Workshop’s Co-Creators Reflect on Past, Present, and Future of the Training
By Judith Smelser & Mike Marcotte
This summer in Washington, D.C., the PRNDI News Manager Training & Certification program graduated its sixth jam-packed class. Two months later, the organization, now called PMJA, informed us that it would not renew our contract to lead the workshop. Terry Gildea, who last year became the organization’s first full-time Executive Director, cited cost considerations as the reason for the decision.
We’ve poured a great deal of time, effort, and dedication into the workshop since we created it in 2014, so of course it was a sad day for us. But we humbly believe it was also a sad day for the public media leaders who now may not get to experience it.
“This has been the most helpful event in three years of attending PRNDI, and the most diverse,” said WKAR News Director Reginald Hardwick after completing the 2019 workshop at NPR Headquarters in June.
The workshop almost always sold out, and there was usually a waiting list.
This year was no different, despite the welcome addition of another training for public media news leaders – the CPB-funded Editorial Leadership and Integrity Initiative, run by the Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. This year, three people chose to do both programs, suggesting that there’s plenty of demand to go around. At a time when news management positions are nearly impossible to fill, that’s not likely to change anytime soon.
Over 100 Alumni
The 117 alumni of our PRNDI training ranged in management experience from a few months to three decades. Their newsrooms ranged in size from one journalist to more than sixty. They are now news directors, general managers, executive editors, and even (ironically) PJMA board members. Many say the workshop was pivotal in their career development, and they were as shocked and sad as we were about PMJA’s decision.
“I think about my training every day as I struggle to stay organized and make a difference,” said 2019 participant and KRCB News Director Steve Mencher. “Sorry others won’t get to benefit.”
“The training was a breakthrough in learning how to lead with confidence and compassion,” said WNIJ News Director Jenna Dooley, who attended the 2016 training. “Thanks for this important work.”
2016 alum Ed Ronco of KNKX called it a “valuable training that shaped a lot about how I interact with folks at work. Hope it can still happen in a different setting.”
We’ll save that possibility for another day.
Right now, we simply want to tell the story of this workshop – its founding principles, its unique qualities, and why we still believe this kind of training is crucial as public media struggles to meet the growing demand for skilled journalist-leaders.
In January 2014, we got a call from PRNDI’s then-President George Bodarky, asking us to create the organization’s first-ever news management training. We’d both forged our way as news directors before much formal training was available, so we knew how valuable such a workshop could be. We jumped at the opportunity to pass on what we’d learned through our cumulative decades of experience.
As we set about building a curriculum, we soon realized how much ground we had to cover. In two short days, we had to address everything from big-picture strategic planning to the nitty gritty details of newsroom operations – from editing to ethics, from crisis coverage to stress management, from recruitment and hiring, to difficult conversations, to managing “up” to the C-Suite.
Real-World Newsroom Strategies
Above all, we wanted to create a training that was practical and actionable, full of strategies our participants could take home and start implementing immediately. Our graduates tell us that’s one thing that sets the workshop apart.
“Many trainings I’ve done lay out problems or cover issues without providing actual recommendations of how to prevent those issues or deal with them,” said KUOW News Director Jill Jackson after attending the 2018 workshop. “I have real actions I can, and will, take as a result of this training that will make KUOW better.”
Making Time for Connection
We also insisted on keeping the workshop small, so it could be highly interactive – another element our participants seem to appreciate.
“The balance between guided lessons and open conversation about the issues all of our newsrooms face really opened my eyes to the world of public radio and made me feel like I’m not alone in our challenges,” said then West Virginia Public Broadcasting Assistant News Director Ashton Marra about the 2015 workshop.
She’s right that it’s a balancing act!
Our behind-the-scenes presenter agenda looks like the offspring of a talk show rundown and a stage script, with its multitude of cues, time posts, and handoff notes.
Striving to Improve
By no means is this a plug-and-play workshop that we pull out of a dusty box each year. The feedback we get from our participants indicates we’re doing well, but just like them, we’re always looking for ways to improve.
Each training has been a little different, as we’ve responded to participant feedback and to the industry’s constant shifts. We spend a great deal of time every year tweaking, reworking, adding, and subtracting to make sure the content is as current as possible.
“The training was spot on [and] relevant to all of the things I struggle with,” said Alaska Public Media News Director and 2019 training participant Lori Townsend.
Grateful for the Past, Hopeful for the Future
So … what’s next for the workshop?
One thing is certain – we are no less committed to training and supporting news leaders today than we were two months ago or five years ago.
We have a few ideas about where to go from here, and we’re investigating some possibilities. We’re not ready to share details yet, but, as they say … stay tuned, and watch this space.
As we close this chapter of the training, though, we are immensely grateful to our alumni for their energy, participation, and enthusiastic feedback. They have given life to this project. We are also grateful to PRNDI/PMJA for making such an important initial investment in the future of public media news leadership.