I can’t believe it’s been five years since I left Iowa. In some ways, my adventure at the Cedar Rapids Gazette seems like it was only a year or two ago. In other ways, it seems a lifetime ago. But it ended five years ago today.
My departure from the Gazette was awkward. More on that later. But the circumstances inhibited me from reflecting at the time on lessons from a job that was simultaneously one of the most rewarding and frustrating experiences of my career. But maybe distance gives you better perspective on those lessons anyway. So here are those belated reflections.
I want to keep the focus positive here: sharing lessons that I learned or relearned in challenging times. Because the lessons are not all positive, I want to make one thing clear: I have no regrets about the Cedar Rapids experience and I applaud my CEO there, Chuck Peters, for attempting innovation at a time when most of the newspaper business was shamefully timid.
I’ll share my lessons in these categories: career, newsroom leadership, disaster response, leading innovation, managing upheaval.
Take the risk. I knew when I interviewed in 2008 with Chuck, Publisher Dave Storey and others looking for a new editor in Cedar Rapids that it would require incredible focus and change to achieve the vision we were discussing. We didn’t achieve the vision and they haven’t, but I’m still glad I took the risk. It was an outstanding experience, and even our failures helped advance my career.
Be as transparent as you can. For various reasons, I could not reveal everything that was happening as we planned changes in Cedar Rapids and then as we changed directions. But in my weekly editor’s column, in conversations with the newsroom, in public appearances and private discussions in the community, and in this blog, which launched in late 2008, I was candid about what we were doing and disclosed as much as I could. I am certain that transparency helped advance my career and I’m equally certain that showing a bunker mentality could have torpedoed my career.
Move on. After an intense and largely successful first 10 months in Cedar Rapids, Chuck decided to change leaders in the company, including the editorial operation. I’ll address that more later, but in this career-lessons context, the details don’t matter. My run was over, quicker than I wanted or could have anticipated. It was time for me to find my next gig. It took me several months to land my next job with TBD, and I’m grateful Chuck gave me plenty of time to find the next job. It was important for my daily outlook and for my career that I didn’t dwell on the lost opportunity, but immediately started pursuing the next one.
Don’t give in to bitterness. People will make hurtful decisions that will derail your career plans. Too bad. You can’t undo those decisions. I was angry about the change in leadership (it’s not healthy to suppress emotion entirely), but I needed to avoid becoming bitter. As I’ve noted before, bitterness affects you far deeper than the target of your emotions. It’s like wreaking revenge on yourself. A positive, forward-looking attitude was critical to getting each of the jobs that have advanced my career since leaving Cedar Rapids. I can’t imagine what the past five years might have been like, or what I’d be doing now, if I had turned bitter.
Breaks sometimes even out. I had some tough breaks in Cedar Rapids that I could have whined about. But I also got one of the luckiest breaks of my career: being named Editor of the Year by Editor & Publisher magazine. That was really bizarre timing: I had actually given up the title of editor a year earlier and lost all authority in the newsroom nine months earlier, and literally accepted a new job the same week I received the news (I was gone from Cedar Rapids by the time the magazine published). As I noted at the time, others were more deserving. If I had ever deserved to be named Editor of the Year for my work in Cedar Rapids, it was 2009, not 2010. But we had achieved some extraordinary things in Cedar Rapids that deserved recognition, even belatedly, and sometimes if you ride out those tough breaks, a good break comes your way.
Newsroom leadership lessons
Whatever else didn’t work out in Cedar Rapids, we had a hell of a newsroom, as the E&P honor recognized. Some things I learned (or perhaps relearned or demonstrated) in my brief time leading the newsroom:
Change the action, not the org chart. Too many efforts at organizational change focus on structure. I’ve seen newsroom reorganizations that dragged on for months, developed a whole new org chart, and didn’t result in any meaningful change. But if you change how people work, that has impact. I quickly insisted that we start liveblogging sporting events, trials, meetings and other daily events. We made some mistakes but learned quickly, and changing how we worked changed the newsroom culture more than later company efforts to change the org chart.
One position makes a difference. I started at Cedar Rapids in 2008, before newsrooms had social media editors, but I wanted someone leading our social media efforts. Jamie Kelly, our community editor, became excited about that possibility and came up with a job description. Soon he was our social media guide, improving our use of branded social accounts as well as helping staff members improve their individual use of social media. Creating a new position like that (and folding the community-editor duties into another job) and finding the right person to do a new job can have more impact sometimes than a new org chart. And it’s easier to achieve.
