This continues my series on advice for new Digital First editors.
Word has reached me that you are having fun on the set. This must stop.
When Mimi was reading Lauren Bacall’s autobiography, Lauren Bacall By Myself, she laughed and read the passage above aloud when the actor told about a telegram studio chief Jack Warner sent to the set of The African Queen with the message above. Warner sounded like too many editors I have known who embrace the serious side of the news business but forget about the value of fun.
A newsroom should be a fun place. The editor should be tolerant (even encouraging) of harmless fun and should sometimes be a leader of newsroom fun.
Some ways to foster fun in your newsroom (your mileage may vary; adapt your approach to your own sense of humor, your own creativity, and to your newsroom’s culture and needs):
Food is fun. No editor should overlook the role of food in newsroom morale. Whether you pop from the newsroom budget or your own pocket, occasionally pass the hat or organize a holiday potluck, your newsroom should enjoy food together. Buy pizza or sandwiches for election night (of course) and occasionally for a lunchtime workshop or a brownbag discussion of an important issue in journalism or whatever is on your staff’s minds. Buy farewell cakes for departing staff members. A measure of camaraderie in your newsroom will be the people who bring their own baking or other cooking into the newsroom, or those who stop on the way to work or over the lunch hour to buy a box of donuts or cookies.
Join the food fun, but don’t hang around for too long. The boss should be part of the fun, but should understand that sometimes it’s more fun when you’re not around. However good an editor you are, people are going to want to talk about you sometimes when you’re not around.
Sports are fun. If the newsroom has a softball or basketball team or golf tournament, consider participation if you enjoy that sport and be supportive even if you don’t play. I coached a softball team when I was editor in Minot and played on a basketball team when I was an editor in Cedar Rapids. As a staff member I played basketball with colleagues in Des Moines and Omaha and softball in Des Moines and Kansas City. All of those experiences developed camaraderie that carried over into the newsroom. Some of our top editors in newsrooms participated in the fun. Mike Finney and Larry King were regulars in basketball games in Omaha.
Co-ed sports are best, especially if the top editor is going to have an organizing role. The team I played on in Cedar Rapids was a men’s team playing in a YMCA men’s league, but the effort was organized by a staff member. But the regular pickup basketball games in Omaha included women (Jena Janovy had a killer jump shot and Julie Anderson played excellent defense), and we played co-ed slow-pitch softball in Des Moines (Carol Pitts was one of our best pitchers). I don’t think the editor should kill the fun if it’s just men or women, especially if it’s staff-organized. But be aware that inclusive fun is more fun.
Self-deprecating humor works best. You can never be sure how a staff member is going to feel about humor at his or her expense. But if the humor is about you, the full staff will enjoy it. If you make a mistake or if something embarrassing happens to you, you can be sure that the full newsroom will enjoy it if you’re a good sport.
I recall a couple times when a newsroom I worked for (at least one of them was the Des Moines Register, the other might have been the Register or the Omaha World-Herald) was tweaked in national media for dull writing. One writer said something to the effect that our staff members probably couldn’t even write a decent suicide note and the other made a predictable jab at the supposedly flat terrain of the Midwest, saying something like our writing was similarly flat.
An editor (I can’t recall who) responded to the latter insult by instituting a contest to recognize the staff’s best writing each month, with the honor called the Flatlander Award. It was a deft way of embracing the insult as a challenge to improve our writing, while recognizing writing excellence, with a little self-deprecating fun.
The suicide-note insult was a potentially risky situation (both for the insulting writer and for the editor who responded to the insult). Suicide isn’t funny, and occasionally newsrooms have to deal with someone on the staff taking that tragic action. A Register editor responded to the insult with a challenge to the newsroom, offering a prize (lunch, as I recall) to the staffer who came up with the best suicide note. (I think I recall who this editor was, but since I’m not sure, I’ll refrain from naming him.) The contest turned the insult into an opportunity to stimulate and highlight staff creativity. As I recall, the winner’s note was short and to the point: “—30—”
The suicide-note contest recognizes the dark and sometimes off-color humor that newsrooms sometimes favor. This particular instance didn’t backfire on the editor by being timed (by coincidence or cause-and-effect) with a staff suicide, or even a suicide in someone’s family (that I recall), which would make the fun inappropriate and potentially hurtful. But a year or two later, our newsroom was rocked by the murder-suicide of reporter Robert Hullihan, who killed his wife and daughter before taking his own life. If that had happened on the heels of the suicide-note contest, the fun would have taken a completely different turn.
While I applaud the creativity of the suicide-note contest (and enjoyed it at the time), I encourage you to use that sort of creativity in less risky ways.
Pranks can be fun. The late James Naughton, famed executive editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer and president of Poynter, was renowned almost as much for his pranks as for all the Pulitzer Prizes his staff won.
Make sure that the pranks are truly fun, not mean.
