Why’s a good news director so hard to find?

http://judithsmelser.com/

I’ve been asked that question so many times lately – mainly in conversations with frustrated general managers, program directors, and content chiefs – that I decided it was time to give it some serious thought.

The past few years have seen a proliferation of news director openings in the public media world, partly as a result of job churn as the recession faded and the “shelter in place” mentality began to lift.  But many of these jobs are taking an inordinate amount of time to fill – not months, but years in some cases.

I see several factors conspiring to make this situation so intractable. Many of them will require long term investments to address.

1) Rising standards for news leaders

Gone are the days when public media was content with providing “alternative” news. We now aspire to be the primary news source for our audience, on whatever platform that audience happens to consume media. NPR has led the way in this shift, but an increasing number of local stations are following suit, especially as digital developments intensify the need for station-created content, which usually manifests itself as news content.

This shift calls for more sophisticated news managers. To be a good news director in today’s public media environment, you still have to be a great journalist, but frankly, that’s not enough anymore.

  • You have to be a great editor.
  • You have to have know how to effectively produce and direct news for multiple platforms.
  • You have to be a great organizer, of people and of content – a great planner who can keep lots of balls in the air and stay ahead of the news cycle.
  • You have to be a great manager, who can motivate people, delegate when appropriate, deal gracefully with difficult employees, and give meaningful feedback on a regular basis.
  • You have to have a working knowledge of the law as it applies to journalism, media, and employment.
  • You have to know how to prepare and manage a budget.

Mid-career news directors, raise your hands if you had all those skills when you took your first job in news management. I sure didn’t!

Most of us probably stumbled into leadership positions because the news directors at our stations moved away. Luckily, we were able to learn on the job.

Today’s newsrooms, however, face urgent demands that didn’t exist ten or even five years ago. Today’s hiring managers know they need news directors who already have these skills and can hit the ground running. Problem is, those people are few and far between – at least in public media.  Here’s why:

2) No “farm team” for editors and news leaders

Most public newsrooms are relatively small, with staff rosters that look something like this:

  • news director
  • two hosts
  • one or two reporters
  • digital staffer (if you’re lucky)

Note the absence of positions like this:

  • editor
  • assistant news director

These positions do exist at larger stations, of course, but the vast majority of public media organizations don’t fall into that category.  That means there are relatively few opportunities for journalists to move into junior-level management or editorial positions, where they can be mentored and get on-the-job training and experience without the high stakes that go along with being the top gal or guy in the newsroom.

3) Lack of news management training

Poynter offers some fantastic training in news management, but until recently, at least to my knowledge, there has been little to no training specifically addressing the needs of current and aspiring public media news managers. That’s despite the fact that public media organizations and independents have done an admirable job over the years of building training programs and workshops for programmers, reporters, producers, and hosts.

 

Investment is the only solution (Yes, I mean money.)

In June, PRNDI offered its first-ever News Manager Training and Certification program. Full disclosure: I co-led that workshop alongside Mike Marcotte – and to say it was a busy two days would be an understatement. We took our capacity group of 20 news directors through all the skills I listed earlier, plus a few more.

That training was a great start, but we can’t stop there. The public media system needs to make a real, long-term commitment to invest in building editorial and managerial capacity.  I see two ways to do this:

1) Be open to hiring mid-level editors and managers 

As newsrooms grow – and thankfully, many of them are growing as the economy rebounds – they tend to add beat reporters, talk show hosts, bloggers, etc. Rarely do stations choose to add an editor or an assistant news director. This preference for content creators over managers is well founded – the last thing a newsroom needs is too many chiefs! But we must remember to add editorial and managerial capacity to keep up with the growth.

Not only will this start to build the editorial/managerial “farm team” I spoke of earlier; it will also keep news directors from becoming overburdened, burning out, and leaving their jobs.

2) Provide more training, coaching, and mentoring opportunities for news managers

I hope the PRNDI News Manager Training is the beginning of a major mindset shift in the public media news world. We need to understand that our news leaders have a heck of a hard job and that they need and deserve ongoing support and training.

This is especially important now, while the pool of fully-trained news managers is extremely small and stations are having to hire people who simply don’t have all the skills they need to “hit the ground running.” My plea to station managers is this:

Please don’t hire these people and then set them up to fail. Give them training and coaching in the skills they’re lacking.

No simple answer, no quick fix

As you can see, I think the answer to the question we started with  is pretty complex. The reasons stations are having such a hard time finding good news directors are structural, historical, and even psychological. It will take time and, yes, money to remedy the situation. But I think the investment is not only worthwhile, but indeed crucial to the ability of local public media newsrooms to survive and to thrive into the future.

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Why’s a good news director so hard to find?

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