If you invest time and resources in their development, the payback is tenfold
This is the fourth of a series about mentors -whether friends, family, coaches, guides, or teachers — and how we can be good mentors to others. With rapid change in the digital world, we need to be lifelong learners and teachers.
Before the digital era, small newspapers and broadcast outlets served as a kind of classroom and training ground for journalists. But frankly, I’m worried that this kind of training is not being done either at the large traditional media or in the small digital newsrooms.
Recently I posted this query on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Substack:
I have a question about how digital newsroom editors are solving the problem of finding time to develop the skills of their staffs.
How are they finding the time to do this effectively?
It helps the journalists and it helps the publication.
Please share the tactics and strategies you’ve seen or heard about. Thank you.
Two weeks went by, and while several people have “liked” this comment, I haven’t received any feedback of how people are doing this. Of course there are excellent training organizations out there, such as the Poynter Institute and the International Center for Journalists, both of which I have done consulting work for.
My own newspaper career was built on the newsroom as classroom. Charles “Andy” Anderson ruled the newsroom at the Painesville, Ohio, Telegraph with good humor and high expectations. Andy was a great teacher. I had the good fortune to work for him as a copy editor in my first professional newspaper job.
As a rookie copy editor, I had to ask skeptical questions about reporters’ stories, rewrite as necessary, and then write a headline. Andy was rarely satisfied with the first headline I would write. He urged me to write five, 10, 15 headlines in search of just the right combination of words to give readers the dose of wonder, surprise, outrage, or humor that the story demanded.
Andy loaned me books about journalism — among them Edmund Arnold’s “Modern Newspaper Design” and “Ralph McGill, Reporter” — and we would talk about them after deadline. This was training that I needed. Although I had worked on university publications, I had studied literature, not journalism.
Gradually, he gave me more responsibility, including laying out the front page. He made it clear when he thought my work did not meet expectations, yet he also gave me lots of encouragement. He went on to bigger things. We reconnected decades later and exchanged some emails with his lively opinions about the decline of the newspaper industry. I was sorry to see that he died just two months ago ( his career and achievements described here.)
Andy and The Telegraph prepared me for working at The Dispatch, an afternoon daily in Columbus, the state capital.
The Dispatch had a newsroom of more than 200 editors, reporters, and photographers and faced fierce competition from print and broadcast media. Veteran colleagues took time to educate me.
Today, newsrooms have shrunk and deadlines come every minute. How can digital newsroom editors provide the kind of in-house training that used to be the norm in pre-internet days?
I have two suggestions: You have many priorities and many demands on your time. I’m guessing that training, which I consider a critical part of an editor’s job, does not appear on your performance evaluations or your priority list.
For a small newsroom of 10 people or less:
- The most important thing you can do every week is invest an hour developing the skills and abilities of your people. The investment of time now will save you time next week, next month, next year.
- Make it a weekly priority to spend an hour of quiet, uninterrupted time with one or more of your people and focus on how to improve on things that matter- accuracy, fairness, public service, and, dare I say it, fun. Journalism today is a grind, but it should also be fun.
Editors in larger newsrooms might be able to devote more time. During my time as a business newspaper publisher, I devoted one hour a week with each of my five department managers — five hours a week — to focus on helping them achieve their personal and professional goals.
After about six months, these confidential sessions saved me time. The point was to help these managers find their own solutions to problems, anticipate crises, and develop leadership skills. It was the most productive and rewarding time I spent as a manager.
At The Dispatch, I had many, many tutors. Various editors offered me opportunities to cover stories about medical breakthroughs, agricultural research, and local politics at the village, city, and state level. They liked my work and mostly tolerated my ego, arrogance, and abrasiveness.
Editor-in-chief Luke Feck rescued me from battles with a local political figure and put me to work on a long-term research project — how to revive the downtown business district. It meant traveling to other cities that had had some success and producing a special 12-page section for the Sunday paper.
That project won a couple of awards, and for me, it developed a taste for in-depth research. In due course, the paper’s metro editor, Gary Kiefer, put me onto other special projects, such as coverage of the state’s savings and loan collapse of 1985, which developed my taste for financial news coverage.
Ultimately, Kiefer took me aside and said, “I want you to start an investigative reporting team.” My initial reaction was fear. “But I don’t know anything about investigative reporting.” Kiefer’s response: “But if you don’t do it, who will?”
So, I said OK, but send me to some investigative reporting conferences where I can learn from the people who are already doing it. Kiefer approved the conferences and assigned four more people to our special projects group.
For newsroom leaders, the point here is to find ways to give your people opportunities that will stretch their abilities. And be sure to give them the resources to do the job well.
Over the next three years, our group did many series that helped establish The Dispatch as a leader in watchdog journalism, community service, and science reporting.
Gary Kiefer pointed out that two projects in particular had long-lasting impact.
- Reporter Robin Yocum’s series in late ’85 on the teen prostitute problems in the area just north of downtown. As Kiefer recalled, “The series really forced the city to deal with the problem, and that paved the way for new businesses to thrive.” Today that Short North area “is the hot spot today for trendy restaurants, bars, and apartment developments.”
- Reporter Mary Yost ‘s series on child-abuse deaths in 1986 also focused attention on a significant issue. “So many of those deaths were being shrugged off by prosecutors and courts, as if the children didn’t matter,” Kiefer said. “I sincerely believe this series and the follow-up reporting opened many eyes and began to change how society looked at the problem.”
Investing in quality control
When newsroom leaders see a key part of their job as helping reporters advance in their careers, they will find their jobs become easier. The people around them will have the knowledge and ability to take more responsibility for ensuring accuracy, trustworthiness, and fairness.
And here I have to lament the loss of copy editors from newsroom staffs. These were the people who reviewed stories for accuracy, spelling, and grammar before they were sent to the press room. (A big regret for me today is that when I did battle with them over word choice or the headline, I was often less than civil. Belatedly, I apologize.)
But copy editing positions were among the first positions eliminated nationwide as newspapers downsized to protect the bottom line. This loss of quality control shows up all too frequently, even in prestigious publications that almost never had typos.
Cost cutting led to staff reductions and that affected quality as well. It’s the new normal.