This continues my series on advice for new Digital First editors.
A common challenge for new editors is leading staff members who are older and more experienced than you. Sometimes a lot older.
Digital First CEO John Paton has said we’re going to “put the digital people in charge.” Digital people aren’t always young and print people aren’t always old, but sometimes that means an editor will be leading people as old as his or her parents. Or older.
And that’s not strictly a phenomenon of digital journalism. I was 24 when I became an assistant city editor at the Des Moines Register, supervising veterans such as Nick Lamberto and Otto Knauth, both of whom were older than my parents. The young editor getting a leadership opportunity has always been tested and evaluated by veteran journalists.
The best ways for a young leader to earn respect from older journalists are to show respect and to do good work. But these specific tips can also help:
Make learning two-way. Your digital skills are an important part of why you are getting your leadership opportunity. You need to teach and coach colleagues in their use of digital tools and techniques. But recognize that you have much to learn from them. When their work impresses you, ask questions about what they did and how. This helps you in two ways: You show respect to them at the same time that you learn from them and become a better journalist.
Insist on accuracy and verification. A perhaps-unfair stereotype veteran journalists have is that accuracy isn’t as important in digital journalism as it has been traditionally. Accuracy should be as important as ever, and you will win respect from colleagues as you educate them about how to verify information from social media and as you ask good verification questions, such as “How do you know that?” and “How else do you know that?”
Lead discussions of ethics. Ethics are important to veteran journalists, and as you discuss ethical issues with veteran staff members, their respect for you will grow. You may not share identical values (as Tim McGuire noted when Poynter’s Guiding Principles for the Journalist were updated, some journalists might disagree about the relative importance of independence and transparency). I haven’t won widespread support yet for my view that ethical principles should stress the importance of linking. However, discussing with veteran journalists the reasons for your ethical values will help them understand your values and recognize that you do share many values and that your disagreements are rooted in principle, not a result of lacking ethics. Nearly every serious discussion of journalism ethics that I’ve had has deepened my respect for the colleagues involved, whether we agree or not.
Ask, don’t tell. I did a whole post in this series on the importance of asking questions. This is especially important in dealing with veteran staff members. If you tell a veteran reporter or editor what to do in a particular situation, it feels and sounds condescending if the journalist already knows what to do. And, even if the journalist doesn’t know what to do (as in digital skills perhaps), it feels bossy to have some kid telling him what to do. (I know, you’re not a kid, but to this veteran, it feels like being bossed around by a kid.) But if you ask how the veteran is going to handle a situation, the answer, if she knows what to do, may be a great learning opportunity for you. If the veteran doesn’t know what to do, she will ask your help and that’s a better situation than being bossed by a kid. And if the veteran thinks he knows what to do, but is overlooking a key step (perhaps a Twitter search for people tweeting about the incident), you will need to assert yourself (and it may feel like being bossed by a kid, but at least it started with a showing of respect).
Stand your ground. Sometimes a veteran journalist will challenge a young editor, testing your confidence. Be sure you’re right before you rise to such a challenge, but if you know you’re right, stand your ground firmly. Nick was a fierce crime reporter who badgered reluctant cops into giving him the information he needed and was no less tough on editors. We were arguing over a grammar point early in my tenure and Nick tried to bluster his way through the argument, raising his voice to say, “Steve, I got a 99 in grammar at Notre Dame!” I fired back, “Nick, I got a 100 in grammar at TCU!” (That wasn’t true, the only time I recall lying to a reporter; I didn’t even take grammar at TCU, but I knew my grammar, and I was right, and I needed to stand up to Nick.) I’m pretty sure Nick checked a grammar or style book when he returned to his desk, because he would have appealed his case to the city editor rather than letting me win is he were right, and he didn’t. More important than the grammar point (I can’t even recall what it was), Nick learned that this kid wasn’t intimidated (actually, I was, but you have to stand your ground anyway). We ended up having a great working relationship after I passed his test.
Avoid bluster. You don’t earn respect by pseudo-toughness. Journalists have great BS detectors. Don’t try to compensate for your lack of experience with bluster. Sorry, I don’t have an anecdote to share to illustrate this point. I tried to forget those errors as quickly as possible. If you have trouble understanding the difference between standing your ground and bluster, my bluster errors were unprompted. It would be like telling Nick with no prompting, or in a memo, that I got 100 in grammar at TCU. That’s a ridiculous and perhaps obvious lie in that context and would lose me respect. (Following Nick’s ridiculous boast and because I was right, it worked in the other context.)
Admit your mistakes. Again, I did a whole blog post on this topic. You’re going to make mistakes. Admitting them helps build respect. Denying or ignoring them confirms the veterans’ worst fears about your inexperience.
Show personal interest. Learn about the family, career and interests of the veteran journalist. Don’t bring up your age or ask about the ages of her children, but don’t worry about either of you learning that you’re the same age or even younger than her kids. There’s a good chance that the journalist has already figured that out or speculated about it. Personal connections are the best way to earn respect and nearly everyone has respectful friendships across generations. As you learn about each other’s lives and interests, your working relationship becomes more friendly, even if you never become close friends (and you might).
Find a mentor. Connect with a veteran editor who’s leading another newsroom, either a Digital First colleague or someone from another company. I’m willing and eager to serve as a mentor to any Digital First editor (and others, as time permits). But you might prefer someone in your state, where you can connect now and then for lunch, or catch up over drinks at the state press association meeting. It might help to have more than one mentor. But you want someone you can ask for advice confidentially in a touchy personnel situation or someone to vent with after you’ve made a rookie mistake or after you made the right call and the staff didn’t recognize that. A veteran editor makes a great sounding board for a new editor. Seek one out.
And those two key points are worth repeating:
Do good work. Good journalists respect good journalists. Excel at your job and we old farts will respect you. If you give us a little time.
Give respect. Even with the crustiest curmudgeon on your staff, if you give respect, you are likely to receive respect.
What’s your advice?
How did you (or a young editor you worked for) earn the respect of veteran journalists?
Would you like to write a guest post of advice for new editors?