This continues a series on advice for new top editors in Digital First Media newsrooms.
Editors should be aware that we’re role models for the future editors on our staffs.
The editor who most shaped my own leadership is David Witke, who was managing editor of the Des Moines Register when I started working there in 1977 (the editor who hired me, in fact).
Dave has given me lots of advice through the years, but nothing he told me was as important as watching him lead. Here’s my favorite example of Dave’s leadership:
When I first started working on the city desk, I had the Sunday-Thursday schedule. That meant that on Sunday, I was in charge of all local and state news coverage. Of course, most Sundays are pretty slow, a low-risk spot for an inexperienced editor (I was 24 when I first became an assistant city editor). But it also was an important learning experience and responsibility for me, running the show when news broke on a Sunday.
Sundays I worked in the desk we called the “hot seat,” where the chief assistant city editor normally worked. I could easily hear the police scanner on the desk behind me and the desk had lots of schedules, phone numbers and other things that were helpful for covering news across Des Moines and Iowa (these were the days when the Register was truly a statewide paper, covering Iowa from border to border, with statewide home delivery).
On slow Sundays, I studied the various rosters and lists of phone numbers, so I would know what to call for different kinds of stories. One that intrigued me was the number for chartering an airplane. I wondered what kind of a story would justify flying a reporter and photojournalist to the scene, and if I would ever wield such power.
One Sunday (probably in the spring of 1980), a grain elevator blew up in a western Iowa town, killing some people and causing extensive damage. (In this age of terrorist explosions, I should note that the explosion was accidental; grain dust can be quite explosive if a spark ignites it.)
This was long before mobile phones were common. As I recall, it was a nice spring afternoon and I couldn’t reach Dave or the city editor or news editor (who would come in later to put the paper out). I was on my own. I called the air charter number and ordered a plane to fly a reporter and photographer to western Iowa, a distance that would take about three hours by car.
The reporter and photographer did an excellent job, kicking the asses of the Omaha World-Herald and the Sioux City Journal, other dailies that covered western Iowa. I was proud of our coverage.
But I also was worried about that plane. How much would it cost? Did we have money for it in the budget? Did I have the authority to order it? Would I be in trouble for exceeding my authority?
I remember going in a little early on Monday to confess what I’d done. The city editor wasn’t in at the time (or maybe was off that day), so I went into Dave’s office and started explaining what I’d done and why, that I couldn’t reach anyone in authority, that it was a long way to drive, etc.
Dave cut me off. He said (I’m quoting from a memory more than three decades old, but it’s a clear memory, so I’ll use quotation marks, even if I’m off by a few words): “Steve, don’t ever come into my office and apologize for sending a good reporter and a good photographer to cover a good story. That’s your job. Worrying about the budget is my job. If you didn’t hustle to cover that story, that’s when you need to come into my office with an apology, and an apology won’t be good enough.”
He laughed and I laughed and we had a good conversation about the story and how we covered it.
In that simple conversation, Dave reinforced the confidence and authority of an uncertain but promising young editor. He told me what was important. He told me I’d done a good job. He let me know he had my back. He showed me how to lead.* All of those are things a young editor has to learn.
After I started telling this story in leadership seminars, I thought that I should tell Dave how much it meant to me. I was curious whether he would even remember the discussion. I thought he might not, surmising that I would be able to make the point that something that’s no big deal to you can be a huge deal to the people you work for. But I was wrong. Dave remembered the conversation quickly and in surprising detail. He knew at the time that this was an important exchange in shaping my future as a leader.
That wasn’t the first leadership lesson I received from Dave. I started working at the Register on the copy desk in November 1977. Six months later my father died. I learned of his death late in the afternoon or early in the evening on the day before payday.
Mimi and I were making hasty plans to drive that night to my parents’ home in Kankakee, Ill. But we were young parents living paycheck to paycheck and I knew I didn’t have enough money to spend a week in Kankakee. This was before automatic deposit and I was trying to figure out a way to get access to my paycheck.
I went into Dave’s office to ask if there was any way to get my paycheck that night from the payroll office or maybe to have someone deposit it in my checking account for me the next day. I was hoping to cash the paycheck at a grocery store that evening before we left. Another possibility, I said, would be to cash a personal check at the grocery story, if I could be assured that someone would be depositing my check the next day. But we weren’t sure someone else could do that without me endorsing the check, and Dave wisely advised against kiting a check.
He pulled out his wallet. His bank had just sent him a plastic card that was supposed to give him 24-hour access to his account. So his first use of an ATM card was to give me a personal cash loan of $200 so I could get to my grieving mother’s house as quickly as possible.
It was an example of caring leadership that continues to guide me. Leadership isn’t all about covering the news and doing good journalism. It’s about people and relationships. He had the means to help a distraught young staff member and he did. Quickly and compassionately. I repaid him the $200 a week later when I returned to the newsroom and picked up my paycheck. I guess I’ll never repay all that he taught me about leadership.
In 1982, I was distraught for other reasons. The company was killing the afternoon Tribune and merging the staffs. One horrible day (in late June, as I recall), more than 50 of my colleagues were being told that they wouldn’t be part of the new Register. Some were being offered early-retirement packages (can’t recall whether they were optional, but if the people had any choice, it was minimal) and some were being given notice that their jobs would end when the Trib died Sept. 25.
