“I need to find the joy and excitement I once experienced as a journalist,” an editor told me in a recent comment on my blog. “I just don’t feel it right now. I pray it will return.”
This editor, Emily Olson, managing editor of the Register Citizen in Torrington, Conn., is not one of the curmudgeons I addressed recently, resisting change in newsrooms. She is leading change in her newsroom. She was described by her publisher at the time (and now her group editor), Matt DeRienzo as an “unsung hero” of the Journal Register Co. turnaround. In the video below, Emily discusses the Register Citizen’s Newsroom Café , recognized by the Associated Press Media Editors as Innovator of the Year for 2011.
So why and how has someone who shared in the innovation of the year lost her joy and excitement for journalism? And how can she regain it? Let’s start by reading Emily’s comment:
It’s been more than 15 years since I decided to leave my job delivering flowers and planting trees at a nursery, go back to school and become a newspaper reporter. Since then (1997) I have built a career as a writer and editor and watched the world change and move under my feet – first with digital cameras and jpgs, which replaced film and contact sheets, then digital layout, web postings once a week, and in the last three years have observed and taken part in – to some extent – the skyrocketing changes that our industry has embraced. I have a title that has the word “managing” and “editor” in it, but they don’t go hand in hand right now because in spite of the massive changes and rolling waves that crash on our desks, we still have to read email, copy and paste, process in photoshop, built unending queues of pages and try, in the midst of it all, to become a ninja.
Well, I pray that my bosses over the years are doing OK. Most of them have moved on, some of them stayed behind, and some of them, like me, are trying to keep up. Am I a curmudgeon? Probably, and that’s pretty sad, to be labeled as such, but I also believe that what I am doing is often so contrary to what is happening around me that I feel like giving up.
Saying “don’t let your bosses” do anything to slow you down from reaching your goals is so, so easy to say when you’re on top. What happens when you’re constantly reminded that you’re never doing enough, and you can’t seem to get out of your own way? What happens when you are saddled with people who simply refuse to budge?
Mr. Buttry, I’m not asking for answers. Your thoughtful blog, which I just read, was inspiring, and it does remind me that I need to find the joy and excitement I once experienced as a journalist. I just don’t feel it right now. I pray it will return. I want to be better, and I want to excel in my company. I was once told I was the glue that held the newsroom together. I sometimes wonder what will happen when I get so watered down that I can’t do it anymore.
Want to know what the best part of my day was today? Editing a story for one of my staff members. It was a fleeting moment of normalcy in an otherwise grinding experience in my newsroom.
And before you respond, DON’T tell me I should leave if I don’t like what’s happening; I never said that. I just wonder where I fit in all of this – and why nobody seems to be able to give me a real answer to that question.
First things first, Emily: You’re not a curmudgeon. A curmudgeon is someone who resists change, glamorizing a past that he or she probably whined about then, too. We have a different word for hard-working people who sometimes feel overwhelmed and confused by change: human. Thanks for your candor and thanks for asking for help. That’s an important step and I want to help.
I will address this on two levels: Advice for Emily (and other journalists who I know are struggling with the same issues) and advice for newsroom leaders and news company executives:
Advice for Emily
You sound too stressed and busy to read a long blog post attempting to inspire you to be happier. The post you commented on was my attempt at that. And I already provided some thoughts on rejuvenating a career. Today I’ll try to provide a few brief, practical tips:
- Schedule enjoyment. Fence off an hour a day (a half-hour, if that’s all you can manage) for a work task that you enjoy and work on it uninterrupted (away from your desk is a good idea). Don’t check email, Facebook or tweets. Don’t answer the
funphone. Edit a story that will be the highlight of this day. The grind will be there when the hour is done. It’s sometimes easier to do this earlier in a day rather than later.
- Stop doing something. Examine your daunting workload and identify something you should stop doing. Maybe you do it because the managing editor has always done it, but 20 new duties have been added to the ME’s job since this one was added and it’s not as important as it was then. Tell (don’t ask) your boss that you’re going to stop doing it. (Or maybe you’ll do it less or assign it to someone else or meet the need in a different way.) And then stop doing something else. And something else. We’ve added too many tasks to our workday without taking any away. Take the initiative to change your workload. Your stated goal isn’t to protect your sanity and restore your joy and excitement. The goal is to do the new things better (but you’ll help with those other goals, too). If you go too far, the boss will let you know. But if he’s smart, he’ll follow your example and revise his workload.
- Work on mastering new skills. I’m sure that Digital Ninja School feels like one more thing to deal with when you can’t handle your current load. But learning new skills is important on multiple levels. Competence builds confidence and together competence and confidence can guide and embolden you in reshaping your workload and your workday. As you master new skills, you can perform them faster and you can use them in performing or replacing old tasks, so they can streamline or invigorate your work. And learning is fun. Learning skills and tools like blogging, Twitter, Facebook, Storify, liveblogging and Pinterest has changed my workload and made my work more fun.
