This continues a series on advice for new top editors in Digital First Media newsrooms.
Your staff doesn’t always deserve praise. Sometimes you need to identify problems for staff members to address, and you need to do that directly.
Focus your criticism on the action and result and on solutions, not on the person: Instead of saying someone’s a bad writer or can’t write a good lead, show a cumbersome, unfocused lead and talk about some techniques to help the person writer better leads. (If the staff member is aware of the problem, move straight to the instruction and challenge without piling on with the criticism.)
Journalists respond well to challenges. Don’t just tell a reporter that her leads are too long. Challenge her to write a strong lead for the story she’s working on today in fewer than 20 words. She will be able to meet the challenge. She’ll probably see that it’s better than the long lead from yesterday that resulted in the challenge. And your challenge will turn the criticism into a positive experience, not an ass-kicking.
Criticism needs to be clear and direct, delivered face to face (but possibly followed up in writing), with eye contact. But the criticism is not as important as the challenge that accompanies it.
For individual problems, criticism should be handled privately, to avoid embarrassment and minimize defensiveness. But if you have a problem that’s widespread, you need to address it openly.
When I became editor of the Cedar Rapids Gazette in 2008, I noticed quickly that too many stories had leads that were unnecessarily and intolerably long. As much as I believe in the value of praise, I couldn’t solve this problem simply by praising the leads that got to the point quickly and clearly. I needed to address the leads that were too long.
I identified the problem in a message to the staff. I scheduled a workshop on writing leads. In the slides for the workshop, I used several rambling, unfocused leads written by our staff. I thought using staff examples helped show people who probably wouldn’t think I was talking about them that I was talking about them. I didn’t have time to discuss everyone’s long leads individually and discussing them collectively was more efficient. I used enough too-long leads in my slides that I’m fairly sure no one felt singled out. I showed techniques for improving those very leads and getting quickly to the point. And I challenged them to write shorter, better-focused leads.
When you present a challenge to your staff, follow up and let them know how they are doing. After my workshop and message on long leads, a lot of my praise over the next few weeks focused on the best leads of each day. And I also chatted or emailed with a few reporters about leads that were still too long.
The instruction and the praise for strong leads were important parts of our subsequent improvement. But we started improving because I was direct and blunt about the problem and challenged good journalists to work better.
A challenge helps journalists move beyond the sting of criticism.
How has a good editor helped you to better performance by criticizing and challenging you?
Jill Geisler’s What Great Bosses Know about Tough Conversations
Earlier posts with advice for editors
Here are topics I am planning on covering in this series (the order is tentative). What other topics should I cover?
- 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. Feel free to suggest a post that might address a topic I’ve already covered, but from a different perspective. I welcome posts that disagree with my advice. I will invite a few editors I respect to write posts.