This continues a series on advice for new top editors in Digital First Media newsrooms.
An editor must stand up for your staff.
This is one of an editor’s most important duties (and one you usually should avoid delegating because no one can do it as well as the editor).
Listen earnestly to critics. When your newsroom has made errors you need to correct and apologize. The obligation to stand up for your staff is not more important than your obligation to be accurate and accountable. But when you have not made errors and just have honest disagreements with critics, respectfully stand your ground and stand up for your staff. When news sources and public officials are restricting your staff’s access to records and events, you have to stand up for your staff.
I got a gift from the University of Iowa Athletic Department when I was advocating liveblogging as editor of the Cedar Rapids Gazette. Some staff members responded enthusiastically to my initial call for liveblogging, which was a pretty new technique at the time. Others resisted. Some weren’t sure but gave it a try.
In our first Hawkeye game, we showed our inexperience at liveblogging. We covered the Hawks with two reporters and a columnist, so each had his own liveblog. That left them all competing for attention on our website and gave each of them the pressure of blogging through the whole game and fielding questions and comments from fans. We got good traffic, though. So it was kind of a mixed experience. We quickly recognized the need to have all the staffers working out of one liveblog for the second game, but the chaotic first game hadn’t really energized the sports staff about liveblogging.
At the coach’s press conference the following Tuesday, the Athletic Department passed out copies of the NCAA blogging policy (it has been updated, so the link isn’t exactly what our sportswriters received), which limited posts to five per half (we had posted dozens of times each half). If we continued liveblogging, our journalists could lose their credentials and be expelled from the press box.
Suddenly we had an access fight on our hands. Journalists rally to an access fight. I fired off a letter to the university’s athletic department and the NCAA, challenging their limits on every grounds that I could think of (the First Amendment, the stadium was state property, it was bad business to disrespect a media partner and avid Hawkeye fans that way). I noted that it was clear from the comments and questions of fans on the liveblog that many were watching TV, so the liveblog didn’t interfere with broadcast rights. I even invoked American troops serving abroad, saying Hawkeye fans serving overseas in the military couldn’t watch the games on TV, but they could follow our liveblog. Iowa backed down quickly (the NCAA said its policy applied only to NCAA events) and the liveblogging continued.
Sports departments often feel like Rodney Dangerfield in a newsroom, disrespected as the “toy department.” But when the editor has your back in an access battle, respect becomes mutual.
The sports staff became regular and effective livebloggers. One was ready to defy the limit if it hadn’t been rescinded, getting tossed from the press box if it came to that. We had enthusiastic liveblogging not just for football games but for the state volleyball tournament and into the winter sports season.
It wasn’t just because I’d stood up to the Hawkeyes. The sports staff enjoyed the community’s response to liveblogging and enjoyed doing something new and being ahead of the curve in the news business. But I could see that the access fight and my swift response helped galvanize the staff about liveblogging.
And when I blogged recently about the Gazette CEO’s suggestion (much later) that I had “lost” my staff, I got a nice personal message from a sports staffer, assuring me that I didn’t lose the staff.
How have you (or an editor you worked for) stood up for the staff?
Social media response
Countless times through my 22 years at the News & Record, John Robinson stood behind me and my colleagues on stories that took time, cost money, made lawyers nervous and made subjects furious. When I took him out to lunch after he quit and thanked him for it, he basically said, “Look, I asked y’all to go out and do awful [stuff] sometimes for low pay and in lousy conditions. The least I could do was stand behind you.” And when my dad was dying, and when chronic, severe depression rendered me unable to work to anywhere near my capabilities, he hung right in there with me and so did the editors between him and me, particularly Ann Morris, Mark Sutter and Teresa Bailey Prout. And they could do it because JR set the tone.
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?
- 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.