Change priorities and work. I wanted us to produce interactive digital projects. I asked if anyone on the staff could make them, and graphic artist David Miessler-Kubanek said he could. So I changed David’s job: He would spend only 20 percent of his time on the print graphics that had been his primary duty, and instead spent 80 percent of his time on interactive projects. And soon our website featured outstanding interactive projects. As with Jamie, I was able to make an impact by changing a single job, when sometimes you bog down trying to change the whole organizational structure.
Give people authorship of their jobs. With Jamie and David and a few other cases, I set priorities, but allowed and expected the staff members to work out the details of their jobs. The more authorship you have of your job, the more you pour yourself into the work. Letting these people shape their jobs brought passion and creativity to their work. When Chuck decided to reorganize the whole operation, I called again on staff members’ authorship, requiring them to tell me what their new jobs would be and how they would do them. If Chuck had stayed on course, I’m confident we’d have benefited from some extraordinary staff creativity. One of my most profound Cedar Rapids regrets is that some staff members with great vision, such as John McGlothlen, Angie Holmes, Adam Belz and Molly Rossiter, didn’t get turned loose to pursue their ideas.
Lead by example. I recognized the value of Twitter in covering the news and was determined to incorporate it into our newsroom’s work. However successful I was in that, it started with my own Twitter use. The staff could see that I was not just expecting them to change, but I was learning and practicing a new skill myself.
Turn good people loose. One of the best things I did my first couple days on the job in Cedar Rapids was call Jason Kristufek, our web editor, and Zack Kucharski, our database editor, into my office separately for turn-’em-loose conversations. I told them that we needed a kick-ass website and creative use of databases, and I wanted them to be aggressive and experimental in doing their jobs. Much of my success in Cedar Rapids was just staying out of Jason and Zack’s way and letting them excel at digital journalism.
Rely on good leaders. I inherited an excellent leadership team in Cedar Rapids: Managing Editor Dan Geiser, Iowa Editor Mary Sharp, Director of Photography Paul Jensen, Senior Editor Lyle Muller and more. I was hired to make some significant changes in our operation, but I didn’t have to do everything. I was able to rely on my leadership team to run the daily operation and focus my energies on the things that needed changing. And these veteran leaders embraced opportunities to help me lead change as well.
Meetings matter. Journalists hate meetings and make fun of them. But they are important to a newsroom’s culture. They shape and reflect your priorities. You need effective meetings. The Gazette’s meetings were too long, too top-heavy and too print-focused. I understood correctly that the top editor didn’t need to run all the meetings or even to attend every daily meetings, if they were working effectively. But I took too light a hand in pushing for change. I tried twice to get others to lead the way in changing our meetings, and neither effort was successful. I should have taken leadership of the daily meetings long enough to make the changes that we needed, then started handing the daily leadership back to others.
Disaster response lessons
I can’t overstate the impact the 2008 flood had on my tenure in Cedar Rapids. When I arrived to start work June 10, the Cedar River was already flooding upstream. Those discussions with Jason and Zack my first day about turning them loose on the website and databases were focused primarily on flood coverage. We knew it would be bad.
But the flood that hit Thursday, June 12, my third day as editor, exceeded anything we or the National Weather Service had expected. Our offices were not under water, but were on the edge of the flood zone and were without power for a month. Our printing operation on the edge of town, fortunately, was not in danger. But the flood threw everything into chaos: news coverage, delivery routes, advertising, just keeping the building operating. Some staff members lost their homes and others had difficulty getting to work or to the scenes of breaking news.
I’ve never been prouder of colleagues than I was of the newsroom staff — and my colleagues across the company — in our response to the flood.
Lessons I remember from that disaster:
Leadership matters. Dave Storey, the publisher, chaired daily meetings (maybe 2-3 times a few days) of executives and managers throughout the company to address the many daunting challenges presented by the flood. Dave’s command of the many overlapping details and his grace under extraordinary pressure may have been the best leadership I’ve seen in more than 40 years in the news business. The service our company provided our community during that disaster was thoroughly rooted in Dave’s crisis leadership.
Facilities matter. I am not proud that in those many years in the news business, I had never known the facilities manager of any newspaper where I worked. Wherever I was, I always took for granted that the lights would be on and the building suitable for work. For a couple weeks or more in Cedar Rapids, facilities manager Ken White became my hero. That guy and his staff were amazing: stringing extension cords from backup generators so my newsroom could operate; finding a bigger backup generator, so we could return the whole building to almost-normal operations; acquiring portable toilets and hand sanitizer when the city water system wouldn’t allow flushing; pumping out the floodwater from our basement and handling many details I never knew about. My staff’s journalism wouldn’t have worked without Ken’s staff keeping us going.
