Newsroom Notes: Leading through uncertainty

How do you run a newsroom through these unusual times? We’re providing a first-hand view from an industry veteran who agreed to lead the Missouri School of Journalism’s KOMU newsroom — the only university-owned commercial television station and major network affiliate in the United States that uses its newsroom as a working lab for students — during a faculty search process; just as the COVID-19 crisis began unfolding. The challenges are no different from other newsrooms — just layered on top of the challenges facing the next generation of journalists.

What does Ulysses Grant have to do with being a newsroom leader? Read on. I began this project just as COVID-19 went from a global public health pandemic to an international economic crisis. While still in full pandemic coverage, the national debate about racial injustice went global enveloping everything from reforming police procedures to removing statues and symbols with meanings often lost in the fog of history.

Trust in local news outlets runs high. Public opinion surveys referenced in earlier columns reinforce our standing ahead of network or cable news outlets, but that is not what our journalists hear on the streets, in their email or on social media. The arrest of a CNN reporting team in Minneapolis may not have been new, but the local reporting atmosphere has changed. A Louisville Kentucky, reporting team and a Cincinnati reporter are just two examples of fellow journalists being targeted by law enforcement. And, a respectful question from a KOMU reporter to our governor prompted an unnecessarily terse encounter.

We say our newsrooms are looking to us for leadership. Let me share five time-tested leadership tactics and how to best apply them in this period of uncertainty:

  • Listen: Now, more than ever, we need to make time to listen — particularly to those who don’t always speak out. Making time in our chaotic day is the hard part. Always important to find those voices who may not want to speak out in our daily meetings. I know I tend toward talking instead of listening. The Freedom Forum’s Power Shift Project taught me and several University of Missouri colleagues about effective listening. Now programs like Power to the Interns and Becoming an Ally expanded on effective listening in different situations. Are we genuinely listening and are we using what we hear to support our teams AND advance the substance of our coverage?
  • Communicate clearly and often: In any time of uncertainty, teams need to regularly see and hear from their leaders — nothing unique to journalism here. Early in the pandemic, airline business was down 96% with many planes carrying more crew than passengers. Whitney Eichinger is a key culture leader at Southwest Airlines — an organization widely studied for its positive culture (in full disclosure, we are extended family in the airline thanks to our daughter!) “He’s (CEO Gary Kelly) taken more time … so we can see him and hear from him,” according to Eichinger in a recent interview. Kelly regularly answers employee questions in video messages — sometimes multiple times a week. I’m reminded of a general manager and former colleague. Facing weeks of financial reviews that ultimately led to several dozen layoffs, he called a staff meeting and promised that department leaders would never mislead anyone. Still, he said, there would be things we could not discuss publicly and that was going to mean staffers should expect us to occasionally say that we simply could not answer a question. By the way, turn your camera on during those Zoom meetings — your team wants to SEE and HEAR from you.
  • Feedback is more important than ever: In the digital age of instantaneous feedback, we need to make sure our teams get constructive feedback. Jill Geisler, Bill Plante Chair in Leadership and Media Integrity at Chicago’s Loyola University knows more about feedback than anyone I know. In what she describes as the “tsunami of stories” in our newsrooms, Geisler suggests empowering the team to “grow the grapevine” of positive feedback. And, teach your team how to constructively brag about their work. Remember that good feedback is specific — need not be all positive, but always genuine.
  • Practice good decision-making: Note that I didn’t say make good decisions. We are all going to make some bad ones. Good decisions come from good information. Ethics and Values Scholar Bob Steele’s Ten Questions are as important today as ever. Let your team see YOU practicing good decision-making and you will empower them to do the same. If you make a bad decision, own it and let your team see you working to understand HOW you can make a better decision the next time.
  • Make decisions at the right time: The current frenzy of breaking news demands SOME quick decisions. Not every issue needs to be addressed in the rhythm of a live breaking news broadcast. Did you know there is a science that studies decision-making? University of San Diego Professor Frank Partnoy wrote an entire book about the science of good decision-making — making decisions at the right time is often the most important element of making good decisions. Your team will appreciate you as a good leader when you show them that you know when to make a fast decision and when to be more deliberate.

The global pandemic was already testing leadership across just about every aspect of society. I am slogging through 1,100 pages of the most recent biography of Ulysses Grant. Historian Ron Chernow takes us far beyond the battle-worn Grant and the scandal-plagued inner circle. Known by some for his anti-Semitic General Order 11 and by others for his abysmal personal business decisions, Chernow argues that Grant was an incredibly effective leader despite many shortcomings.

In today’s newsrooms, we are all navigating new physically distant workflows. Some organizations are “restructuring” in reaction to business challenges and some politicians are encouraging partisans to viciously attack outlets reporting stories they find inconsistent with their own beliefs. Your team does not expect perfection, but they will appreciate good leadership.

I’ve been ending these missives with part of a verse from Ecclesiastes Chapter 3. “To everything there is a season…” Let’s work to make this a season of better leadership.


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