Don’t bigfoot anybody, listen differently, and sometimes say ‘go away’

How great managers support, inspire and guide their newsrooms

Bridget Thoreson
Apr 8 · 7 min read

Reporter Kathleen Gallagher was not an obvious contender for a Pulitzer Prize.

She’d been covering the business beat at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel “like a vacuum cleaner,” said current Editor George Stanley, producing between 250–300 stories every year. She’d been hitting daily reporting hard for two decades, rarely delving into the kind of big reporting projects that bring home hardware.

And then.

In the course of her reporting Gallagher learned that local doctors and researchers were using groundbreaking genetic technology to try and diagnose a boy’s baffling illness. The resulting project, “One in a billion,” won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting.

Turning a nugget of news into the gold standard of reporting is no accident. And as newsrooms shrink and layoffs abound, having managers who can effectively make space for significant work is essential.

We turned to newsroom leaders identified by others in the field as great managers for their perspective on their values, how they put them into practice, the obstacles they face and their advice for others.

Stanley pledges that whenever somebody finds a big story, they will always be the center of it. That was the case with Gallagher’s story. She and Reporter Mark Johnson started with research, the duo expanding to a team that could help make the series shine.

“We’re not going to bigfoot anybody. We’re not going to take anything away from you,” Stanley said.

This approach makes other people in the newsroom want to jump in when they unearth something and makes it possible to train the next generation of great in-depth journalists.

To get results, managers have to be clear about expectations. It starts by understanding what you value.

Management philosophy: “I really believe in the ethos of teaching”

Rebekah Monson views management as a service job. As the kid of two public school teachers, the co-founder and COO of local media company WhereBy.Us turns to what she learned from her parents’ years of experience in the classroom.

It’s not only whether someone gets an A in your class, she said, but whether they are ready for what’s next.

“I really believe in the ethos of teaching,” she said. “Your job is really to be a super good listener, and empathetic, and be working as hard as you can to help individual people (as well as a group) succeed.”

That means lifting your employees up instead of dictating down.

Stanley, editor of the Journal Sentinel and regional editor for USA Today Network-Wisconsin, worked his way up as a reporter. So he never thought good ideas came from the top down, he said — instead, he encourages ideas from everybody.

Stanley pointed out the key motivators identified by Daniel Pink in “Drive” (once basic requirements to perform a job, such as salary, are taken care of):

  • Autonomy. People’s performance — and job satisfaction — improves when they can make their own choices about their actions.
  • Mastery. People have a deep desire to improve their work over time.
  • Purpose. “The most deeply motivated people,” Pink writes, “hitch their desires to a cause larger than themselves.”

Of course, philosophy is meaningless without systems that put it into practice. But how can you pursue your ideals in the hectic daily thrum of the newsroom?

Suggested resources — management philosophy
“Radical Candor” by Kim Scott
Drive” by Daniel H. Pink
“Give and Take” by Adam Grant
“The Innovator’s Dilemma” by Clayton Christensen
“Grit” by Angela Duckworth

What it means in practice: “We can’t force one approach to work for everybody”

Ashley Alvarado, director of community engagement at Southern California Public Radio, applies what she’s learned from listening to audiences to her management work in the newsroom.

She regularly thinks about what it means to have productive conversations in the workplace, whether it’s keeping meetings on the calendar in order to elevate issues, holding regular check-ins to direct reports or being intentional about the language they use.

“Rather than focus on what’s wrong or not going quite according to plan, how can we assess where we are, describe what the ideal would look like, and then map a path forward?” she wrote in an email.

A one-size-fits-all model doesn’t make sense, she wrote, and “we can’t force one approach to work for everybody.”

Instead, these leaders have built systems to promote clear communication, transparency and built-in feedback loops that they can use to tailor their approach to the individual employees.

  • Meetings.

Alvarado: “I have weekly check-ins with every member of the team, have a weekly team meeting, and we do daily email handoffs. This allows us to ensure we’re on the same page, and it also means that we can make incremental changes if need be.”

Stanley: “We’ve got some task force teams that we set up because at the time, we weren’t communicating well enough.” The teams, organized around topics such as standards and sensitive issues, are made up of a core group of people that others can turn to when needed.