Don’t do it all yourself. On my third day as editor, I could have alienated my staff quickly by trying to take charge of everything (and certainly making mistakes because I didn’t know the staff or the community well enough). As noted before, I had inherited a stellar leadership team. I could have greater impact by letting them do their jobs and strategically choosing where to make my impact. That worked well on both levels: They excelled at running the operation and I succeeded at choosing my spots.
Let teamwork flourish. Our double-truck, wraparound front page on June 13, 2008, was an excellent example of the teamwork that a disaster demands: Designer Michelle Wiese proposed the idea of a 12-column front-page design. I tentatively said yes, if we could find the right photo to carry such a design. Not long after, photojournalist Liz Martin came in with the photo, showing Cedar Rapids’ government buildings on an island in the heart of downtown swallowed in the flood. The headline emerged in a brainstorming discussion, copy editor Scott Wingert suggesting “epic” and me coming up with “surge.” Front-page editor Rae Riebe executed the award-winning design.
Praise the staff. Hard-working journalists need to feel some appreciation, especially when they’re exhausted and running on fumes. I made a point of personally thanking and praising many (but still probably not enough) of the staff members who were busting their asses to provide our excellent coverage. When I got an email from Dan Shea, then managing editor of the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, sending encouragement and likening our coverage to their stellar coverage of Hurricane Katrina, I had to share it with the staff. I would have stood atop a desk for the only time in my career, but they all looked too flimsy. So I stood atop a two-drawer file cabinet to read the message aloud to a roomful of weary journalists who deserved and appreciated the praise.
Photojournalism is essential. My reporting staff excelled in coverage of the flood (winning a Sigma Delta Chi Award for Breaking News Reporting, among other honors), but nothing touched our community like photographs taken by our excellent and tireless photojournalists. I think reporters should carry cameras and shoot pictures, and I advocate gathering and curating photos from the community. But all of that should supplement, not replace, the powerful images that good professionals shoot. Companies or news executives who think they don’t need professional photojournalists are just wrong. Our photo team — Paul Jensen, Photo Editor Rollin Banderob, photojournalists Brian Ray, Jim Slosiarek, Jonathan Woods, Liz Martin, Cliff Jette and intern Courtney Sargent — elevated our coverage immeasurably. On our website, in our newspapers, in our Epic Surge book produced later in 2008, and in an exhibit at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, our photo staff told the visual story of the flood in heartbreaking and riveting images that will stay with me, and many in the community, for years to come.
Other news coverage lessons. I blogged and led some workshops in 2008 and 2009 on disaster coverage. I won’t repeat all those lessons now.
Lessons on leading innovation
We tried some bold innovation at the Gazette. Beyond the newsroom successes I claimed earlier, we did not succeed at changing the organization in any meaningful way. But I learned (or showed) some things along the way.
Explain your vision clearly and often. Chuck did not explain well the changes he envisioned for our company. I think I understood where he wanted to go, and I tried to explain it to the staff, but I didn’t do a good enough job either. The vision was flawed, and I don’t know whether perfect understanding and execution could have saved it. But our failure to help the staff understand the challenge we were undertaking was a huge factor in its failure.
Overlapping visions are still in conflict. When I joined the Gazette, I recognized differences between Chuck’s vision for the company and the vision I shared with him and Dave and others in the interview process. (In the interview process, I gave them an early draft of my Blueprint for the Complete Community Connection, which we called C3 for short.) Our visions overlapped considerably and no one else in the newspaper business was planning anything as bold as either of us wanted to pursue. I saw the overlap as more significant than the difference. And I recognized that the CEO would make the call where we differed. But I might have let the overlap blind me to critical weaknesses in his approach. And, when he encouraged me to publish my C3 blueprint and adopted C3 as the name for his blog (it’s still the name, though the blog is dormant), the differences might have compounded the confusion management and staff were already feeling because of the failure to explain Chuck’s vision clearly.
Don’t get hung up on titles. As we were making plans for a big change in our organization, Chuck blogged about changing roles and changing titles, suggesting that the editor (that was me at the time) might become a “Community Manager, or Facilitator or Mediator.” Later he suggested Information Content Manager. I didn’t fight to keep the editor title, and I’m not suggesting I should have. But we wasted too much time discussing titles, ending up with Information Content Conductor. It was a ridiculous title that I defended at the time but won’t now. The point is not what was the right title for the role we envisioned for me, but that titles don’t change anything and that every minute we spent discussing them was wasted. Too many other news organizations are repeating that mistake now. Whatever your role, clarity comes from how you lead, not from your title.
