On the day I visited a midsize daily, owned by an excellent newspaperpublishing company, my job was to ask frontline editors about their problems and needs. The goal: to develop a newsroom training plan. An editor who had been in the job for about 18 months was succinct in her response: “disrespected” from above, she told me, “pitied” from below. When I ran her words by a second editor, I heard that the first editor “took the words right out of my mouth.” And a third editor concurred: “Absolutely accurate.” In notes I jotted while listening, I wrote, “These frontline editors are not well thought of, by themselves — or by others.”
Sociologist Herbert J. Gans has referred to journalists as “troubled.” None are more troubled than frontline editors, who find themselves working at the neck of an hourglass, as the American Press Institute’s Carol Ann Riordan observed. They process the sand from above, then below, from above, then below. They are the managers who Oren Harari had in mind when he wrote about the impossible work of “managing from the middle.”
In my work for NewsTrain — a frontline editors’ training project of the Associated Press Managing Editors — I’ve asked more than 200 frontline editors to describe “the most significant supervisory or managerial problem” they’ve encountered. Their answers are consistent and come in four closely related categories.
- Lack of managerial authority and related new-in-the-role issues.
- Giving direction, motivating and communicating expectations to staff.
- Acting on poor, deteriorating or inappropriate performance-including firing.
- Confronting more and greater demands with fewer resources.
Dealing With the Inheritance
Frontline editors usually come from reporting ranks, and it is not unusual for problems to emerge in the transition. Some talk of reporters who are “jealous of my promotion” and who are “struggling with accepting my authority.” This gets demonstrated when they “challenge assignments,” are “personally insulting,” and “very negative.” It’s toughest with veteran reporters who have “all the answers,” think they know “more about what the paper needs than I do,” and have “nothing to learn.”
Undermining starts early. “A gossipy reporter whom I’d worked with at a previous paper spread rumors and trash talk about me before I even began to work,” one frontline editor told us. Some of these editors progress quickly into their new roles. One sought advice from her boss, adopted a “professional demeanor,” and then “killed the reporter with kindness.” It “won her over,” she said. Others don’t: “It’s a trust problem that can’t be solved by doing one thing,” this editor said. “Will take long term.”
The most common problems, frontline editors say, arise in giving direction, motivating and communicating expectations. It’s toughest, many explain, when they are trying to improve things, such as increasing productivity, or raising the quality of the work, or pushing a reporter “to reach his full potential,” or reversing complacency, and getting “clean copy … written simply and clearly … on time,” avoiding repeat mistakes. And it can be hard to even get some reporters to show up for work on time.
Some editors we spoke with found it strange that communication can be so difficult in a communication business. It can be a matter of learning, in the words of one frontline editor, “to be more focused and more detailed” in making assignments. Some expressed reluctance to be forceful or confrontational, preferring to make requests rather than demands. Others weren’t so reluctant. “I’ve trained them, encouraged them, begged them, and even threatened a few reporters with disciplinary action,” this editor said. “But the problem persists.”
Another common difficulty connected to these other concerns involves what to do with underperformers, who are often in place when the new editor takes over. In this category, one editor told us about “a burned-out senior reporter,” while another talked about a reporter “who had severe behavioral problems.” A third editor said he “inherited [an] office with two reporters with low morale whose production was substandard and often ended up crying in the office.” Ugly words can sometimes be used to describe such situations, and the editors we spoke with used a few of these words to tell us what they’d found: “attitude and obstinacy,” “totally disruptive to the rest of the staff,” “dealing with alcoholism and absolute denial,” “a new employee who would not listen nor do what she was assigned,” “an employee whose work habits completely fell apart,” a reporter who was “combative and yelled at me.”
What do these new editors do? Most learn quickly the laundry list of human resource’s approved steps: counsel, document and apply progressive discipline. A common result: The disruptive or difficult staffer left or was fired. But not before another common problem occurred, with editors convincing their boss to act: “Only when my boss reached the same frustration level,” one editor said, “did he take action.”
Exacerbating these problems, from the frontline editors’ perspective, is “having to do more with less.” One editor said that after the newspaper changed ownership, “the reporting staff was reduced … while demand for local copy increased.” It’s often a matter of “figuring out a way to accomplish 40 things in a day with only enough time for 10,” said another. With “too much to edit,” said a third, there is “not enough time to plan and think.” To borrow their common term, most editors “make do.” Others continue to struggle. Asked about his toughest problem and whether it was resolved, one editor said, “Managing time. Still there.”
Making a Tough Situation Better
So what’s to be done? Initial training would help, but frontline editors receive little today. Just 21 percent of those who attended NewsTrain workshops in 2005 reported getting any training before their first assignment.
What to teach? Listen, again, to the frontline editors. Asked what they want to learn, the responses indicate a desire for management techniques and editing craft. What follows is a sampling from an October workshop in Indianapolis.
- How to give more concise feedback.
- How to help my staff improve their skills.
- The magical trick of how to get everything done: the daily drill, deadline surprises, planning further out, and still keeping up with the longer-range things.
- Becoming a more accurate editor.
- Better early story coaching.
- Nailing down the key details early.
- How to work efficiently, and how to help other employees work efficiently.
- Hints for coaching young, unskilled writers.
- More leadership skills.
- How to manage writers with wide ranges in talent.
- Tips for improving copy on deadline.
- How to motivate, get better work and more loyalty from reporters.
- Inspire employees to produce good stories.
- Time management.
- How to deliver bad news.
“Training Frontline Editors: Once Overlooked, Now Happening”
– By Michele McLellanGiven these problems, ways to resolve them are not surprising. The good news is that there is more attention to the circumstances that frontline editors confront. Current attention includes the Frontline Editors Project, which is a loose confederation of industry professionals and academicians, as well as the Poynter Institute and the American Press Institute (API), which offered new seminars in the past year. API’s offering was based on a blunt assessment of the problem. They called it a “survival guide.” A new organization called the Society of Metro Editors (SOME) grew out of an API seminar and hopes to offer a professional forum for frontline editors, according to Monica Markel, who is SOME’s first president and deputy metro editor of the San Antonio Express-News.
Journalism begins with the relationship between frontline editors and reporters. If we want better journalism, we need to understand the relationship better. One thing’s for certain. You don’t want these editors disrespected from above, nor pitied from below.
Author’s note: NewsTrain is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation as part of its three year, $10 million training initiative. As I write this, NewsTrain’s frontline editor workshops have visited 18 cities, training 1,600 editors, with stunning results: 95 percent reported that they’ve used what they learned in their newsrooms. Virtually all said they would recommend this training to other frontline editors.
John F. Greenman is the Carolyn McKenzie and Don E. Carter Professor of Journalism at the University of Georgia.