Fun can help the staff vent. Technology presents some trying times for newsrooms as we learn new tools or hang onto old ones too long. The first computers I ever worked on were a Sperry Univac system where journalists worked at terminals at our desks that were tied to a huge (and slow) mainframe computer. While it was a huge improvement over typing on paper (how I started my career), it was frustrating. The terminals literally could not scroll. You had to hit a “transmit” button to scroll from one screen to the next, and a response time of 30 seconds was pretty good. Waits of a minute or more just to scroll to the next screen were not uncommon. And that was just one of the frustrations.
As we were transitioning from the Univac system to an SII system that used Coyote PC’s in the early to mid-1980s, I suggested that we should let people take a sledgehammer to an old Univac terminal when the transition was done. Editor Jim Gannon took my suggestion to heart. At a newsroom picnic (a fun idea in itself) at Walnut Woods State Park, we set up an old Univac and took turns pounding it (might have been just the keyboard; we still have the key (I think we called it the “quad” key) in a shadow box at home.
Music can be fun. The Register (perhaps at the same picnic, if memory serves) had a newsroom talent show. Gannon didn’t do Willie Nelson as well as he thought he did, but an editor who’s willing to be laughed at is certainly helping lead the fun. A World-Herald choir sang (I hope they still do) carols in the newsroom each holiday season. As I recall, they also caroled at the homes of retirees. And I think we sometimes had musical guests from the community join the newsroom performance.
The singing can be spontaneous. I remember some late-night or early-morning singing at a party at Merrill Perlman’s in my Register days (I don’t think any top editors were involved in that one). One of my enduring memories of Rick Tapscott (who died recently and I remembered him in this blog) was him leading the sing-along at a party to a silly old tune from a one-hit garage-band, Double Shot (of My Baby’s Love) by the Swingin’ Medallions. I believe some air-guitar was involved.
Generosity is fun. When I started working at the Kansas City Times, I was there alone during the week for the first couple months while Mimi stayed back in Des Moines and tried to sell our house. That resulted in some lonely evenings. Mike Waller, the editor, brought some fun to some of those evenings by giving me one or both of his season tickets to the Kansas City Royals (they were good back then; in fact, Mike sold me the extra tickets he got to buy as a season ticket-holder to Game 2 of the 1985 World Series).
Be fun in social media. (I forgot this point until a few minutes after I first posted this.) The editor should show the staff how to be personable (and still professional) in social media. Don’t let your Twitter or Facebook presence be stuffy or a continuous stream of links of your staff’s content. Show your sense of humor in social media and share some of the fun of the newsroom (as Matt DeRienzo did yesterday):
Experienced group of journalists chasing a squirrel around @nhregister newsroom right now.
— Matt DeRienzo (@mattderienzo) December 16, 2013
— Matt DeRienzo (@mattderienzo) December 16, 2013
The @NHRSquirrel just went airborne, over the head of a would-be captor, like a scene from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
— Matt DeRienzo (@mattderienzo) December 16, 2013
Sometimes the fun is talking about you. If your newsroom enjoys heading to the bar (or someone’s house) after election night wraps up, or if people gather at a watering hole regularly or on special occasions after work, it’s a good idea for the boss to skip the bar scene altogether or settle for a cameo appearance. You need to contribute to the fun where you can but be aware that sometimes you contribute by leaving.
Be careful. Fun is not without risk. Let’s be clear about a few points:
- Sexual or racial humor isn’t fun for everyone. The editor needs to deal sharply with inappropriate humor that can damage the newsroom culture or even create a “hostile environment” with potential legal consequences.
- Sarcasm from the boss isn’t always fun. Don’t assume that all journalists are as thick-skinned as you might be. If you’re going to be sarcastic, make sure that it’s self-deprecating, not directed toward someone who will take offense. And be tolerant of sarcasm directed at you; journalists can be sarcastic, and even if staff sarcasm feels hurtful, an angry reaction from the boss can be harmful to morale.
- Drinking is not always fun. The boss can pick up the tab now and then at a bar or pay for a round or two at a happy hour. But you would have a rare newsroom if you never encounter a colleague with an alcohol problem. Be careful about introducing alcohol into a volatile situation. If you’re going to have an open bar on you personally or on the company’s tab, do it before dinner so it’s not open-ended. You don’t want to be so generous that your drinks lead to ugly, drunken scenes or drunk-driving arrests.
How do you lead the fun?
How have you (or your editors) led or contributed to the fun of the newsroom (name them, if you can remember them)? How has an editor’s lack of humor or intolerance of fun hurt newsroom morale (no names, please)? What suggestions do you have for leading or fostering appropriate newsroom fun?
That’s all I have planned
I started this series on advice for Digital First editors in May. This is the last post I’ve planned, though I may from time to time address new topics that I will add to the series. (Do you have suggestions for issues I haven’t addressed yet?) I also still welcome guest posts (and again thank Sue Burzynski Bullard, Nancy March, Dan Rowinski, Teresa Schmedding and Tim McGuire for their guest posts).
Here are the posts in the series: