This post continues a series on advice for new top editors in Digital First Media newsrooms.
A newsroom’s success is a blend of teamwork and individual excellence, so an editor must foster and reward both.
Here are important ways to encourage teamwork on your staff:
Pair staff members strategically. Keep staff members’ strengths and weaknesses in mind as you pair them on assignments that require more than one person. My editors at the Omaha World-Herald often paired me with less experienced reporters so they would learn from me (I learned from them, too, and I’m sure that happens even more today when you might pair a veteran with great journalism experience with a less-experienced reporter with strong digital skills).
Acknowledge the staff members’ skills as you’re discussing plans for their work together. For a quick story, you might divide the labor according to their strengths: This reporter will search social media for sources because social media is a strength of hers and that reporter is going to check with his excellent sources in law enforcement. But sometimes, especially for a longer-term story, you will want to be clear that you want them to work together in an aspect of the story, to ensure that the reporters learn from each other, rather than just leaning on each other. Specify that they work together on the data analysis, rather than letting the data expert handle that herself. Or they should work together on the video instead of giving that to the video whiz to handle the video himself.
Famed teams such as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, Donald Barlett and James Steele and Anne Hull and Dana Priest thrive by bringing out the best in each team member and making the most of their complementary strengths.
Plan together. Newsrooms overdo meetings, but an effective use of meetings is a “maestro” planning meeting to brainstorm a project or coverage of a major event. Bring together all the reporters, visual journalists, data journalists, artists, editors, developers and other journalists who might be working on story. Discuss what’s worked in the past that you need to include in this project (perhaps with adaptation). Discuss what didn’t work before that you need to adapt or avoid. Discuss new tools someone has heard about that might help with this story. Again, make your planning a mix of specialization to play to strengths and collaboration to learn from each other. If you’re not all in the same place, a video Google+ Hangout is an effective way to meet. Or you can meet by conference call or a web tool such as GoToMeeting.
Communicate clearly. Clear and quick communication is essential for effective teamwork. The best communication is a mix of old-school techniques such as meetings, memos and emails and specialized digital tools such as text messages, instant messages, gchat, project-management tools and group messaging tools such as Facebook groups or Google groups. Don’t bury team members in messages, but a bit of overcommunication is better than not communicating enough. Getting to the point is as important in team communication as it is in news stories. Tell people the most important information in the first sentence or two of a team message, then provide the details. Don’t bury the lead or you can be sure that someone will miss it.
Recognize and reward teamwork. The top editor’s recognition tells the newsroom a lot about your priorities. If you praise (publicly or privately, which people still notice and hear about) a reporter’s story but don’t praise the photojournalist whose accompanying photos and video were just as good and just as important, you undercut the value of your praise to the reporter.
Credit the team. As story forms evolve, credit to journalists needs to keep up. The byline or photo credit might not always be sufficient. Sometimes a box accompanying a story, a note at the end of the story, credits in an interactive project or needs to describe the teamwork and recognize each of the roles. Because movies and TV shows tend to credit the full cast and crew in detail, credits at the end of a video tend to recognize these roles. Consider what’s the best way to spread the credit around when your staff collaborates effectively. Some projects might call for a blog post from the editor detailing the teamwork and crediting each team member. Even strong team players have egos, and credit to the team needs to recognize the individual contributors, so they know that teamwork and their individual contributions are valued.
In newsrooms where I’ve worked, reporters got bylines on their stories and artists received credit lines on their graphics. But many graphics relied on extensive information-gathering by the reporter and sometimes reporters have contributed to the concept and planning of a graphic or design. I noticed that sometimes the reporters didn’t have a lot of enthusiasm for the work that graphics required of them, and I suspect that the lack of credit played a role in that. Of course, designers, assigning editors and copy editors often work without credit. Perhaps it’s impractical to credit them on every story, but be sure to recognize them personally and occasionally in public.
Good journalists deserve credit and many of them crave it. Effective teamwork might obscure the contributions of individual team members, but a good editor must learn about those contributions and distribute the credit fairly.
Include teamwork in job descriptions, appraisals. As you draft descriptions for new jobs or update descriptions of existing jobs, describe the collaboration you expect. However you evaluate staff members, include teamwork in your expectations and in your assessment of their work.
Address problems. Journalists approach teamwork with varying degrees of enthusiasm. If you have some standout journalists who enjoy working by themselves, it’s fine to let them work alone on occasion or even frequently. But if someone resists working on teams when they are needed, you need to deal directly with the issue. State your expectations and priorities clearly and don’t remove someone from a team just because they don’t play well with others. That will send a clear and damaging message to other wannabe lone wolves on the staff.
Want to contribute a guest post?
I welcome guest posts on other leadership topics. 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. Tim McGuire wrote about controlling your calendar and thinking big. Sue Burzynski Bullard provided such a post on organizational tools. Nancy March wrote about balancing work and personal life. Dan Rowinski wrote about mobile opportunities. Teresa Schmedding wrote about leadership style.
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.
Earlier posts with advice for editors
Here are topics I am planning on covering in this series. What other topics should I cover?
- Developing new leaders