Thursday, February 21, 2008

About jockeys, sergeants and editors

Before my 30-year career as a newspaper reporter I spent seven years as a police dispatcher and police officer for two California suburban police departments.

I learned a lot about good supervision and bad supervision during those seven years. In many ways, police work and newspaper work have a lot in common.

They are both professions where those who practice it must react quickly to rapidly changing circumstances. It requires supervisors and employees to work closely and effectively together, but not in the traditional boss-employee way.

Unlike a factory assembly line supervisor, police supervisors (and editors) should be working with and not above the police officers and reporters they share office or police car space with.

In my years as a police officer I witnessed a number of promotions of police officers to sergeant and can make some general observations.

Those who remained humble and didn't let a promotion go to their head were the more effective and efficient sergeants that I worked for. Officers I worked with would do everything they could to make a good sergeant look better.

But in those cases where a new sergeant let his/her promotion go to their head the result was almost always a disaster. I remember one officer (Patrick) who turned into an officious butthead after he was promoted. No matter that Patrick had been maybe the biggest slacker on our shift once he was promoted he turned into a monster. In other words, a mediocre officer was now in charge of his peers.

I remember one of his first supervision shifts when he told me and a couple other officers, "Even though we have been friends, from now on in public, you need to refer to me as 'sergeant.' Actually, that was the last time any of us called him 'sergeant.' Patrick was mostly "hey you' or completely ignored because of that.

Patrick, who had little road experience before he 'kissed' his way to the sergeant stripes, showed up at a traffic accident and we deliberately stood around with traffic backing up in all directions until he arrived. When he got there he asked us what we were doing and we told him we were just waiting for our supervisor to arrive so he could tell us what to do.

He was so frustrated, and with little previous knowledge of what to do, he nearly melted down as we made our point that he needed to lighten up and get off his pedestal and work with us and not 'above' us. Eventually, Patrick got the point and settled into being a decent supervisor.

Editors are in the same position. New editors should be mindful that many of their contemporaries remember how they were as reporters. So when they take on the officious manner of an editor they once fought and argued with, people aren't too sympathetic or cooperative.

Under the best editorial management of my career, reporters and editors were pretty much equal in status. It was not a boss-employee relationship, but one of mutual respect and an understanding of the different, but important role of each position. At times it meant sharp disagreements and even heated arguments. In the end, both realized they were working for the same thing, a good newspaper.

Sadly, at the Flint Journal in the past few years the editorial management style is more akin to a foreman in a plant than one of professional cooperation. I can tell you that most reporters react very negatively to being treated like a line worker, especially when they are pushed to the limit, stretched thin and getting little help or support from editors.

If you hover like a shepherd, you end up with sheep. Good reporters are not sheep, they are thoroughbreds and should not be handled like sheep. More on thoroughbreds later.

Remember the old Disney dark rides like Mr. Toad's Wild Ride? You rode in an open car that traveled on tracks as wild and scary things jumped out at you in the dark. There was the illusion of danger, but really no danger.

Well, journalism of the type being practiced by the management at the Flint Journal is the newspaper equivalent of Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. There is the illusion of journalism and hard edged reporting, but really not so much. Company lawyers and timid editors see to that. How else can you explain that the Flint city mayor was unchallenged during his campaign just last year with assertions of an $8 million surplus and just months later announcing a $4 million deficit and layoffs. Someone was asleep at the switch. All while the Journal wasted countless inches and pages on an also ran American Idol candidate.

The difference between what the Flint Journal and hard hitting major newspapers are doing is the contrast between the dangers of Mr. Toad's Wild Ride and the Indianapolis 500.

The Journal shuns overtime, but basically winks at the fact that many of its employees are working hours much longer than what they are being paid for. But still, its editors who have little understanding of what constitutes real news reporting, feel no shame in challenging the work ethic of some very hard working people.

I heard a story once about the jockey who rode the great horse Secretariat to glory. The jockey was asked by a sports reporter how "tough" it was to ride such a strong and powerful animal.

The jockey responded that Secretariat was actually one of the easist rides of his career.

"How so?," said the reporter.

