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Feb. 13, 2024, 12:41 p.m.

“People don’t quit bad jobs, they quit bad bosses”: How journalists evaluate newsroom leadership

The key quality journalists looked for in leadership? Whether the newsroom leader could do the jobs they supervised.

In the first weeks of my first job in journalism, the editor-in-chief stormed into the newsroom, furious — the photo editor had not photographed the event that he had planned the front page around. He stood before her, red-faced and yelling, before grabbing a copy of the AP Stylebook off a nearby table and throwing it against the wall. The book hit the wall with a loud smack, echoing across the now-quiet newsroom. His actions that day set the tone for my tenure at the newspaper, which was defined by caution, risk aversion, and, I must admit, my least hard-hitting and impactful writing.

Journalism is well known for struggling with a range of very challenging working conditions punctuated by financial precarity, extensive working hours, and hostile audiences. But we also know that in journalism, leaders set the tone for the working environment. In workplaces across the U.S. and U.K., for example, the Harvard Business Review notes:

Employees are far happier when they are led by people with deep expertise in the core activity of the business. This suggests that received wisdom about what makes a good boss may need some rethinking. It’s not uncommon to hear people assert that it’s a bad idea to promote an engineer to lead other engineers, or an editor to lead other editors. A good manager doesn’t need technical expertise, this argument goes, but rather, a mix of qualities like charisma, organizational skills, and emotional intelligence.

With this in mind, a recent study from Dr. Samuel Tham of Colorado State University and me found that many journalists generally have a positive perspective of their leaders. The study, which was published in Journalism, draws on interviews with journalists from across the United States in which we asked participants to share the exemplary qualities of a leader, and then to describe their own direct supervisor.

In many cases, journalists perceived their leaders as a model of exemplary leadership. The key quality journalists looked for in leadership? Whether the newsroom leader could do the jobs they supervised. In the words of one journalist, a good leader is “excellent at knowing the topic that is being discussed. They are also excellent at encouraging others.”

This is not to say that the journalists we interviewed reflected cushy positions within the field — far from it! In line with other recent studies, the journalists we spoke to encountered difficult working conditions, but they largely understood these as qualities of the field and not a reflection on their leaders. In many cases, they did not perceive their leaders as able to affect their workload or the job expectations in meaningful ways. Instead, they did see their leaders as guides who helped navigate the choppy waters of the field.

One journalist described a sense of dread in going to his editor to ask for a job reference. To his surprise, not only did the editor agree to be the reference, but she later celebrated with him when he was offered the job and helped brainstorm projects he could pitch to hit the ground running in the new position. Another journalist said that while he didn’t always receive verbal support from his editor, his editor was keenly aware when he was working long hours and would offer him a few days of paid time off to allow him to disconnect.

On occasions when journalists did experience poor leadership, they perceived it as a lack of journalistic expertise and felt it impacted the overall tenor of the newsroom; in particular, a leader’s poor communication skills and poor news sense.

In another example of poor leadership, journalists also sometimes felt the need to offer emotional support to their leaders, a role they found both unexpected and difficult to navigate. As one journalist put it, “He needs a real therapist, and he needs to stop using me as a therapist. I love him, but it’s like — ugh!”

Finally, it’s worth noting that a few journalists in the sample were in leadership positions themselves. When asked about their leaders, they often reflected on their early mentors in the field: individuals who, after years of changed jobs and titles, still offered feedback and perspective that helped them make progress. A fitting tribute to the long legacy of an effective leader.

I’m relieved to say that, in my career, my editor-in-chief’s early outburst proved to be an anomaly rather than a trend. I found the rest of my tenure in daily news, like most of the participants in this study, filled with caring, self-sacrificing leaders who inspired me to build relationships, dig deep and strive for excellence.

The study is available at Journalism. An open access preprint is available via SocArxiv.

Gregory P. Perreault is associate professor of media literacy and analytics at the Zimmerman School for Advertising and Mass Communications at the University of South Florida.

Photo by Marco Verch being used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Feb. 13, 2024, 12:41 p.m.
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