Why Many Journalists Make Poor Newsroom Leaders (And Ways to Make Them Better)
May 21, 2014
Carl Sessions Stepp

I have no idea what happened between former New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson and Publisher Arthur Sulzberger and the exact factors that led to her recent ouster from the paper, but I do know this: It shouldn’t surprise us.

For all the things American journalism does well, it continues to routinely struggle – even at its top levels – in recruiting, developing and nurturing great editors and managers.

Traditionally, most newsrooms have had any number of fine reporters but were lucky to have one or two top-notch editors and leaders. Few of us grew up wanting to be editors, most came to that job with little formal or even informal training, and we struggled to manage people.

As we transition to the digital-first world, it remains typical for leaders to rise because of their technical and/or conceptual skills more than their expertise with people and organization-running.

Related story: “What the New York Times Innovation Report Says About the State (and Future) of Digital News?”

So journalists of all stripes find themselves tossed into the management role without being prepared for its manifold demands.

In my book, “Editing for Today’s Newsroom,” first published in 1989, I wrote:

“We have no standard system for producing editors and no body of knowledge that all editors share. …Good reporters tend to be fast-moving, aggressive extroverts whose ego gratification comes from the thrill of the chase and the rush of seeing the next day’s byline…. Good editors, their aggression tempered with patience, [must draw] satisfaction from their roles in coordinating an overall team effort…..

“Too many editors are forced to learn on the job, relying on hunch and guesswork, rather than proper preparation….This tends to produce excellent drill sergeants, but not necessarily the best long-term managers.”

That was written a quarter-century ago. But even as formats and platforms evolve, it’s hard to see much improvement.

I can’t say this applied directly to the supremely talented Abramson. But what happened at The Times does appear to fit the pattern, especially given that two of its most recent editors were toppled.

What can we do about this enduring problem?

Given the intelligence and problem-solving mindset of most journalists, we should move much faster to develop and support editors and managers. Some steps might include:

* More attention, starting in journalism school, to courses in management and leadership.

* Earlier identification of potential editors, so they can benefit from training and development before taking over.

* More in-house and outside opportunities for editing and leadership training (programs sadly cut back in the current penurious newsroom climate).

* More systematic and continuing support for new editors as they face unexpected and unsettling challenges.

* More attention to how factors such as gender, race and the industry’s poor diversity record intensify all these challenges.

As news organizations grow more complex with pressures to pursue digital-first strategies, the management issue will grow more complex as well. Tomorrow’s newsroom managers certainly require stronger technical skills. But just as imperative will be better leadership.

I don’t know Sulzberger or Abramson well, but I would stipulate that both are highly intelligent, competent, honorable professionals trying their level best. If part of the reason he fired her was because their relationship flamed out, it tells us that newsroom management is far trickier than it looks.

According to his statement, for example, Sulzberger thought that Abramson was struggling as a manager and warned her to improve, which I don’t think Abramson has directly addressed in public.

Vanity Fair also reported that, to the credit of both Abramson and The Times, she was working with a consultant on managing.

But too often in news organizations such help never comes, or comes too late, and simply expecting people to manage better on their own seldom works.

It’s like handing the conductor’s baton to a star trombone player and counting on harmony all around. Just because you’ve mastered your own instrument, doesn’t make you ready to be maestro. Even the best editors need preparation, practice and support, before and during their tenure.

Too often we treat editing as if it were intuitive work that a bright person can quickly master. It isn’t. Managing people and overseeing news quality require skills, finesse, experience and competencies that few of us have automatically and that journalism doesn’t naturally develop.

The Abramson dismissal has also touched a sensitive nerve regarding gender, especially in the wake of articles raising questions on whether there was a pay disparity between her and male editors. (Sulzberger has denied that there was a pay gap.) 

Beyond the gender issues swirling around this storyline, it seems inarguable that editor development — for men and women — remains a weak link of our profession.

Consider this quote from a veteran editor:

“Most of us are not trained to be executives….One day I looked around and I was metropolitan editor. I had never been in charge of anything except a part-time secretary in Japan and all of a sudden I was in charge of hundreds and hundreds of people.”

The author of that insight? A.M. Rosenthal, a former executive editor of The New York Times.

Follow AJR on Twitter: @AmJourReview


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