The jockey explained that Secretariat loved to run, loved to run ahead of the pack and so the only thing that would discourage him would be if the jockey pulled back on the reins and bit.

The only horse races Secretariat ever lost, and there were not many, the jockey explained was when he had pulled back on the reins to try and control him in tight quarters. At the pull of the bit, Secretariat slowed and quit on the race.

What bad editors refuse to understand is that some people run better and work harder when they are not hard on the bit. When the bit is jerked on they pull, resist and slow. It's not science, just human nature.

Being a good editor is more than reading copy and assigning stories, it's understanding your people as individuals and giving them their head (another horse analogy) and letting them work unfettered by useless meetings and direction.

I think of the editor-reporter relationship more in the realm of a military squad. Editors, especially the lower line editors, should be akin to the lieutenant who takes a squad into battle, but lives and suffers along with the enlisted.

No one worries about who is wearing lieutenant bars when the bullets are flying. Everyone looks out for everyone else.

If editors want to treat others like a factory worker, then by all means give them the overtime and breaks they deserve.....


Anonymous said...

Once again the comments are right on the money. Why do editors, when promoted, seem to have all talent for efficient, worthy newsgathering get sucked from their brains. I recall about 10 years ago, as an editor at the bottom of the totem pole, taking an early call from someone who heard that a friend, a Flint-area resident, had been killed in Indonesia and wanted to know if the paper had any information. I got the victim's name, family address, the caller's name and number and some details about the fatal accident, and the person who called said the family would be happy to talk. The early morning editor knew I was talking to someone about something newsworthy and while I was taking notes was told to just get the numbers and they'd give it to a reporter when he came in -- an hour later. And this wasn't the police reporter. Well, true to the newspaper's style, the reporter wasn't given any of this until 15 minutes before deadline. By then the family was unavailable. So what went in the paper was nothing more than what I had been told two hours earlier -- just a rewrite of my notes, no verified info, with the poor reporter's byline. Now the byline is fine, if my information was correct, but what if it hadn't been? What still burns me all these years is (as the blog notes) stupid use of editor's power in throwing this at a reporter who was supposed to write up something else (featurish, probably a weather story) first for the front page, then getting another assignment, then the accident. This editor who took the call wanted to get news for the paper, for the reader. The high and mighty editor deemed who should provide such news -- no matter how busy one reporter might be, no matter how much time early on a lowly production editor had had to help contribute. There are still racehorses out there. Trouble is, the jockeys think they have learned their craft because they've played the video game version.

inky said...

Long hours, no overtime, hostile editors ... sounds like the Flint Journal reporters could use a union.

Anonymous said...

Amen, Brother Smith.

There's a speech one of the editors there gives about overtime, and how it isn't done, how to hide it, how to replace it with comp time, and when you can take the comp time.

I've heard the speech several times to new hourly hires and interns, and it will, no doubt, be the basis of an absolutely wonderful lawsuit someday.

Comp time is a great thing. Uncompensated overtime is worth it, for a big story.

But when uncompensated overtime becomes a rule, not an exception, you are an indentured servant, not an employee.

You cannot go home until every whim has been fulfilled.

And that departure time will be sometime after the editor, who got there after you that day, has already gone home to his or her family.

Jim of L-Town said...

Dear Inky:

It's probably too late for a union at the Journal. However, the Journal's lack of a union had a lot to do with its earlier positive personnel policies and its high wage structure which made it a non-issue.
Some of us toyed with the idea of prompting a union election a year or so ago, but many of the younger reporters were terrified of being connected with the effort.
The Journal newsroom is one of the more undemocratic places you could encounter.
But the last anonymous commenter is right on. Someday, someone is going to file a wage and hours complaint and they will get a bigger payout than those of us who took the recent buyout.
Again, if the editors would kick in and help out instead of leaving the pulling of background and minor phone calls to reporters, it would go a long way to relieving some of the animosity that many of the current employees are feeling.

inky said...

Anonymous is right: No one begrudges having to work long hours when it is occasional vs. constant. But working employees to death while editors keep banker's hours is neither moral nor a good business strategy.

It's only a matter of time before someone calls in wage and hour. Ha -- that's one story the Flint Journal won't make someone stay late to write!