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Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

Newsrooms need HR specialists, not just technologists, in top leadership

Not in the rote, paperwork-and-process sense of HR. Newsrooms aren’t good enough at finding, using, and improving the talents of their staffs.

A significant portion of your newsroom is hiding from you. They’re not openly resisting the push toward “digital first,” or even disagreeing with it. They simply don’t know how to proactively step out of their comfort zone. And they won’t, unless and until newsroom leaders engage in a one-on-one process that includes an explanation of both the big picture and specific tactics, discussion of performance and counseling on how this affects their personal career path.

This was the gist of a keynote address Tomas Brunegård, former CEO of the Stampen Group newspaper chain in Sweden, gave at a 2012 World Editors Forum conference in Hamburg. It resonated with me then as I led a newsroom that was focused heavily on digital transformation but struggled with buy-in beyond the 15 percent or so of staff who were natural early adopters.

After two years of upheaval in the U.S. newspaper industry and stagnation on issues like newsroom diversity, I’m more convinced than ever that we should be talking about putting human resources specialists in top newsroom leadership positions. If we can’t change people, if we can’t recruit effectively, if we can’t make training and learning a part of the culture, and if we don’t have managers and a workforce who can roll with constant change, “putting the digital people in charge” won’t get us there.

By “human resources,” I don’t mean the traditional manager of benefits, employee handbooks, and disciplinary meetings, trained the same for a role in a cardboard box factory as a newspaper company. New jobs, from metrics specialist to mobile manager, have emerged as the industry has transformed. And a new kind of top newsroom position — ideally on a level as high as the No. 2 job, and one of the best groundings I can think of for a future No. 1 — should be devoted to managing human capital, specialized in journalism and the challenges journalists face today.

Here’s why:

1. Shrinking newsrooms. Newsrooms whose staffs have dropped by 30 or 40 percent over the course of a few years obviously need strong leadership to reprioritize and focus their journalism. But they’re also less able than ever to tolerate poor performance among the bottom 15 percent of employees — or to let the top 15 percent jump to competitors or leave the industry. Who is taking the time to manage the bottom tier of employees up or out? Who is nurturing and challenging top performers?

2. Career counseling. The best way to bring newsroom staff out of hiding is to engage them in a very personal dialogue about how your organization’s needs and priorities mesh with their own performance and career path. These seemingly basic conversations — if pointed — can reveal how underutilized some employees feel, or that you and the industry are headed in a direction they can’t or don’t want to go.

3. Constant change. You’ve managed through the layoffs, adoption of social media, overhauling of the copy desk. You’re rallying the troops around mobile. Everyone can breathe now and focus on journalism. Well, not exactly. There will be more layoffs. There will be more huge changes in technology and reader habits, followed by still more changes. Whether it’s teaching and hiring a staff who is able to adapt to constant change — or the more difficult task of constantly enforcing change on a staff who isn’t able to adapt — we need newsroom leaders up to and freed up for the task.

4. Trauma. With constant change, layoffs, bankruptcies, furloughs, and industry turmoil comes burnout and a certain degree of psychological trauma. This can exacerbate a problem that most newsrooms ignore to begin with — the impact that regular coverage of violence and trauma can have on the journalists who are bearing witness. Our company recently launched a trauma journalism support program with training from the Dart Center. Many journalists who covered the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting for us still struggle with what they confronted there. If we don’t address it, we jeopardize the well-being of employees we care about and put the quality of our journalism at risk.

5. Diversity. Newsrooms don’t look like their audiences. Minority staffing in newsrooms has ranged between 12 and 13 percent for more than a decade, compared to 37 percent of the U.S. population. Journalism continues to be male-dominated, especially when it comes to top management. Our journalism is worse because of it, we are less able to adapt to change because of it, and we are losing market share because of it. We realized this a few years ago, and through a disciplined, human resources-like focus on recruiting and career development, have increased our minority newsroom workforce from 3 to 14 people. We still have a long way to go. And while our news reporting and photography staffs have a 50-50 male-female split, our sports staff is 20 to 1 male, and our management team is 10 to 4 male. There are far more women than men graduating from journalism school, and many women hold top leadership roles at big college newspapers. Beyond simply making it a top priority, what aspects of our management or culture are failing us when it comes to diversity?

We might aspire to tackle these issues as part of our regular management of the newsroom, but let’s be honest: They fall by the wayside at the first sign of crisis. And our industry is in a constant state of crisis. Confronting these issues will help get us out of that crisis. That won’t realistically happen unless we formally dedicate resources to them.

Matt DeRienzo (@mattderienzo) is editor of Digital First Media’s publications in Connecticut, including the New Haven Register, The Middletown Press, The Register Citizen and Connecticut Magazine.

Photo by City of Olathe used under a Creative Commons license.

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  • John_Mecklin

    If someone can explain why I should listen to people connected to Digital First Media expound on the right way for journalism organizations to maneuver the digital transition, I’d be all eyes and ears. It’s an organization that has failed in multiple spectacular ways, including a couple of bankruptcies and the recent jettisoning of the much ballyhooed (if absurdly named) Project Thunderdome. In fact, it’s pretty easy to make the case that Digital First Media is the Capt. Wrongway Peachfuzz of the digital shift.

  • Matt DeRienzo

    Good point.

  • C.J. Sinner

    John, while I can understand your reaction to brush off anything written by someone connected with DFM, it’s worth pointing out that, like Matt, many of us working for DFM have merely been affected by decisions at the top, not the ones that were making those decisions. There is still quite a lot of quality work and digital transition being done at individual newspapers in spite of the ownership challenges. It’s not useful to categorically write off any thoughts about how we can all help each other grow and learn going forward.

  • John_Mecklin

    Ms. Sinner: I don’t know you or Matt DeRienzo. I do know that journalists have been deluged for years with very confident, bold advice from John Paton and other so-called digital gurus from the DFM/MediaNews Group clique — as those gurus were absolutely tanking the companies they supposedly led. The advice-giving should now stop. Digital First Media is not an example of digital innovation or adaptation that American newspapers should follow, IMHO. At all.

  • phelpshawkins

    This seems, optimistically, half right. In my 45+ years in news, HR is most often the problem, not the solution. Clueless, unprofessional, unwilling to learn or understand the business they allegedly support. It’s too bad, because the issues of constant change, trauma and diversity could well use some knowledgeable, sympathetic, proactive support in the face of BOTH bottom-line and tech maniacs. As for DFM and a professor, I liken the techies to the campus newsies of the late 60′s walkng around with a NYT under their arms to show they knew and understood news. Tools are useful – knowledge and experience much more so.

  • Robert Knilands

    DFM is a prime culprit in creating at least three of the problems: Shrinking staffs (the newsroom itself hasn’t shrunk — bad writing by the writer), constant change, and trauma. The diversity peg is simply a gutless call for quotas, without saying it. It has no credibility.

    The solution is clear: Destroy DFM.

  • Carleton Foxx

    Since blacks and Latinos tend to have lower family incomes they wind up with bigger college loans. That means they can’t afford to take a typical $25,000 a year entry-level newspaper job. If you want minority recruits, you’re going to have to do some full-ride scholarships or offer to pay off some kids’ student loans, and then pay real salaries. How to pay for it? Fire a few vice presidents. You’ll never miss them and the money you save will be enormous.