This post starts a series for new top editors in Digital First Media newsrooms. Some of the advice might be good for veteran editors, too, and for editors in other companies.
Listening should be one of an editor’s most important skills and priorities.
Editors needed to be good listeners when I started in the news business more than 40 years ago, when we were still melting lead to set type. Listening was essential when I first became editor of the Minot Daily News in 1992, when the digital revolution for newsrooms was just around the next bend. And it was even more important when I became editor of the Cedar Rapids Gazette in 2008, as social media was causing a second (or third; I think I’m losing track) digital revolution for newsrooms. It still remains one of an editor’s most important jobs, but we have some great listening tools that weren’t available before.
A good editor listens to the staff and to the community. You don’t necessarily follow all the advice you hear or act on all the complaints you hear (or bask in the praise), but you need to hear what the community and the staff are saying. You need to know what your staff thinks about your leadership and your decisions. You need to know what the community thinks of your content. You need to know what your staff is proud of and embarrassed of and concerned about. You need to know what your community is laughing at and angry about.
You don’t just need to know what the community is saying about you and your news products, though. You need to know what people are saying about the news and community affairs. Has a story that’s hot in the coffee shops and Facebook discussions escaped your staff’s notice because it doesn’t fit in your beat structure (or because someone is not covering a beat well)? Is your community confused about an issue you are reporting or should be reporting? Has the community grown tired of an issue? You should know.
Listening and following aren’t the same thing. Just because the community is tired of an issue doesn’t mean that you should stop covering it. But you should challenge your staff to make your coverage more interesting or to do a better job of helping the community understand the issue’s importance.
Listening will tell you the staff is upset about a policy. That doesn’t mean you should change the policy. Perhaps you should consider changes, though, or maybe you should involve the staff in developing future policies. Listening may help you understand that you haven’t explained the policy well enough or that you have to deal with some consequences of how you chose or implemented the policy.
While listening has always been important for editors, social media give us helpful listening tools. You should follow staff members on Twitter and friend them on Facebook. They might say things on social media that they’re not telling you in person. And if they’re exercising poor judgment on social media, you want to know quickly, so you can respond appropriately.
You also should be following the community conversation on social media. You can do this a number of different ways:
- Regularly check the @ mentions of yourself and your branded accounts on Twitter. You should have one or more staff members monitoring the accounts, with primary responsibility for responding to questions, complaints, praise and other community tweets directed at your newsroom. But it’s a good idea to respond occasionally from the editor’s account. It sets a good example for the staff and tells the community that you’re listening and that you care.
- Regularly scan the comments on your newsroom’s Facebook page. You want to know if something has struck a chord with the community (or if you’ve stirred up a hornets’ nest). You want to be sure that your staff is engaging with the commenters. Join the conversation occasionally (for the same reasons that you join the Twitter conversation).
- Set up alerts to call various mentions to your attention. I have Google alerts set up for mentions anywhere on the web of my name or links to my blog (you can set them up to alert you immediately or just to give you a daily summary). You can also set up notifications in your Twitter or Facebook settings to help you listen (though you might want to adjust if the flow gets too heavy to be useful).
- Set up Twitter lists and/or TweetDeck or HootSuite columns so you can quickly focus on particular audiences you should listen to. You should definitely have a list or column of all your staff (perhaps lists or columns for different departments if you have a large newsroom). And you should have at least one list of community tweeps. Even on a busy day, you should find a few minutes to scan both types of lists to see if any matters demand your attention.
Of course, listening is just half of being conversational. I blogged in 2011 about how important it is for an editor to be conversational with the community in social media. I won’t repeat that advice here, but I’ll also note that you need to be conversational in person and on the phone with both staff and community. Use social media to enhance traditional listening, not to replace it.
Be sure that you’re a good listener in person with your staff. Turn away from the computer screen and put down your cell phone and tablet when a staff member comes to talk to you at your desk (unless you’re using them to take notes on what the person is saying, in which case you should say that). If your desk is in the newsroom, which is helpful for general listening to the staff, be sensitive to the need some people will have for a private conversation in an office or conference room. If you have an office, make sure you don’t spend too much time in there. And leave the door open most of the time.
Make eye contact. Respond appropriately without taking over the conversation. Take notes if the topic is serious, complicated or will require some follow-up. And if it requires follow-up, end the conversation with an agreement about who does what next and by when. And put a reminder on your calendar immediately so you’ll be sure to follow up. (I need to work on this; even when you know what to do, execution is the key.)
An important listening skill is repeating what you’ve understood, especially if someone is struggling to make a difficult point. Say something like: “So is this the situation?” and explain your understanding back to the staff member. That helps the staff member know whether you understand or what point(s) she needs to clarify.
