In 1994, a year after being hired as managing editor of the Southwest Daily Times in Liberal, Kan., Jeff Burkhead was named its publisher. During the course of his career, he had been a reporter and photographer. He had sold ads. He had laid out pages. He’d even delivered papers.
But never in his life had he seen a profit-and-loss statement.
Janice Hume was named editor of the lifestyle section at the Mobile (Ala.) Register in 1988, six years after she had been hired as a lifestyle reporter there. At 28 and without formal leadership training, she was managing people many years older who had been at the newspaper many years longer.
“I didn’t have sense to be frightened of it,” Hume said. “But I was lucky. The people in the department were very accepting and they helped me through.”
Burkhead and Hume are among the legions of journalists promoted to management positions without sufficient preparation and training, a condition endemic in a field where the traditional assumption has been that the best reporters – or those with the most seniority – will be successful editors and managers.
“But most of us got into this business because we wanted to write,” said Linda Grist Cunningham, executive editor of the Rockford (Ill.) Register Star and a discussion leader for the American Press Institute in Reston, Va. “It never occurred to us that we would become managers. God forbid. Management is not part of our education, it’s not part of our thinking, it’s not part of our psyche. But then we assume that if you were a good reporter or photographer then, ipso facto, you’ll be a good editor.”
But the skills and traits that make good reporters may not be the skills and traits that make good managers, industry leaders say. And, they say, the need for intelligent decision-making and creative leadership is critical when an industry faces the dual threats of increased competition and economic decline.
“It’s a survival issue,” said Caesar Andrews, president of Associated Press Managing Editors and editor of Gannett News Service. “If we don’t do this we will die.”
Newspaper management expert Conrad Fink agrees.
“The tradition of ‘Hey, Charlie, you’ve been here a long time – now you’re the state editor,’ certainly won’t hold up in the forthcoming decades,” said Fink, who holds the William S. Morris Chair of Newspaper Strategy and Management and directs the James M. Cox Jr. Institute for Newspaper Management Studies at the University of Georgia. “There’s a kind of mystique in the newsroom that there’s something wrong with people who think about management and the bottom line strategically. That’s archaic thinking that has to be rooted out.”
A DIFFICULT TRANSITION
But the process of rooting out archaic thinking and reversing the culture of the industry faces significant obstacles, including obstacles that lie at the very nature of what journalists do.
“We live a day-to-day existence,” Andrews said. “Success is getting today’s paper out. It is very difficult to sit back and think through a process that I need to start now, but may not benefit from for two years.”
Simply put, he said, “training runs up against the buzz saw of daily demand.”
That obstacle becomes more significant when it couples with a mindset that fails to identify editors as managers in the first place.
Former editor Hume, now a journalism professor at the University of Georgia, says supervising 10 people and coordinating 15 sections a week left little time for management training.
“But even more than that, it didn’t occur to me pick up a book on management and read it,” Hume said. “You think of yourself as being a journalist, not a manager, even when you’re running the department. So why would you read about management?”
Indeed, that lack of identification as a manager – or of management as a career path – hurts journalists in another way. Unlike business school graduates, who see management as an option and start assimilating management tips while they hold lower-level jobs, reporters fail to pick up the day-to-day practices and qualities of the managers who surround them, says Stephen Lacy, director of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism and co-author of “Media Management: A Casebook Approach.”
Other traditional and cultural characteristics also can inhibit an untrained journalist’s success as a newsroom manager, industry leaders say. Journalists are oriented to be individuals rather than group leaders. Accustomed to controlling whom to interview and what to write, they tend to resist giving up control and delegating authority. They can easily revert to what they did so well before, often “fixing” reporters’ work rather than paving the way to improvement. Many are highly opinionated, a trait that may thwart their ability to appreciate and accept new ideas. Many are math phobic. They may be overly aggressive. They may lack interpersonal skills.
But perhaps one of the most difficult traditions is the tendency for journalists to socialize together: Friday’s friend is Monday’s manager.
“If you spend time with this group and you get promoted, it takes a great deal of maturity on the part of the editor and the journalist to recognize the relationship is different,” said Michigan State’s Lacy. “If you don’t train for that, you can have some serious problems that can result in large turnovers.”
Newly promoted newsroom leaders, handicapped by inadequate training and a culture unique to the profession, often learn through a trial-and-error process that can be painful for both the manager and the managed.
“We burn them out,” said Rockford’s Cunningham. “You end up with people who are not happy, not growing. They lose their sense of enthusiasm about the business. That translates to their staff and the staff is miserable. Everybody is dysfunctional. It just doesn’t work.”
FINDING SOLUTIONS THAT WORK
But the industry, rooted in a “common man” philosophy exemplified by the Penny Press era, has been slow to respond. A 1993 Freedom Forum report, “No Train, No Gain,” identified a serious lack of training for newspaper staffs coupled with an interest for more training opportunities.
While industry leaders say some progress has been made, they warn that training is an easy target when newspapers face economic upheaval.
“Lots of newspapers and newspaper companies are assessing how we spend our training dollars,” said Michael Schwartz, manager of newsroom training for Cox Newspapers. “There’s a lot of pressure on training budgets, like there is on all budgets. We’re trying to be smart about it, targeted in our training, looking at how we can have the most impact.”
