Thursday, October 2, 2014

Don't Be Afraid To Shake Up Media

I have written here before about my love of Malcolm Gladwell's book David and Goliath. My coworkers at YourHub listened to me talk about the book, and I urged them to act based on things the book told us. The basic message is that we not only need to think outside the box but to build a new box. Not one of Gladwell's examples centers on journalism or media, but the lessons are easily applicable. There is a second source behind this blog entry. It is a video by advertising adviser Cindy Gallop on the need for her industry to blow itself up and be reinvented. (Here is a link: bit.ly/ZwIo32)

I will use some of the things that I thought of while reading the book, and I will relate them within the context of YourHub. I put five of those ideas out on Twitter earlier today, so those who follow my tweets got an early glimpse.

1. Don't accept limits placed on you by the system. YourHub is designed to be a counterpoint to the various suburban publications within the greater Denver area. We had teams that centered on Aurora and Adams County; Denver; Douglas and Arapahoe counties; Lakewood and Arvada; and Golden (including certain mountain communities) and South Jefferson County. The problem for me is that YourHub was expected to focus on second-level news stories. We were great at looking at local governmental activity, arts groups, new construction projects (from preplanning to pushing dirt), etc.

My problem with the second-level ideal was that it didn't help another main YourHub objective, which was to develop reporters and designers who could step into the main Denver Post newsroom. Only two made that jump to a reporting job directly. (A third did the circuitous route, going to Denver Post Online as a producer before getting a reporting job.) That second-level accent wasn't going to help my reporters get the kind of experience and clips to help them advance. I started seeking to have my reporters reach deeper for story ideas. I urged them to go to hospitals in their areas and visit neonatal intensive care units; go to churches and find out about the homeless who are being helped; go to agencies and see if they can trace soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan; etc. To do that meant we had to challenge the established YourHub system. I talked to someone about my idea, and this person told me that the main Post newsroom had sections that were designed to handle those kind of stories, and YourHub should keep our hands off. I can't disagree more with that statement.

I had only two such stories written during my time as YourHub's manager. Community manager Wes Gentry did a story on Street's Hope, a facility in Lakewood that helped prostitutes get off the streets and build a better future. I almost did handsprings when Wes said he was going to do that story. There also was a story by now-retired reporter Karen Groves that centered on two men in the Evergreen area who had differing levels of paralysis because of accidents. I had someone in the YourHub newsroom say that those two stories couldn't go together, but there were so many parallels between their lives that it was an easy fit.

I still believe in the standard I set there: Reach farther. Still do the second-level stories, but look for truly dynamic topics.

2. Think for yourself as a worker. This is more about establishing overarching policy than about doing individual stories. Each reporter or designer works independently on individual stories, pages or editions. One of my goals as a manager was to foster an environment in which my employees could suggest different ways to do things. A little history here helps.

I took a business personality test while working at the Register-Guard in Eugene, Oregon. One part of my analysis resulted in the word Democratic. This idea of workers suggesting ways of doing things fits into that ideal. Give me input. Give me ideas. I ramped that idea up after I read David and Goliath. Journalism is facing trying times, and that won't change in the near future. It is an industry under intense pressure. To combat that, I pushed for new ideas and used David and Goliath as a framework. This won't be a popular point to make, but I got zero response. I decided to take a bold move, and one I figured might not be popular. I led off my weekly Monday morning meeting by saying that I would not be joining in the weekly team meetings, in which each team talked about upcoming stories and made sure our photographers were clued in on what was needed. I told them that they had all the power that morning, and they could work on any changes they wanted.

My idea went over with varying degrees of success. There was no great outpouring of new ideas. I asked each designer/editor to give me feedback on the way I handled things. The results could be tracked along lines of seniority. The most senior designer said it was no big deal and all that was needed was some adjustment in time and effort. The least senior, to put it simply, ripped me a new one. I was told I abandoned my leadership role, and the lack of time to adjust was a hurtful breech of policy. (It was different, but I didn't abandon my leadership duties. I just did them in a much different way, not following the "from the top down" management style and instead looking for a Democratic way of doing things.)

3. Be a manager open to new ideas. This goes hand in glove with the previous point. It is of no use to give reporters and designers the power to lend ideas if I am unwilling to listen to them and put those ideas into action. I have been a "from the bottom up" kind of manager for years.

I won't mention names in many of these stories, but I will make an exception here. Joe Nguyen was my designer for the Aurora-Adams County team, but he had time to do stories, come up with new ways of doing things, etc. I hope I was able to get across to Joe just how much his work and ideas meant to me. He also was my main IT guy. When we were looking to change pagination systems, I made sure Joe was my point man in dealing with the computer experts in the building. I lost a lot when Joe was hired for an online position in the sports department. (Sigh.)

4. Let writers/reporters/designers be creative. Don't be a micro-manager. I can't stress this enough. I gave my employees the freedom to explore. I didn't hover over their shoulders. I rarely held idea-generation sessions with a reporter unless that reporter had a history of not coming up with good ideas. I brought in the union rep in YourHub for one such session because of that rep's experience and knowledge. It was an invaluable aid in "reforming" a reporter. My point is that micromanaging can be a teaching tool, but it doesn't allow creative people to be creative. They think more about the next possible reprimand than the process needed to write well.

However, I still took time to sit down with each reporter, designer and community manager to get to know them better. Those sessions were always held on Thursdays and Fridays, the days of our lighter workload, and they all entailed having lunch or coffee. I should have done this much more often. Communication in a non-work environment meant we were able to be people and not workers. We got to know each other better. That can only be a plus.

5. Give the readers what they want, not want the system wants. Yes, YourHub needs to give information on government, agencies and the normal things of old world journalism, but it connects more with readers if that story affects them directly. It might be a story on a construction project on a certain major roadway, but I think the most effective tool for reaching readers is the personal feature story. If you give me a story on breaking ground on an apartment complex in Lakewood on one side of the scales and match it against the Denver story about a high school girl who found guidance and stability through a local boxing program, I favor the boxing story every time. Readers love to hear stories about other people, their problems and the solutions they discover.

A story that I received more feedback about was about a Douglas County girl who won lots of money for showing her animal at a fair, but she took all that money and put it toward her young cousin's battle with cancer. The short headline we had on the photo on the front page said "Little Girl, Big Heart." People loved "Little Girl, Big Heart." It was something that connected with them directly. It also would have worked with a story about an Iraq veteran facing PTSD, or the trials of a young family with a child in a neonatal ICU, but I can't make that happen now.

This last part of this blog is directed at the YourHub staff. One of the reasons I pushed so hard to think differently was as a manner of survival. I felt we needed to push the envelope from the second-level stories as a way to exist. One of the most powerful statements I received as a manager was delivered on the day I was informed I had to dismiss five employees because of a reduction of workforce. I asked whether these cuts could come from anywhere else. The response? "YourHub doesn't win Pulitzers." I feared that all of YourHub might be cut someday. I still fear that although I was involved in a much smaller RIF episode, being one of two veterans released from the newsroom on April 24. I fear the call will come to reduce staffing by nine or 10, and YourHub will be the one in the crosshairs.

YourHub's biggest plus is that the workers come cheaply. Their pay is on par with the suburban publications and not the rest of The Post newsroom. The negative is that YourHub doesn't generate much revenue in the overall scheme. That doesn't create job security. I urge people to read David and Goliath, and adopt that kind of thinking. Don't just think outside the box, but build a new box. Grow in the process. Be creative. Survive.

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