Dave and Bill Maurer, the managing editor of the Tribune, and Jim Gannon, executive editor of both papers, were summoning staff members one by one to conference rooms upstairs in the corporate offices, delivering the bad news. They got to all the staff members who were being cut, but didn’t have time to summon all who were staying and tell us what our jobs would be. Even if you weren’t getting the terrible news, it was a miserable day as colleagues came down from the offices distressed or angry. Even many of the survivors were not pleased with their roles in the merged operation. And we all were unnerved at the news of each colleague who was cut.
I never got my call to go upstairs. The newsroom, often humming with activity in the evening, was pretty nearly empty that night as everyone who didn’t have to work an evening shift was heading to a bar to commiserate or heading home to break the news to family. Or both. But I was working nights.
My desk was one of the closest to Dave’s office, with a clear view of him when he worked at his desk. He was the first (perhaps the only) top editor to return to the newsroom that evening, looking weary. (Twenty-seven years later I would understand just how weary that day made him when I had to cut my own staff in Cedar Rapids.)
I can’t recall clearly how our conversation started. I don’t think he called me into his office or that I barged in to ask about my future. I think he noticed me watching him (probably pondering whether I should bother him to ask about myself) and either with eye contact or a gesture let me know it was OK to come into his office.
We both started out apologizing – me for bothering him on such a tough day and him for the wait that he knew was excruciating. He explained that they needed to get to the toughest conversations first – the people losing their jobs and the people who would survive but not in the jobs they wanted. I was being promoted to the chief assistant city editor – the hot seat – and would be running the dayside operation of the merged city desk under Chuck Capaldo, the Tribune city editor who would become Register city editor. It was a short conversation, because I was sure Dave would want to talk to a few other surviving night-siders. But he quickly told me I was going to play a key role in moving the newsroom forward after this difficult merger.
Tired though he was, he took the time to tell one more worried staffer (and a few more, I think) what his future would be.
One final Dave Witke story: In 1984, Dave had been kicked upstairs to a corporate position with a title like operations director. Arnold Garson was the managing editor. One evening in the fall, after I returned from covering a story, Arnie asked me into the office.
I could tell early in the conversation that Arnie was leading up to a pitch for me to take on a new editing position or project. And I didn’t want to. I had just shifted – at my initiative – from editing to reporting and I was loving my work as a senior reporter. I had needed the break from editing and I reveled in every story. And I was doing some good ones. That day’s story had been especially satisfying – thwarting a county attorney who was trying to suppress a court file that should have been public.
We had recently started a weekly regional section based in Mason City, called the North Country Register, which had launched just a couple weeks earlier. The North Country move spooked the Fort Dodge Messenger, which presumed we were planning a similar operation for Fort Dodge. We hadn’t been planning such a thing, Arnie said, but the Messenger had just announced that it was going to convert from afternoon to morning publication and start a Sunday edition. Both of those moves would challenge the Register’s morning and Sunday dominance in that part of north-central Iowa, Arnie explained, so we had decided to make quick plans to launch another regional Sunday section based in Fort Dodge, with a satellite newsroom similar to the one in Mason City.
As Arnie continued leading up to his pitch, I was trying to figure out my defensive maneuver: How could I fend off this BS assignment without pissing off the ME?
The North Country staff and the corporate executive who had overseen the launch were still bogged down there with fine-tuning and getting that product rolling and they couldn’t leave Mason City yet to take on the Fort Dodge operation, he explained. I did not like where this was going. Arnie explained that they weren’t asking me to move to Fort Dodge, just to develop the prototype, hire the permanent editor and staff and get the operation rolling, to serve as the “launch editor.”
I was screwing up my courage to tell him no and start explaining why I’d rather not when he told me Dave Witke would be running the project. I’d report to Dave and run the editorial side of the launch. Dave would hire a general manager to run the business side.
I said yes, without hesitation. That’s the difference a good leader makes. The prospect of working with Dave turned a pretty good assignment that I didn’t want because I was enjoying my current work into an opportunity I couldn’t turn down.
That’s the kind of leader you want to become.
*I don’t mean by the airplane story to encourage or authorize every (or any) young editor at Digital First to start chartering airplanes on your own authority to cover news on the weekends. If you have weekend duty, have a discussion with your editor about what your authority entails. And be sure you have the mobile numbers of all the editors above you so that you can seek their guidance when you’re not sure about something. Budgets and communications have changed considerably since 1980 and few newsrooms cover territory as large as the state of Iowa. This is an anecdote about leadership, not about how to cover weekend breaking news in the 21st Century.
I’d like to hear about your leadership role model(s). Who provided a strong example for you, and how did he or she do it? Who has inspired you with words or actions? Tell me briefly in a comment here. Or, if you’d like to write a guest post, email me at sbuttry (at) digitalfirstmedia (dot) com.
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. Sue Burzynski Bullard provided such a post on organizational tools.
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.
Earlier posts with advice for editors
Here are topics I am planning on covering in this series (the order is tentative). The posts probably will run daily Monday-Friday for the next few weeks. What other topics should I cover?
- The editor’s blog
- Time management
- Developing new leaders