Former Independent editor Chris Blackhurst has held senior jobs in a variety of newsrooms. Here he shares his tips on managing newsrooms.
Hardly a day goes by without the announcement of a corporate move somewhere affecting the press, of a merger, consolidation, reorganisation, restructuring.
Little thought is ever given to its actual implementation. The news of the change is delivered in a bland, legally pored-over notice, and that’s that. Yes, but how do you put it into practice, how do you translate the business school-speak into reality?
I’d like to say I’ve been blessed, although that is not always how it felt, having worked for several news organisations in a senior editorial capacity – at the Daily and Sunday Express, Independent and Independent on Sunday, Evening Standard. I’ve also experienced newsroom overhauls on The Sunday Times and Observer and magazines. I love the whole creative process of journalism, still do. Often, though, I was tasked with managing change, with putting an idea from on high into practice.
It’s the price I paid, the Faustian pact, and I get that. But it’s hell, basically. The textbooks will tell you there are “five steps to successful change” – acknowledge and understand the need for change, communicate the need and involve the people in developing the change, develop a change plan, implement the change plan, evaluate and celebrate success.
Put like that, it seems easy and straightforward. That, indeed, is how management usually approaches the problem – the non-editorial management that is. They apply the same thought process as if they were tackling swapping a production line in a factory or introducing a new piece of equipment.
What they don’t realise is that journalists are different. Journalism is a people business, journalists are not machines, they’re not compliant automatons. By and large, journalists, me included, do what we do to see our names in lights, to get our stories told, our pictures published. We believe we’re on the side of good, of informing, improving, entertaining. We really do feel we’re on a mission.
The best journalists are natural communicators and they’re not afraid of speaking their minds and questioning – after all, many of them do that for a living. They’re nosy parkers, used to looking for ulterior motives, for reading between the lines, for finding out. They’re no respecters of authority, they choose to disbelieve.
I well remember one company boss saying to me: “What is it with journalists, God they’re a pain.” What prompted this outburst was that I’d gone to him to explain that his best-laid plans were going down like the proverbial bag of sick, that the newsroom did not buy what they were being told and a rethink was required, that they were maintaining the new approach was really an excuse for further jobs losses and cost-cutting, which it was.
Journalists work together but they’re also individuals. A newsroom is a collection of individuals. They’re all different; no two are identical. They need to be treated accordingly.
A mass communication, of the sort that management would regard as appropriate for a shopfloor, might be a start, but that’s all it is, a start. Unlike the usual workers’ address, this really is one where every word has to be carefully selected and meant – these are employees who dissect the words of others in their jobs.
Journalists don’t understand business, they don’t want to
They can spot a fool, a dissembler, a mile off. They want facts, with hard evidence. They will want to ask questions and you’d better have proper answers. Someone will be taking a note, someone will have their phone on and be recording. The chances are that it will appear in a media news website within minutes. They’re journalists. Don’t kid yourself otherwise.
Don’t assume because they work together they can actually work together. There may be a product, a title, a bulletin, a website, that has one name at the top but below that banner there’s tribalism. Home news, foreign, comment, business, production, sport, features, arts, graphics, books, pictures – they’re all separate desks, and even though they can occupy the same floor, they all like to look down on each other.
Some journalists carry a lot more weight than others. I don’t mean around their waists. Some hold the respect of their peers both inside and outside. One disdainful remark, one sneer, or woe betide a full-on confrontation, and they’re off to a rival and your scheming is toast. Management has to understand that.
What may have to happen is that the proprietor, the non-editorial chiefs, sit down with those journalists individually, to explain and to persuade. That could well involve a long lunch or dinner, and some ego massaging. Don’t be surprised either if the cannier ones listen and ask for a pay rise or grander title or improved terms.
Don’t assume, though, that those who shout the loudest are necessarily those who are the most listened to. Every newsroom has its quieter personalities who command admiration for their characters, and the reliable quality of their work – everyone knows who they are, everyone likes them. They, too, must be brought onside. Numerous have been the occasions when I’ve had to encourage a CEO or an owner, even, to spend some time with “so and so” and they’ve objected because they’ve never heard of “so and so” who isn’t a big name, isn’t someone they’ve heard of.
Realise that journalists are not businesspeople. They may be employed by a business but they’re not interested in business. They don’t understand business, they don’t want to. For many, theirs is a calling, not a route to making lots of money.
Similarly, frequent again have been the times when I’ve had to explain that just because the proprietor is wealthy, be they a person or a company, does not mean that the editorial operation can simply request greater resources and expect that wish to be met – how much the owner chooses to spend is entirely up to them.
Most important: don’t forget that the journalism is what matters, above all else. It’s the company’s USP. Sometimes, it’s too convenient to slip into abstract, MBA-thinking and agree that what’s under discussion is AN Other product, AN Other business. It’s not. You’re talking about doing something that will impact upon supremely talented people, many of whom work extremely hard, some of whom take great personal risk. The corporation lives and dies by their commitment. Remember that. Oh, and good luck.