Someone once told me that because editors are managers, they aren’t journalists — eliciting from my mouth a visceral spewing of choice words in both English and Italian.
The fear on his face made me feel a little better, but I had to wonder: was I living an editor’s worst nightmare? Had I become so overcome by administrative responsibilities that real journalism was only an indirect part of my life?
The answer was no. In fact, I realized that I was being too much a journalist and too little a manager. I was overcome by administrative stuff because I hadn’t taken it seriously. And because I hadn’t taken it seriously, I was getting stuck in what my boss at the time described as the Tyranny of the Immediate — a situation in which you can’t see the big picture because you’re always putting out fires.
The Tyranny of the Immediate prohibited me from doing the best job possible for the company or my staff, which meant I probably wasn’t doing the best journalism possible.
So I took a look at what I was doing wrong on the managerial side. I found that while I was pretty good at budgets, motivating my staff and coming up with fresh ideas, I needed to be more organized. I tried to do all things at once rather than giving the necessary attention to individual tasks.
Luckily, this was pretty early on in my career as an editor, so there was plenty of time to fix my errors before I screwed up the lives around me.
With a little help from my friend Stuart Levine, author of the best-selling business guides, “Six Fundamentals of Success” and “Cut to the Chase: and 99 other rules to liberate yourself and gain back the gift of time,” I developed a game plan that has worked pretty well since.
Here are the basics:
Step away from the computer
I used to start the day by checking the morning’s bombardment of e-mail and voice-mails. This guaranteed my slide into the Tyranny, because just as soon as I got through the first batch of messages, another streamed in, which was followed by visits to my office. Inevitably, by the time I got through all that, meetings ensued. I was still able to get things done, and well at that, but not as efficiently or as creatively as I could have.
To get ahead of the game, I committed to getting to work earlier, giving myself enough time to breeze through the competition and set an agenda for the day or weeks ahead — all before my staff came in. Perhaps even more importantly, I decided not to boot up the PC or enter my voice-mail PIN until those simple tasks were done.
Now, instead of getting bogged down at the start of the day, I have a clear plan of action for those must-be-done tasks I used to put aside when the Tyranny took hold. Crossing off one of those lines on my to-do list also gives me a feeling of satisfaction every time.
Plus, by being better prepared for the day, I’m able to give better instructions to my staff. That demonstrates leadership, which in turn makes your staff more confident in you.
Of course, nothing is ever predictable in the news business, and that plan you dutifully created will be scrapped when big news breaks. But stick to starting early and setting a to-do list every day, and you’ll quickly see how your whole day runs smoother, and how you’re getting things done faster and better.
Mastering the 10-minute meeting
Don’t you hate it when some knucklehead manager drags a meeting on for an hour or more when you know it should have been a lot shorter? If only they were better prepared. Well, that knucklehead might be you.
For the simple stuff, keep it short. Ten minutes with your inner circle a day is all it should take. Anything more, and you’re wasting their time and yours. Ten minutes forces you to be prepared and makes them understand you expect them to be just as diligent.
More complicated subjects can require up to one hour, but if you go over that mark, you’re undoubtedly digressing into another matter that can, and should, be dealt with later … knucklehead.
Every now and then, close the door
If anything, I used to be guilty of having my door too open. As a result, I’d get sidetracked with questions that my exceptionally talented staff could have easily figured out without my help. So I empowered them to think creatively and run with those ideas. I know they know what they’re doing, and they needed to know I trusted them to do what they know so well.
And every now and then, when it’s time to concentrate on a heavy subject, you have to be willing to close your door. You’re not being rude. If, like me, you rarely keep your door closed, your staff will understand that.
Clear desk, clear mind
I read a story recently that said people with messy desks are more in tune with what’s important because what’s important usually is on the top of the mess. As one whose desk looks like a tornado hit it during the day, I heartily agree. But at the end of the day, I like to pull in the papers still swirling around my office and organize them in stacks: short-term stuff and long-term stuff. I also like to finish whatever correspondence I didn’t get to during the day, either by phone or e-mail. It helps me go home with a clear mind.
So there you have it. A few tips from an editor once hit with the realization that, yes, editors are journalists, but for better or worse, we’re managers, too.
Carl Corry, SPJ’s former Region 1 director, is executive producer of News 12 Interactive, a division of Cablevision. He previously served as editor of Long Island Business News.