I confess I read every single article I came across about the drama at The New Republic — every insider account, every critique of the magazine’s history, every defense, every extrapolation to all that’s wrong with digital or legacy media, every complaint about all the complaining, and every last piece of gossip. And not just because I work at a 90-year-old magazine that’s also in the middle of turning itself into a digital media company, though not a vertically integrated one. (Here’s a pretty good explanation of the history of that idea, by the way.)
But also because TNR — like First Look Media and The New York Times back in May, which feels like years ago now — is a case study of the consequences of weak management. Whether or not media organizations see themselves as businesses, they’re all organizations, and they’re all going through huge cultural and strategic changes. Like pretty much every organization of any kind, they’re staffed and led by people who are flawed and unpredictable at the best of times, and who rarely handle difficult situations with enough grace and courage.
Management principles are so often misunderstood, misused, and easy to mock. But if we take the right ones seriously and apply them with empathy, wit, and an appreciation for the particular details of whatever situation we’re facing, they will help us all keep on doing what we love: the news.
My hope for next year is that more of us in the media will live up to just two principles, which are both easier said than done.
Figure out how to explain what your strategy is in plain English (or in any language other than business jargon). If you — and everyone in your newsroom — can’t do that, you don’t have a good strategy. Understanding how the organization plans to sustain itself and grow isn’t a violation of Church and State.
Your most important responsibility, if you’re a manager, is to hire and fire people for the right reasons at the right times. Be brave and honest about these decisions, and no matter how awful or relieved you’re feeling, treat everyone involved with respect.
Katherine Bell is editor of HBR.org, the website of the Harvard Business Review.