An important point about listening is that you shouldn’t listen to the same staffers all the time. You’re going to have some relationships that feel comfortable and some people that you have to spend more time with because of their functions or the topics they cover. Make a point, though, of dropping by the desk of a staff member you haven’t talked with in a while to ask him what’s on his mind. Newsrooms notice when an editor is always listening to the same people.
I made a point of having a personal conversation in my office with every staff member early in my time as editor of the Cedar Rapids Gazette. Unless you have an enormous staff (and few newsrooms have any more), I think that’s important for every new editor to do.
What advice would you give a new Digital First editor about listening to staff and the community? Answer in the comments here or by using the #advice4editors hashtag. I’ll add tweets using the hashtag to this post.
— Vince Carey (@vincecarey) April 30, 2013
About this series
I spent a week in February with Chris Roberts, new managing editor of the Daily Times in Farmington, N.M. and a week in March with Michelle Karas, new editor of the Bennington Banner in Vermont. Robert Sterling, new editor of the Marin Independent Journal, and I are making plans for a week there, probably in July. I do some coaching and training with the editors and their staffs, to help them get off to a strong start and to aid them in their Digital First transformation. I made shorter visits last year to other new editors: Ann Cornell at the Reporter in Lansdale, Pa.; John Berry at the Register Citizen and Middletown Press in Torrington, Conn.; Matt Osborne at the Trentonian in New Jersey, and Andy Stettler at Main Line Media in Ardmore, Pa.
While I’ve shared lots of advice in person with these editors, I’m compiling some of that advice (and no doubt some things I forgot to mention) in the blog, both as reinforcement for those editors and for future new Digital First editors I’ll be coaching. I hope some of the advice may be helpful for experienced editors as well as for journalists aspiring to lead newsrooms themselves. While the series is focused on the priorities and values of Digital First Media, the posts might be helpful to editors from other companies as well.
Some of the advice focuses specifically on the digital challenges and opportunities that are critical in Digital First newsrooms. Some are general leadership and journalism issues (often addressed in the Digital First context). If some of the advice sounds familiar, I am sure the series will have echoes of my 2011 post, Leading a Digital First newsroom. The principles haven’t changed much, but this post focuses on the challenges and opportunities a new editor faces, while that one was geared for experienced editors learning our company’s priorities and processes.
Some of the tips also will be familiar to people who attended my Kindling the Flame workshops (I think it’s been five years or so since I’ve led that workshop) and other leadership workshops I have led through the years. While I have updated that material to address the challenges of leading a newsroom in digital transformation, some of the leadership principles remain unchanged.
In addition to the posts on being conversational on social media and leading a Digital First newsroom, I’ll incorporate these earlier blog posts into this series (recognizing that some of them might be a bit dated):
Here are topics I am planning on covering in this series (the order is tentative). What other topics should I cover?
- The editor’s example
- Disrupting the newsroom culture
- Accuracy and accountability
- Standing up for your staff
- The power of questions
- Respecting authorship
- Face-to-face communication
- Personal life
- Time management
- Developing new leaders
- The editor’s blog
- Role models
The posts probably will run daily Monday-Friday for the next few weeks. If you’re another Digital First editor (or a leader or former leader in another organization) and would like to propose a guest post as part of the series, email me at sbuttry (at) digitalfirstmedia (dot) com and we’ll discuss. I’m not interested in a post of general leadership tips. I’d rather have a post on a particular leadership topic. I will invite a few editors I respect to write posts.
I also want to recommend some other reading for new editors: Make time to read Jill Geisler’s leadership blog, What Great Bosses Know. And read her book Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know. I gave copies of the book to Chris and Michelle and just ordered one for Robert. Jill not only is a smart leader and a great teacher and writer, but she also does podcasts of her blog posts, so if it’s more helpful (0r saves time) to hear her advice rather than read it (or if hearing will reinforce reading for you), she gives you plenty of options.
I’ll link to Jill’s blog where I recall advice from her, but I’m sure that on occasion my advice here will reflect some things I’ve read or heard from Jill but incorporated into my own thinking. I’m sure that my advice here will reflect advice from various editors I’ve worked for, too, though I won’t always remember whom to credit.
An older book that had significant impact on my leadership was Love and Profit by James Autry. I highly recommend it to new and veteran editors. It will help you keep your priorities on what’s important.
You also should read John Paton’s blog, particularly these posts:
- Old Dogs New Tricks and Crappy Newspaper Executives
- News Media’s New Role as Both Medium and Message in a World of Partnerships
- How the Crowd Saved Our Company
What other books, blog posts or resources do you recommend for new editors?