This continues my series on advice for new Digital First editors.
One of an editor’s most important jobs is developing other leaders in your newsroom. A top editor should:
Understand your staff’s aspirations. Except at the largest newsrooms, an editor should take the time to learn what everyone on your staff wants from their careers. Not everyone wants to be an editor, but if someone wants to be an editor (and shows potential), you should know that and watch for opportunities to develop and show their leadership skills. On a bigger staff, you should know the aspirations of your mid-level editors, and perhaps a few other stars, and expect the mid-level managers to know the aspirations of their staffs. You can’t always control whether you hang onto your best people, but your odds are better if you know what they want from their careers and are helping them pursue those goals.
Provide opportunities. Weekend or holiday editing slots or late-night and early-morning shifts give some budding staff members their shots at running the show (as I did on Sundays as a young assistant city editor at the Des Moines Register). Give some authority (and some clear guidance) to potential leaders and see how they perform in these positions.
Know when to let others lead. Some big news stories require all hands on deck and require leadership from the top. But sometimes a top leader can show leadership by stepping back and letting the budding leaders lead. You put people in key leadership positions to do a particular job. Remember to let them do that job.
I remember hearing Libby Averyt, then the editor of the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, describe her staff’s coverage of the big national story that broke in their back yard when Vice President Dick Cheney shot a hunting buddy in the face by accident. That broke on a weekend and Libby checked in by phone but resisted the urge to bigfoot the weekend editor by rushing in to run the show. If someone’s not getting the job done, you can often direct from home. Or you might need to come in if someone’s in over his head (then follow up with some coaching).
When the Sandy Hook massacre happened a year ago, Digital First Media editors recognized that we could and needed to send extra resources to help our Connecticut newsrooms cover that huge story. We sent journalists from several of our Eastern local newsrooms as well as from the Denver Post and from our national Thunderdome newsroom in New York.
Obviously our top editors needed to be involved, too, to help manage all these extra people and to distribute the coverage nationally to other DFM newsrooms. Editor-in-Chief Jim Brady, Thunderdome Editor Robyn Tomlin, East Regional Editor Jim McClure and Vice President of Print Production Frank Scandale were all senior to Connecticut Editor Matt DeRienzo on the DFM org chart and all more experienced than Matt. And all helped.
But this was Matt’s story and the other editors helped in meaningful ways without pushing Matt out of his role directing the coverage of the story in Connecticut. Jim McClure and Frank traveled to Connecticut to help, but played secondary roles, even though Jim is Matt’s boss. Robyn and Jim Brady coordinated the national effort without superseding Matt’s local authority. All three (and Denver Post Editor Greg Moore, whose staff had excelled in coverage of the Aurora massacre months earlier) provided helpful guidance to Matt without bigfooting him.
Provide clear expectations. As you give authority and responsibility to a staff member, be clear and specific about what her job is – and what it isn’t. Explain your priorities. Run through some hypothetical or common situations and explain how you want them handled.
Provide clear and prompt feedback. When a budding editor does an excellent job, he needs to hear specific praise from the top editor. When the performance is poor or mixed, you need to present criticism with specific challenges that will help him learn from the experience and do better next time.
Don’t pile on. If an aspiring editor knows she made some mistakes in a leadership situation, your criticism might not be necessary. If you were disappointed in how a situation was handled, don’t start out with criticism. Start out by asking how it went. If the editor knows she messed up and is already beating herself up, your criticism can be unnecessary and hurtful. Move straight to the coaching, brainstorming about how to do better and presenting an immediate challenge, if possible, to help her improve right away. (If the editor doesn’t recognize the error, your criticism is essential, though.)
Build confidence. Go back and read my earlier post about Dave Witke. He did a fabulous job of building my confidence as a young editor.
Give leadership opportunities to digital stars. Our CEO, John Paton, has said that we need to “put the digital people in charge.” So leaders in Digital First newsrooms need to find leadership opportunities for our digital people. We need to give them feedback and mentoring as they lead and have success and make mistakes.
And, if you think one of your digital stars is too young to lead, remember how young you were when you got your first leadership opportunity. I was 22 when I became managing editor of the Evening Sentinel in Shenandoah and 24 when I became an assistant city editor at the Des Moines Register. I made my share of mistakes in both jobs, but I learned a lot from experience and from more mature leaders.
Encourage aspirations. One of my real pleasures this year has been working with new editors in Digital First newsrooms (this series of blog posts is directed toward them). Several of them have been groomed to lead their new newsrooms by their previous editors. Nancy March was and remains a mentor to new Bennington Banner Editor Michelle Karas, who was business editor under Nancy at The Mercury in Pottstown, Pa. Nancy championed Michelle as ready for the next step and encouraged her to apply. When Nanya Friend retired as editor and publisher of the Charleston Daily Mail, she strongly encouraged us to name Brad McElhinny as her successor, and we did.
El Paso Times Editor Bob Moore helped prepare Sylvia Ulloa, the Times features editor, to lead a newsroom by sending her to Farmington to lead that newsroom for a week as we were considering candidates to be the next editor. Sylvia didn’t apply for that permanent job, but less than a year later, Bob was involved in choosing her as the new editor of the Las Cruces Sun-News.
When you have a great editor on staff, you hate to lose him or her. But an important part of your job is to develop leaders. You develop them because that’s good for your staff while they stick around (and some of them will stick around for a long time). They may love the community and have roots and family ties there and wait until you leave or retire to get their opportunity at the top.
But if you encourage their aspirations and champion them for opportunities elsewhere, that doesn’t just mean that you lose a great editor. You send an important message to the other aspiring editors on your staff. You tell them that you can help them realize their aspirations as well.
You’re going to lose good editors one way or another. That’s the way ambition and opportunity work in the news business. If you try to hang onto your good editors, you’ll lose them because they have ambitions and see that they have to leave to realize them. If you groom your good editors for their next opportunities, you’ll have great editors until they move on. And some of them will value their growth under your leadership and stick around for their whole careers, or at least longer than if you’re not developing them.
Update: Robin Phillips just added this tip:
— Robin J Phillips (@RobinJP) December 10, 2013