Having the most impact, experts say, involves targeting those news workers who show potential management and leadership skills – remembering that the best beat reporter may not be the best boss – and crafting training opportunities that nurture and support them at every turn. Opportunities range from sending workers to the well-established residency programs, such as the Poynter Institute and the American Press Institute, to scheduling monthly brown bag lunches and round-table discussions. Training can be formal or informal, costly or not.
“We ought to be more creative when we don’t have the financial support to do things,” said APME’s Andrews. “This is when we should be innovative. That’s hard to do when editors feel as pressed as they are but, on some level, we have to try to keep a steady push for those things that are important. The economy doesn’t change the fundamental importance of things: Quality, diversity, training. They just don’t go away.”
Progress is being made, Andrews said. “There’s evidence that being optimistic is warranted. It’s not a steady trajectory. It’s more meandering than that. But there has been progress.”
Indeed, news organizations are developing management and leadership training opportunities that vary in cost, complexity and time commitment.
“There’s not a single newsroom that can’t take advantage of” working through real-life case studies of challenges faced by other news organizations, Andrews said. At Gannett News Service, a group meets monthly to discuss case studies and articles in professional journals.
At the Rockford Register Star, which has a daily circulation of 70,000, Cunningham brings together young leaders in the newsroom once or twice a year for 10 one-hour workshops on management and leadership issues. At the conclusion, employees complete career development plans that include what training they need to achieve their career goals. Options range from API and Poynter to in-state leadership training and one-on-one mentoring. Potential leaders are first asked to serve on company task forces that expose them to the total newspaper operation. Then they lead the task forces themselves. They may take community college classes or join a local Toastmasters International chapter. They may participate in Chamber of Commerce leadership programs.
“I’m always on the lookout for anything that will help this potential new editor learn about the community, the players in the community, how to do things, how to access power,” Cunningham said. “Too often, we pick people early in the process and send them to API and then we think they’re finished. Editors should send people there regularly. The same person should come back two or three times. But for those who think it’s too expensive, there’s plenty available in your company and in your community.”
At the Rochester (Minn.) Post-Bulletin, which has a daily circulation of 42,000, new city editors have a yearlong in-house training program that address issues such as conducting performance evaluations, interviewing and hiring, sexual harassment, and other supervisory and management skills, said Jon Losness, editor and general manager. A new city editor spends at least 20 hours meeting with community leaders. All new employees spend four and a half days in inter-departmental training.
At the Journal-Constitution in Atlanta, Ga., which has a daily circulation of 411,471, training includes a three-day course in managing diversity; the Cox Academy, which offers skill development and management and leadership training to editors and their staffs; and training targeted at people with high potential.
Among the opportunities offered by Cox Newspapers, one of the media chains that offers training, is “Navigator.” The six-week program for new managers deals with the core issues managers will face, such as managing your boss, motivating employees and hiring new personnel; and “Development Dimensions International,” a seven-unit program for new and existing managers that targets issues such as guiding conflict resolution, valuing differences and supporting improvement.
State press associations also recognize a void and are developing training opportunities, said former Kansas publisher Burkhead, now executive director of the Kansas Press Association. KPA, for example, is launching a leadership academy modeled after a Kansas Chamber of Commerce and Industry program to identify and develop state leaders.
The Southern Newspaper Publishers Association, one of the regional associations that trains journalists, changed its training approach in 2001, when newspapers cut their travel budgets, said Edward VanHorn, the association’s executive director.
“There was no point in trying to prop up what we had done before, even though it was successful in the past, VanHorn said. “We reinvented everything. We started thinking about the real barriers to training: travel expenses and time out of the office. Out of necessity, we came up with a better model.”
This year, the SNPA Foundation, with a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, launched a program that bundles 12 three-hour training sessions into a three-day program at 29 locations in the southeastern United States.
Programs are offered, at no cost to participants, on topics ranging from beat reporting to essential skills for new managers. A total of 268 people attended the first program, offered in Palm Beach, Fla.
The two traditional powerhouses, Poynter and API, continue to offer high-level training for journalists. Poynter offers two seminars that are reserved for recently promoted new leaders in print, broadcast and online, said Jill Geisler, Poynter’s group leader for leadership and management programs. New leaders also are accepted into a variety of other seminars and leadership courses, including a one-day traveling workshop designed to reach journalists unable to attend the traditional weeklong Poynter seminars.
API’s Carol Ann Riordan, director of programming and personnel, says new leaders benefit from a number of programs, starting with an interdepartmental critical management skills seminar. API continues to offer a tiered approach that ranges from a series of department-specific programs to seminars for managing editors and executive editors.
Among a broad range of training available through universities is Northwestern’s Media Management Center, which offers a variety of media management training programs for people who have had some management experience. For students beginning their careers, the University of Georgia’s Cox Institute for Newspaper Management Studies offers a variety of opportunities including a management internship program with Morris Communications, a business-side partnership with Gannett, and a annual management seminar for the editors-in-chief of college newspapers.
“The bottom line,” says Gannett’s director of news development Jennifer Carroll, “is you need to be in charge of your own destiny and develop your own program that ties to your goals. What does the community college offer? What about a daylong program? What about master’s level classes that you are reimbursed for? Take your concerns and considerations into account and come out with a doable program that makes it happen.”
Bonnie Bressers teaches in the A.Q. Miller School of Journalism and Mass Communications at Kansas State University.