Management isn’t journalism’s strong suit

And running a newsroom is hard and getting harder

Newsrooms have long hired and promoted based on journalistic chops, and often that alone. The problem, of course, is what makes for a great reporter doesn’t necessarily make for a great boss.

In all the to-and-fro about why The New York Times fired Jill Abramson no one questioned her journalistic ability. Her management style was said to be the issue, certainly by her detractors.

As any working journalist will tell you, such gripes are far from uncommon, and with the industry under massive financial pressure and with newsroom productivity at a premium, they’re getting more common by the day

Bad bosses are a fact of life in all businesses, of course, but journalism seems to be particularly poor at developing and training managers, and there are reasons for that. For one thing, as a percentage of payroll, non-news corporations spend nearly five times as much on training as do newspapers, according to 2008 graduate research by Teresa Schmedding, who’s now president of the American Copy Editor’s Editors Society, who wrote that “there does not appear to be a strong culture of management training at newspapers both among the managers themselves and within the corporate culture that sets the hiring practices and performance evaluations of managers.”

Another problem: personal traits that tend to foster reportorial excellence—independence, skepticism, aggressiveness, etc.—can be, shall we say, counterproductive in a boss.

Anne Doyle, a journalist-turned-management coach and the author of Powering Up! How America’s Women Achievers Become Leaders, says that newsrooms’ competitive, not-especially-collaborative cultures can contribute to the problem.

“In a big corporation, people … tend to be more interdependent,” she says in a phone interview. “For a journalist, information is power. To work in a corporate environment, someone who thinks that information is power and holds it close to the chest, is poison.”

The issue of whether women have a harder go of it as news managers has been much debated in the wake of the Abramson firing (see, for example, this op-ed by Amanda Bennett, a former top editor at The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg, who wrote about being unceremoniously dumped as top editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer). The Times hierarchy, led by Chairman Arthur Sulzberger, denies gender was a factor, a point Abramson’s successor, Dean Baquet, reiterated interview Friday with NPR. Baquet acknowledged having a temper, but said his serial wall-punching is limited to disputes with his supervisors. Abramson herself isn’t talking, yet.

Jill Geisler, who, as head of the Poynter Institute’s Leadership and Management programs, has read thousands of “360” reviews from news managers’ underlings, says she hasn’t seen a pattern of women being judged more harshly than men. “I don’t see a difference—no disproportionate amount of women over men being told they’re too aggressive or pushy.”

Geisler, the author of Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know, says the difficult types are usually easy to identify, regardless of gender. “If the question is, ‘What does this person do well?’ and the answer is, ‘He has a real passion for journalism,’ I always skip down to the question that asks what this person does wrong: “Eh, he can be pretty brash.”

While being abrasive may have worked in the Abe Rosenthal era, newsroom culture has changed in recent decades. The imperial boss largely has been replaced by the consensus builder, or so the literature tells us, and workers expect to be treated more civilly. Or at least the over-the-top taskmaster style is on the outs and deviations from current newsroom mores are more quickly called out.

All of which leads to a suspicion that a big reason that journalists might tend to make for bad managers is that the job is just really, really hard. Nieman Reports reported that a non-journalist management expert hired to assist assigning editors said that “in 30 years of research he had never encountered a job with such intense problem-solving demands,” adding: “The assigning editors were not surprised to hear this.”

And that was in 2006, before the bottom fell out of the news business. Managers still have to deal with all the old problems along with decimated staffs, pay cuts, and the resulting rock-bottom morale. That’s compounded by the nature of digital-age journalism and the need to take care of the legacy business while figuring out the new one.

“You’re putting out stuff 24/7, while at the same time, you’re having to deal with reporters, designers, copy editors, photographers—all of these people who are concerned with where the industry is going,” says Earnest L. Perry, an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and a management consultant to newsrooms. “It’s tough to be a middle manager now. They’re getting it from both ends.”

Then there’s the fact that journalists can be, well, difficult: “Managing journalists is particularly challenging, because if they’re any good, they question authority and challenge spin,” Geisler says. “We want to hire those who will question authority—except ours.”

The best managers of journalists help them work autonomously in a way that serves the needs of the larger organization. “The problem is, we have former journalists who become journalism managers who are still trying to manage the journalism instead of the people,” Perry says. “They’re micromanagers.”

That comes back to the issue of training. Journalists, for all the right reasons, tend to look askance at the sloganeering, jargon, and corporate-speak that tends to accompany management-training sessions. But that doesn’t mean leadership is somehow unteachable. As Douglas McCollam noted here two weeks ago, Sulzberger knew from the beginning that Abramson’s hard-edged management style was not to his liking. Abramson had spoken with a management coach not long before she was fired, but that appears to have been too late.

On the other hand, in 1999, The New Yorker reported that Howell Raines was sent to several weeks of executive training at Dartmouth by Sulzberger as part of his grooming for the top job.

Raines would ascend to the executive editor’s chair in 2001, lasting less than two years before resigning amid the Jason Jayson Blair scandal… and complaints about his imperious management style.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,