Change happens. You can pour all your work into executing the boss’ plan, but when the boss changes his mind, the plan changes. I spent most of my effort the first three-plus months of 2009 planning, selling and preparing to execute Chuck’s plan for overhauling the org chart to separate the people producing content from the people making products. As we were on the verge of launching the first phase of the new operation, in April 2009, Chuck changed his mind abruptly. We suddenly stopped launch plans and he made several leadership changes, including a murkier, less important role for me. I’ve seen similar abrupt shifts at TBD and Digital First Media. As innovation accelerates, corporate bosses grow cautious. Don’t join a bold project expecting boldness to last.
Lessons in managing upheaval
My tenure at the Gazette was a time of constant upheaval, a disruptive mix of our innovation efforts, our changing directions, the flood itself and the economic impact of the flood and the national recession. Some lessons I learned about working in a time of upheaval (managing myself as well as my staff and relationships with Chuck and other executives):
You can’t stop the flood. I’m not talking here about the actual flood that immersed our city, but it was a powerful metaphor for what followed. My newsroom or content staff or whatever we wanted to call it would have been better able to carry out Chuck’s vision if we had maintained or even grown staff. But the company’s falling revenue, and need to maintain profit, required a huge staff cut in February 2009 (an experience I know I’ve shared with a lot of other editors before and since). That was and remains one of the worst experiences of my career and it profoundly damaged the newsroom. But I couldn’t stop it.
Contribute how you can. Emotionally, you may want to quit in a huff when things don’t go your way. But I needed my paycheck and thought my job search would be more successful with a vague job than no job at all. I was angry about the leadership changes and unclear about my new role, which never did become clear or fulfilling. I started looking for my next job immediately, but continued trying to help the murky mission however I could. Chuck had told the staff to follow my blog to understand better what we were trying to do, so I published the C3 Blueprint, my mobile-first strategy and other posts I hoped would help advance and maybe clarify our company efforts. He made me C3 Innovation Coach and I helped lead a couple projects (they didn’t really go anywhere, but that was more a reflection of our companywide confusion and inertia than any lack of effort on my part). You can’t control all the bad breaks that come your way, but you can control how you respond, and I think my response to this disappointment helped me move on to other opportunities that got my career back on track.
Don’t expect good explanations. I wanted to understand why Chuck changed directions and leadership. I asked and pushed for an explanation. He gave conflicting explanations in a half-dozen or so conversations, including one nearly a year after I left. None of the explanations made any sense then, or again in later years when other corporate bosses at TBD and DFM lurched in different directions. Sometimes the boss just changes directions and you have to live with the upheaval, but without the explanation.
Laugh at yourself. Three years after leaving Cedar Rapids, I learned that a bit of a drinking game had developed (though I never saw actual alcohol consumption in the newsroom, so I presume it played out with soft drinks or drinking gestures), with staff members hoisting a glass anytime I used the phrase “fundamentally change.” I had a good laugh when I learned that.
And maybe that’s the final lesson here: It’s easier to preach fundamental change than it is to achieve it. But I’m still glad we tried.
Update: Jamie Kelly sent this response by email, with permission to publish:
It’s funny, as last week marked five years since I left the Gazette, as well. I learned a lot about myself and the politics of a larger organization during my time there—I’d only worked at smaller places before and wasn’t necessarily prepared for the culture at the Gazette when I arrived. I spent about 18 months as Social Media Guide, and the first nine months were great; the second half less so. Part of that was my fault. I have a tendency to want to be involved in everything, to want to try too many different things at once, and I can lose focus.
If I had it to do over again I would have set a plan for the first three months and picked one thing to work on. Instead I threw everything at the wall to see what stuck, so I didn’t accomplish nearly as much as I could have. There were problems that weren’t all my fault, including the fact that at least some people seemed to resent my new position (one incident sticks in my head, where a member of the leadership team publicly said I didn’t have any role in strategy, but that could be me being thin-skinned), but the thing I regret from the early part of my time as social media guide is not putting forth a clearer idea of what I would be doing, and then following that up with action.
After your position changed no one really knew what to do with me, mostly because of that failing. I wasn’t an editor or a reporter, and I wasn’t really part of the online team, either. So when, in late 2009, I was given a new title that was something like data analyst, it dawned on me that my time at the Gazette was coming to an end. I wish I would have had a more lasting impact there, but I’m also really grateful both for the chance I got and for the lessons I learned—even the ones I had to learn the hard way.
I appreciate Jamie’s candid reflection. He actually had a notable impact on our social media performance, despite the challenges he acknowledges. But his experience — like mine — underscores that if you take on the challenge of changing a newsroom, your job may not last.