Saturday, January 5, 2008

One size fits all

Managing a news room is not an easy task, although with a little common sense it can be a lot simpler than many editors make it.
Early in my career I was the editor of the Michigan State News, a major college daily newspaper. A few years later, I was editor of a chain of mid-Michigan weekly newspapers.
Reporters are by nature somewhat generalists. They are required to do a variety of tasks and cover a variety of stories sometimes with little or no background in the subject or person they are covering.
Some reporters are skilled at gathering information and getting people to talk. Others are more skilled at putting together artful prose and organizing stories. It's the rare combination that is excellent at both.
Where editors often fail is in recognizing over time the best skills of individuals. At the Flint Journal, the top editors are seemingly blind to the overall skill sets of their employees.
In many cases, reporters who would excel at gathering information and producing daily news copy are pushed and dragged into producing long, boring features that take them away from what they do best. And what readers enjoy reading most.
Likewise reporters who are tops at producing good, readable feature copy are pressed into service at covering breaking news.
There will always be some of that at any newspaper, but it should be minimized.
Skilled investigative reporters are in the rotation for the annoyingly boring "Making A Difference" or Sunday feature stories, which inevitably drain time away from actual news coverage.
At one point I even mentioned to the two top editors that it appeared they were constantly trying to pound the round peg into the square hole personnel wise. But like most of the input that I, and other reporters offered, it was completely ignored.
A good manager tries to fit people to their strengths.
Choosing beats is a good example. Last year, a couple reporters requested a change of beat - they do get stale after a while - and even told the editors what beat they might want to cover.
What happened was a gosh awful musical beat arrangement that left many unhappy reporters and others simply scratching their heads. No one got a beat they had requested and many were placed in beats they absolutely didn't want, even when someone else did.
Some blamed it on a power trip by one editor. I think it was simple incompetence.
If a change in beats is needed, a good manager might put up a list of available beats and ask reporters to apply for one that interests them. Better to have someone covering a beat they want than dragging them into a beat for which they have little, or no interest.
Where there was a conflict, then an editor could determine who had the better skills to cover a coveted beat.
But not at the Flint Journal.
In another posting, I'll let you know about the brainiac idea to have daily and weekly reporters for Flint Journal owned publications begin competing with each other despite a lack of manpower in 2007. This was stupid on parade.
During the long slide of the paper, forced beat changes had been carried out several times, but somehow the people running the editorial content of the paper remained untouched in their positions.
To use a sports analogy, the ownership of this company fired or changed the whole team instead of looking at changing the manager. Trust me, a change in managers is sorely needed on this team.
In some cases, especially with the new buyouts, reporters are being piled on with additional beat responsibilities, while the number of main editors remains the same.
Readers may not be aware, but some reporters are covering whole counties and parts of others as part of one beat. It is not possible to cover as many townships, cities and villages as some of the reporters are being asked to cover and do it well.
Heck when I was there I covered all of one county, three townships and five school districts in another. Since I left, my old beat has been added to that of another reporter who was already covering three townships and several school districts.
Any smart editor would know that is an impossible task, one that sets up a person for failure.
But hey, it wouldn't do to have an editor pick up a phone or drive to a meeting and help out instead of hosting another stupid meeting to discuss Sunday story ideas for stories that no one will read.
So when a story in your area does not get covered as you believe it should have, just remember that it might have been your reporters turn to do a "Making a Difference."
The Flint Journal has uniquely skilled reporters, although they are dwindling in numbers, who given proper management could continue to produce a newspaper that would interest and gather readers.
During the time I was an editor I found it much easier - and more productive - to fit people to their interests and skills. It made for enthusiastic and motivated employees.
Good editors turn people loose to find good stories and news, bad ones put the bit in a reporter's mouth and pull back as hard as they can.

1 comment:

Oakland said...

There was a time when the Flint Journal was actually a ... newspaper. (Note to current goobers-in-chief: The first three letters of the word "newspaper" are N-E-W). The late Ray Stephens, the Journal's last editor with any talent, guts or class, believed that even a community newspaper has a responsibility to aggressively cover news. He hired good, smart reporters and then you know what he did? He trusted them to cover their beats and FIND NEWS. They did, and they won (gasp) awards. He demoted editors who assigned asinine crap such as how African-Americans celebrate Thanksgiving (true story). He backed up his reporters when corrupt politicians, businessmen and other sacred cows and weasels used to getting a free pass screamed about being exposed. He assigned the auto writer to do a story on the growing popularity of auto brokers even though he knew the auto dealers would scream all the way from the golf course to the publisher's office. (This cost him his job). Sure, the business realities have changed since Ray ran the paper, but the fundamentals of journalism haven't. When editors who wouldn't know the FOIA from a foyer fill news pages with feature stories and plan the paper a week in advance, you get a big, steaming bowl of Not Good. And digital content isn't going to save the day, because crap doesn't get better if you post it online. Readers want local news in their local newspaper, and advertisers want to advertise in papers that are read. Cutting the content and raising the price won't work. Bringing in college kids and day laborers to replace the reporters who were bought/kicked out won't work. The Flint Journal has to go back to being a paper that matters to the community. The rest will fix itself.