line. In interviews with 73 knowledge workers — or a “worker whose job involves a significant amount of gathering, creating and dissemination of knowledge” — researchers identified an employee’s manager as a significant factor in job performance. In fact, when workers in the study described other aspects of their work that affected performance, they often connected those factors back to interactions they had with their supervisors.

How can newsrooms invest in management?

I talked with more than a dozen journalists — some managers, some not — about the kinds of training they’ve had, wish they’d had, or think a prospective manager should have. Here’s what they said. (Take note that the biggest section is on how to better communicate.)

Pipeline

  • Whether management is even for you
  • What the difference is between management and leadership

Personal development

  • How to be comfortable with fear, uncertainty, and (internal mental) resistance
  • How to not get stuck in perfectionism
  • How to ask for help
  • How to take care of yourself
  • How to find your sponsor or personal champion
  • Finding a support network of other like-minded people to turn to for help and can hold you accountable

Diversity and inclusivity

  • Managing a diverse workforce
  • Fighting unconscious bias
  • Building an inclusive environment for the team
  • Training on intersectionality

Communication

  • How to negotiate
  • How to give and receive feedback
  • How to critique
  • How to have hard conversations
  • How to develop skills in listening, empathy and kindness
  • How to manage your relationship with your boss (a.k.a. “managing up”)
  • How to inspire people
  • How to run effective meetings
  • How to write an effective email
  • How to create an effective presentation
  • How to build cross-functional relationships
  • How to “people” (in general)
  • How to say no
  • How to take the lead
  • How to advocate for your staff
  • How to better use Slack as a manager
  • Communication mistakes to avoid
  • When honesty backfires
  • What to do in a crisis situation (physical, emotional, etc.)
  • How to line-edit
  • How to fire people

Strategy

  • Developing and setting strategy
  • Organizing collaborations
  • Effective planning
  • Ignoring sunk costs
  • Setting goals and priorities
  • Getting into a habit of shipping
  • Training on company’s business, politics, and/or marketing, and how manager’s team plays in company’s success
  • Training on anything related to legal liability, for both the publication and the workplace
  • How to manage a budget
  • How to delegate

Building a team

Employee development

  • How to time-manage others
  • How to develop talent
  • Understanding employees’ different learning styles
  • Managing difficult employees (performance or personality issues)
  • Coaching, challenging, and developing employee skills
  • Conducting an effective performance review
  • Creating methods for providing regular feedback

Two skills in this list are worth highlighting: how to give feedback and how to negotiate.

Jill Geisler suggests in her book Work Happy that ongoing feedback is the key to leading and maintaining a happy, high performing team. Indeed, studies on workplace supervision point to reinforcement theory — exercising the appropriate positive or negative consequences to behaviors and actions — as a powerful model of effective leadership.

To maintain relationships outside of the team, negotiating is a critical skill for managers to learn. I’ve previously written about salary and benefits negotiations, but successful newsroom leaders can negotiate so much more than money. They can also leverage their expertise to negotiate on behalf of their team’s work. In a study on newsroom subgroups, researchers observed that page designers and photographers used the language of editors and reporters who write to successfully collaborate on projects:

Findings suggest that open conflict of art norms and journalism norms is downplayed during negotiation over decision making, and visual journalists — the less dominant subgroups — pursue the strategy of adopting the norms of their rivals. Successful visual journalists are able to embrace the rhetoric of journalistic norms, underplay their attachments to art norms, and use the necessities of production efficiency to their advantage. Interviews also indicate visual journalists may seek to educate word journalists on the importance of design and on the special needs and constraints of presentation workers.

Through interviews and informal conversations, I discovered great managers of technical teams do a number of things that poor — or simply adequate — managers don’t do:

  • Train less experienced journalists by working closely together on projects. This means that they need to have the skills their direct reports use in day-to-day work, whether that’s building software, analyzing data, people-reporting, or structuring long-form narrative pieces.
  • Provide flexibility and freedom to more experienced journalists, who typically want autonomy to sketch out their day-to-day.
  • Identify ways their direct reports can grow. This could mean setting up a weekly coding session to learn new skills and paying to have members of their team attend great training conferences — or speak at one for the first time.
  • Encourage work-life balance. Great managers truly mean it when they say you can be logged off during vacation.

Beyond management training

Newsrooms should also consider pursuing other strategies to help support journalists and their managers besides training the latter once they’re already in place.

One tactic newsrooms could explore is a management pipeline that identifies and supports journalists with technical skills who are interested in formal leadership down the road. There was, perhaps, a time when it felt safer to appoint non-technical managers to lead technical teams due to the novelty and inscrutability of technical people to the masthead in the post-print era. But no more.

The field has matured, with more than 1,200 attendees at NICAR this year. And while it’s possible for anyone to be a good manager, charisma or technical expertise are too often mistaken for managerial competence. An organization that can spot and develop leaders in their first management roles and beyond could allow for the spread of technical and innovative practices throughout a newsroom.

We also need to consider building career pathways for journalists with technical skills so that management isn’t the only way to promote them. Lack of career options or low pay might push some into management when they could be more fulfilled working as an individual contributor. Reporters who write don’t need to become editors to gain respect and higher pay; instead, they can become better sourced and more autonomous in submitting high quality work, resulting in better opportunities. These opportunities should be given to journalists with technical skills, too.

In last year’s OpenNews survey of the journalism-tech community, more than half of all respondents who left a job in the past five years cited a lack of advancement opportunities as their top reason for leaving. A newsroom can’t retain journalists if it doesn’t find a way to reward them, no matter the excellence of their managers. Furthermore, if the entire news industry does not allow for career growth, we risk driving out talented, highly skilled journalists to non-journalism jobs with no guarantees of their return.


In the coming months, I’ll be writing on diversity because journalists with technical skills rated it as one of the top needs of our community. I’ll also continue looking into career paths and effective management practices. Get in touch if you’d like to talk.


Soo Oh is a John S. Knight Fellow at Stanford University, researching how newsrooms can better manage and support technical journalists.

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