Journalism is full of good people. Not just skilled, though they are that too, but good people. People who are as kind as they are smart. People who are generous with their knowledge, humble in their practice, and committed to craft and public service. I started to list them this week, pencil in hand, an exercise in reminding myself whom to reconnect with, not for what they could do for me but because they show me why I love this profession. I ran out of paper.
Yet, each of these wonderful people has horror stories about working in this industry. They come out in the hallways of journalism conferences and in Zoom calls “just to catch up.” They hide behind too-short stints in dream jobs and sudden returns to freelancing. They pour into my DMs every time I hint at it in my writing. Some ponder, horrified, whether they too might be part of the problem. Statistically? There’s a good chance.
While the individuals in newsrooms are overwhelmingly good, management and culture simply are not. Our organisations are less than the sum of their parts.
Untrained managers focus on the work, not the workers
One obvious reason behind the news industry’s fabled toxicity is how little it invests in its leaders. Editors are plucked from the ranks of reporters, and only incidentally become managers. Too bad the demands of the three jobs are quite at odds; it’s technical skill that’s usually favoured when hiring.
Once in charge, new managers can count on very little support. In the Changing Newsrooms 2022 report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, 45% of respondents saw management training offered in their newsroom. That may seem respectable, even overestimated, but it means that in a non-representative sample of executives at only the wealthiest news organisations, less than half bothered to train their people managers. We might query the quality and frequency of that training as well, but frankly anything less than 100% is not good enough.
News isn’t alone in forgetting to train its leaders, but it is perhaps unique in how much it requires of them.
In the pressure cooker of daily news, editors must make hundreds of decisions a day and are ultimately responsible for putting out a complex, highly scrutinised product. They’re doing this in a shrinking industry where they alone might do three people’s jobs. The second they’re done, they must start again. That leaves little time or patience to think about other people’s development or well-being.
A recently promoted editor at one of London's most reputable news organisations lamented the challenges of his responsibilities around a pint. He simply wasn't getting the quality of copy he expected from his team, and he had no idea how to get them to improve. That's the irony of making your best writer into a boss: you lose your best writer. Up against deadlines, he ended up rewriting most of it. His team learned little. In this business, managers manage the work, not the people. That's all they have time for.
Good intentions aren't enough; management is a skillset
Zoom out and you end up with a culture that is set by accident, an addition of the actions of dozens of overwhelmed managers, instead of what culture should be – an intentional and consistent set of values and practices.
Even the smallest news organisations put some thought into the visage they present to their readers. Not so to their employees. The Changing Newsrooms report points out the New York Times created a Newsroom Culture and Careers department in 2021, something their internal diversity report recommended. Good on them, bravo! But consider that only for the last two years has the world’s foremost newsroom started thinking of culture and careers as something worthy of singular focus.
Leaders who try to break the generational curse of bad management modelled after bad management often end up burnt out and leaving the industry. They too land in my DMs. It is a recent spate of them – all senior women – that prompted me to start this newsletter. I’ve had this conversation too often in private, and enough industry friends have kindly encouraged me to start having it in public.
I’m not the first to point out the news industry’s dreadful management record. I don’t pretend to have the magic answer. Where I have some claim to originality is that I stepped sideways into tech for nearly a decade. Not just tech, but LinkedIn, a company obsessed with how the world of work functions. There I experienced and was trained in a management style I couldn’t fathom in my newspaper days. I got to emulate some genuinely exceptional bosses. I spent years in something of an oddity – a high-performing yet truly happy culture. I’ve got notes to share. (Oh, I still burnt out, no high horse here. We’ll have to talk about that too.)
I might have thought my experience an outlier if I hadn’t seen more than 70 journalists transition to our team. I used to call it “newsroom PTSD” (my apologies to actual sufferers), the way I had to reprogram my new hires’ expectations of the workplace. It wasn’t the shiny office and free food that made their eyes sparkle, at least not for long. It was the consistency of weekly 1:1s, the transparency of org charts, career ladders and review cycles, the psychological safety of a compassionate culture and of values that were more than a poster on the wall.
Good management starts with good character, but intentions aren’t enough. Good management is a skillset, concrete practices anyone can learn and implement. This is what I hope to share here, as well as open up a space for conversation and community for newsroom managers too often left to figure things out on their own.
Please share your stories, ask your questions and let this community untangle your real-life case studies (DM if you’d rather be anonymous). Let’s see if we can together build even slightly happier newsrooms. It’ll mean better journalism for everyone.
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