Preparing to lead a newsroom

The news business is notorious for promoting well-qualified journalists into leadership positions with little or no preparation. Some of them do just fine but others struggle with new and different responsibilities.

It’s a big leap from producing a newscast to inspiring a staff; from running an assignment desk to changing a newsroom’s culture. It’s hard enough to take over a newsroom in good times, but new leaders face even bigger challenges now. Even seasoned managers have a tough time handling layoffs and budget cuts. In this economy, staffs are more stressed than ever and morale may be low.

Many newsroom managers wind up learning what they need to know by trial and error but there are other options. Here’s a list I put together for a former student who’s just been told he’s being promoted to a leadership job in his newsroom:

Do it yourself training is available free or at very low cost, and you can do it on your own schedule. For starters, get these RTNDA publications: Incoming: Advice for the Newly Named News Director and Ready, Set, Lead: The Resource Guide for New Managers Yes, I wrote them both, but did I mention they’re free?  Next, check out NewsU for online training. Click on the Leadership/Management tab. Some courses are free, others are reasonably priced.

For out-of-the-office training, RTNDF offers a series of inexpensive two-day leadership workshops. Check for a current schedule. Poynter has a long list of terrific leadership seminars, including one designed specifically for new managers. An excellent choice if you can spare a week.

The Carole Kneeland Project puts on a newsroom leadership conference each fall. Applications are due in the spring. The Knight Digital Media Center has an annual program that’s also worth investigating. So does the Media Management Center at Northwestern’s Medill school of journalism.

Finally, take a look at the Center for Creative Leadership. While the other programs listed here focus exclusively on newsroom leadership, CCL trains leaders in all fields. Their courses are expensive, but everyone I know who has attended one raves about them. Many of their programs require a longer time commitment than a news manager can make, but they do have a three-day Foundations of Leadership course that could be worth investigating.

What other options for news leadership training would you recommend?

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Breathing for broadcast

All the effort you put into writing and shooting a story may be wasted if your narration doesn’t measure up.  Voice coach Ann Utterback says how you sound can make viewers decide to click away or stay tuned for the rest.

The most important aspect of a broadcast voice is breathing, Utterback says, but it doesn’t get the attention it deserves. After all, everyone knows how to breathe, right? The trouble is, many people breathe all wrong when it comes to vocal delivery. Learn and practice proper breathing techniques and you’ll be on your way to improving your delivery:

The big camera debate

Some veteran TV photojournalists have argued for years that bigger is better when it comes to video cameras. Only a heavy professional model could produce rock steady, broadcast quality images, the long-timers said.  Or at least they used to.

Oscar Valenzuela of KGMB-TV in Honolulu has been in the business more than 20 years and says he never really thought smaller and cheaper would take over. Until now.

At a recent police department stake-out, Valenzuela and his behemoth camera were set up next to a photojournalist from a competing station and his “baby-cam,” a Sony EX-1.

Right there in that precinct, at that very moment, change had finally come to pass.  We are now officially in the transition to what I believe is the job/appropriate equipment. These new smaller, lighter cameras can even shoot HD, on memory cards,  and can last a lifetime on one battery.

As if the presence of a “baby-cam” weren’t evidence enough of a sea change,  what happened next certainly was:

That’s when the intern from the other station arrived at the last minute, pulled out her cell phone from her purse and recorded video of the suspect, same as the rest of us, as the patrol car pulled into the garage. (along with the newspaper guy who took pictures and video with his Nikon DSLR camera!!!).

Need  more evidence? How about this story from KOB-TV in Albuquerque, N.M., shot almost entirely by reporter Jeff Maher using a tiny Flip camera?

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Think we can agree that the big camera debate is over?

Never stop learning

The best journalists I know are life-long learners. They’re good at their craft but they never think they know it all.

John Gross is one of them. He’s a photographer and feature reporter at KSTP-TV in Minneapolis who’s won his share of national awards. But when he speaks at workshops and conferences like the recent NPPA Northern Short Course, he comes early and stays late, attending sessions and taking notes. At the age of 62, he’s still trying to improve his work:

Doing more with less

Almost every broadcast newsroom in the country is facing the same challenge. How can they continue to produce quality journalism on more screens with fewer people?

“It’s a struggle but we’re doing it as a team,” said Dan Salamone, news director at WOIO-TV, Cleveland, Ohio, at an RTNDA panel I moderated on Tuesday. His newsroom has shrunk from110 people two years ago to 70 people today, but digital technology has helped to fill some of the gap. The station uses Skype for live shots and shares video with a competing station, WKYC-TV, to save on costs.

Staffers who used to do just one job at WOIO now do several. Newscast directors, for example, help out on the assignment desk after completing their duties in the control room. As Salamone put it: “Versatile is valuable.”

At WFIE-TV in Evansville, Indiana, general manager Debbie Bush no longer has a news director; instead, a content manager is responsible for all news and production. The station reviewed all positions and eliminated some in order to put more journalists in the field. They hired some VJs and cross-trained other staffers to make them more productive. Now, news people may run studio cameras while production staffers may shoot news. It’s not only more efficient, “it breaks down walls,” Bush said.

Veteran anchors at WFIE have new duties as well. They’ve been assigned to mentor individual reporters and to approve their scripts. Everyone on the staff is expected to be on Facebook and Twitter, to push news out on multiple platforms. And everyone contributes content, Bush said, even the sales department. That sounds like an ethical quagmire, but the example Bush gave was of a sales person taking pictures of a breaking news story and sending them to the station to post on the Web, just as a citizen might.

One consequence of layoffs and budget cuts is that “the top performers are the ones that are left,” said Steve Jones, vice president and general manager of ABC News Radio, New York. The downside is that many of them are working in fear that they might be the next ones laid off. So managers need to make an even bigger effort to communicate openly with the staff, Jones said, being candid about what the future might bring and offering regular, positive feedback.

Getting started with online video

Most newsrooms understand that they need to include video in their online offerings. If they haven’t started doing it yet, they’re behind the curve. But what’s the best service to use for posting video if you’re not going to host it yourself?

YouTube is certainly the most popular option, with more than 5 billion online videos. According to Nielsen Online, 89 million people use the service in the U.S. alone.  It’s free and easy to use, but it’s not the only way to go.

Where to begin? Start by reading Jackie Hai’s brief review of YouTube and two alternatives–Vimeo and Blip–at Save the Media.  She also covers options for streaming live Webcasts–Mogulus and UStream. As Hai puts it, the decision on which one to use “depends on what style of video journalism you’re going for.”

Online jounalism jobs increase

The American Society of News Editors annual survey of employment at the country’s newspapers is rich in information for journalism job seekers.

First, the news is troubling for anyone who has dreamed of spending a career working at a daily newspaper.

American daily newspapers shed 5,900 newsroom jobs last year, reducing their employment of journalists by 11.3 percent to the levels of the early 1980s.

It’s also disheartening to see that minoritiy repesentation in these newsrooms has stagnated at a little more than 13 percent.  For African Americans in particular, the news is even more bleak.

In this decade, there has been a net increase of Latino, Asian and Native American journalists and a net decline of Black journalists.

However, it’s also worth noting that the survey reports a 21% rise year-to-year in online-only journalists.  According to ASNE,  there are now 2,300 working for daily newspaper Web sites; 19.6% of those employees are minorities.

The message for someone looking for work?  If you have strong multimedia skills, showcase them – if you don’t – start working to get them now!