  • Slack, email and time off.

Monson: “When you’re off, you’re off. Don’t want to see you on Slack, don’t want you to answer your email, please just go away. … We model that.”

Alvarado: “Scheduling emails in Outlook is my favorite hack. I 100 percent acknowledge that I don’t always model the best work/life balance behavior. The least I can do is not have the emails go out until 9 a.m.”

  • Metrics.

WhereBy.Us uses an Objectives and Key Results system so everyone knows the company’s most important priority and how well they are doing in reaching that goal. “It’s really useful to try to be as transparent as possible with numbers, how are we measuring things and how are we tracking things,” Monson said.

Table of Contents from an onboarding manual for interns, courtesy Ashley Alvarado
  • Hiring and onboarding.

Monson: Instead of hiring aspirationally and devoting the resources to train someone who might be great — someday — Monson strives to be clear in the hiring process and understand what the company needs from this role. And “you have to realize that every person that you hire is a culture change to your company.”

Alvarado: “I love creating onboarding materials. I want to encourage each team member to really know our organization and serve as an ambassador for the work we do…and for the communities we serve. That means having time built in to 1) explore and 2) learn.”

Suggested resources — management in practice
Better News project
API’s Need to Know newsletter
“Radical Focus” by Christina Wodtke
“Who” by Geoff Smart and Randy Street

When the going gets tough: “People appreciate honesty”

A small news organization like WhereBy.Us can be a perfect storm for stress, where employees are building something from scratch while moving fast.

Every Friday, employees are asked to rate their team’s health using a stoplight system — green, yellow or red. And then the team adopts the color of the lowest rating.

“Everybody could be green, and if one person’s red, we’re all red,” Monson said. “It’s really hard for us to get all greens, I don’t think we’ve ever done it.”

But the indicators allow Monson to track performance over time, to see who’s struggling and where she can help. Ariel Zirulnick, who worked at WhereBy.Us as director of The New Tropic, wrote in an email that Monson makes it clear that team health is just as important as their progress toward goals.

“When an employee hits ‘red,’ Rebekah treats that as an issue as urgent as a lagging performance metric,” wrote Zirulnick, now fund director at the Membership Puzzle Project. “And that gives staff the latitude to do what we need to do to take care of ourselves.”

In addition to creating a way to find out which team members may be struggling, managers have to pay attention to the implicit cues that a direct report may need support, Alvarado wrote. This could be a need or desire for training, or understanding that they’re being stretched beyond capacity, or learning that a different approach could be helpful. In any case, Alvarado wrote, it’s about understanding how she can support employees better.

Leaders also have to know when to step in for everyone’s benefit.

One thing that can prevent managers from advancing in their careers is an unwillingness to have difficult conversations, Stanley said.

“You can’t be afraid to tell people, ‘No, we’re not going to do it that way.’

“You can tell it with total respect, and be very honest and upfront, and people appreciate honesty,” he said. “The quicker you see the problem and deal with it, the easier it is to deal with it.”

Stanley said in 2009, when the Journal Sentinel was hit hard by layoffs and poor financial results, he got a piece of advice that completely changed his perspective: even if you have no control over the resources you have, you can choose what you do with those resources.

He says the paper is reporting more high-impact stories now than they were in the 1990s, when they had more than twice the staff. Why?

“Because we’re choosing to do them. We’re choosing to do them,” he said. “And everyone can make that choice.”

Are you looking to drive positive change in your newsroom? We can help!

Thank you to everyone who nominated a newsroom leader for this piece. See the list here.

We Are Hearken

The Hearken team's thoughts on journalism, engagement, and tech. Hearken means: to listen. We believe that listening to your audience first, not last, makes for better everything. We're here to help:

Bridget Thoreson

Written by

Storyteller and audience advocate. Engagement strategist at Hearken, helping newsrooms pursue public-powered journalism.

We Are Hearken

The Hearken team's thoughts on journalism, engagement, and tech. Hearken means: to listen. We believe that listening to your audience first, not last, makes for better everything. We're here to help:

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