- Do something fun at work. Even if it’s an effort, force yourself to have some fun with colleagues. Maybe it’s a birthday cake (or drink after work) for a colleague. Maybe it’s a celebration of an achievement (doesn’t have to be big). Maybe it’s sharing something funny with colleagues. Make an effort to have fun and work will start to be more fun (for your colleagues, too).
- Sprinkle some fun in your chores. I know you’re not a big Twitter user. That’s probably one of those new chores that add to the rolling waves that crash on your desk. You do need to master Twitter use for journalism, but sprinkle a few fun tweeps in with the batch you follow: @FakeAPStylebook, @geneweingarten, @OHnewsroom, @johnemcintyre, @DFnewscat and @badbanana are fun. I’m not the only person who thinks my wife, Mimi Johnson, shows some good humor in her tweets.
- Treat yourself now and then. Make sure you’re having fun and/or releasing tension outside of work. What helps you relax or have fun? A funny, dramatic or romantic movie? A canoe trip? A drive in the country? A massage? Some enjoyment outside of work makes the grind more tolerable.
Advice for newsroom leaders and news execs
We need journalists like Emily to enjoy their jobs, or we won’t succeed at transforming our newsrooms. Here are some suggestions for bosses of Emily and other similarly stressed middle managers:
- Listen. Sometimes it just helps for middle managers to vent occasionally. The topics of venting may be things outside your control and all you can do is listen and sympathize. But both of those help. Listening also helps you identify little ways you can help and major crises you need to deal with (perhaps in time to head them off). And when the boss listens, the middle manager feels more like hanging in there and trying again.
- Praise. One of the most important things a leader can do is praise middle managers (who generally have thankless jobs). Praise must be specific to be effective; a half-hearted “nice job” doesn’t count and may even be counterproductive. This is most important in times of change and times of heavy demand. When you demand new tasks and new skills of managers (and other staff members), let them know how they are doing. You need to give feedback that identifies where they still need to improve. Praise is the most valuable, least costly, most useful, most underused management tool. It’s absolutely essential in great economic times when you can dish out great pay raises and occasional bonuses. It’s twice as essential in tough economic times, especially when expectations are changing. Praise tells middle managers that their efforts to change are working and that their long hours are appreciated. Praise tells middle managers what you value. Emily said she was “constantly reminded” she’s not doing enough. She needs to know when she’s doing enough and well enough. If you’re one of those managers who don’t praise people “just for doing their jobs,” those people start to dislike doing their jobs for you. I did the research on this a few years ago: Managers who praise their staffs are more likely to inspire their staffs.
- Decide what to stop doing. Executives need to stop piling more work on middle managers. We have to tell them what to stop doing (or, better yet, ask them to help us figure out what to stop doing). When we simply add to duties, their work doesn’t please us and doesn’t please them, and we get the frustration Emily expressed. We can’t just keep piling on new stuff. That just results in Emily’s feeling that she’s not doing enough. We need to say what old stuff they can stop doing, show them how to use new tools to do the old chores we need to keep doing and identify places where lower standards and less work are acceptable.
- Help with those immovable objects. Those people “who simply refuse to budge” are a challenge that top managers need to address with the middle managers. We need to make expectations clear (again, including what people should stop doing). We need to provide the tools and training that staff members need to meet expectations. If people are making slow progress, we need to support Emily and other middle managers in bringing them along. But if they are refusing to budge, we need to make the tough decisions and move them into other jobs or let them know that they need to find a new newsroom or a new career.
What advice would you add for Emily or her bosses?
This blog post was inspired by a comment on a blog post that was inspired by a comment on a blog post. Have I developed a new model for blogging?
Update: Dan Conover, one of the most insightful commentators on the news business and journalism, adds six more pieces of advice for news executives and newsroom leaders in his Xark! blog. It’s great advice: Stand for something; fire all the assholes you promoted; cut back your production schedule … If you found this helpful, I recommend that you read Dan’s piece. I also encourage you to read the thoughtful comments below. Also, here’s some of the reaction on Twitter:
@stevebuttry If we could implement today’s blog across all industries, we would triple productivity and halve mental-health care costs.
— Mark Loundy (@MarkLoundy) April 26, 2012
— Brandon Goodwin (@bgoodwin0922) April 26, 2012
— Emily Miller (@mcemilywrites) April 26, 2012
— Kathy Lu (@kathyluwho) April 26, 2012
@stevebuttry All good tips and many are in place here. The one that helped me the most was eliminating a useless daily duty.
— Madison Taylor (@tnmadisontaylor) April 26, 2012
— Bessie Kingof (@Bessiejking) April 26, 2012
— Robyn Tomlin (@robyntomlin) April 26, 2012
— Jim Santori (@JPSantori) April 26, 2012
Listen to Emily Olson in the video below, so you get an understanding of the urgency of helping journalists like her recapture the joy and excitement of journalism.