Firewall Shmirewall: Three warnings from the WUTC case

For the second time in as many months, I find myself writing about the firing of a public media journalist over matters related to journalistic integrity.

Last month, it was Marketplace reporter Lewis Wallace. This time it’s Jacqui Helbert, fired from WUTC in Chattanooga after state lawmakers complained to the station’s license holder, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, about one of her stories.

The lawmakers said Helbert hadn’t properly identified herself as a journalist in meetings they’d held with high school students about a proposed transgender bathroom bill. They said they were unaware the meetings were being recorded for broadcast, although multiple accounts suggest Helbert was wearing press credentials and carrying conspicuous recording gear.

Continue reading “Firewall Shmirewall: Three warnings from the WUTC case”

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Firewall Shmirewall: Three warnings from the WUTC case

In Hiring, Public Radio Still Favors its Tribe

Judith’s website

I didn’t follow the usual path to a career in public media. My degree is in International Studies, not journalism; my college internship was with the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, not NPR; my post-graduation fellowship was with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, not the Kroc program. Whenever I tell fellow public radio professionals about my unusual background, I often get a subtle eyebrow raise … and a slight feeling of shame.

The fact is, our industry, like many, has a tendency to favor its own tribe. This is less true than it once was, especially with the advent of digital platforms, but the bias is still there. So when my friend, mentor, and soon-to-be PRNDI Leo C. Lee award honoree Tanya Ott started a Facebook thread today that kicked off a lively conversation about this, it really struck a chord. Or maybe a nerve.

An Unusual Path

My first journalism internship and my first journalism jobs were at Feature Story News (FSN), a broadcast news agency with clients all over the world – radio and TV, public and commercial – most with much larger audiences than your average local public radio station in the US. When I started applying for jobs at those US public radio stations, however, my first observation (and frustration) was how clubby that world was. One interviewer said he needed to talk to a reference who was his “colleague,” meaning someone in public radio. One person referred to me as “very green,” despite my six years of broadcast journalism experience.

When someone finally took a chance and hired me as a reporter at a local public radio station (I think the job had been open a long time and they were desperate!), my second observation was how valuable my non-traditional background was:

  • My studies and my early work in international relations gave me knowledge of and perspective on the world beyond my field and my broadcast area.
  • My work for different types of broadcasters exposed me to a universe of writing and reporting styles, almost all of which are valid.
  • My experience at FSN taught me to work quickly and to write strong leads and tight copy – skills I’ve been surprised to find lacking in many public radio newsrooms. I was shocked when my first pubradio assignment was a 45-second spot … and that’s all I was expected to do all day!

Bias Hard to Overcome

Years later, however, I became a public radio news director, and suddenly, I was the one doing the hiring. Despite my own non-traditional background, I found myself struggling to fight that same urge that drove me so crazy as a job applicant – the urge to favor people who are already “in the club.”

Right or wrong, here are some assumptions we make on the other side of the hiring desk:

  • People in the club speak our language.
    They know what “The Clock” is. They know a “feature” usually means any long-form story, even if it’s a hard news story (which isn’t the case in much of the journalism world, and it still drives me a little bit bonkers).
  • People in the club understand the public radio sensibility.
    They know our focus is on long-form storytelling, and they know something about how to produce those types of stories. They know we’re probably not going to listen to the police scanner or chase breaking news unless it’s really big … and they’re ok with that.
  • People outside the club will need a lot of training.
    There, perhaps, is the rub. And unlike the previous two assumptions, it’s almost always true. Even the best journalist who comes from outside public media will need to be brought up to speed (the same would be true if I went to work for a newspaper or a commercial radio station!). That’s one thing for large organizations with the staffs and budgets to accommodate those training needs, but the reality of most public media organizations is that all training and mentoring falls to the people in positions like the ones I held (news director, managing editor, etc.). They feel stretched as it is, and often, they simply don’t feel they’d have enough time to properly mentor a new employee from outside public media.

Needed: Recruitment & Training Resources … and an Open Mind

I could make some suggestions here, but for regular readers of this blog, they would sound pretty redundant. They all involve resources (i.e., money and staff) – particularly, more resources for recruitment and hiring (another task that generally falls entirely to the top news person) and for staff training, mentoring, and development.

The bottom line is, you do take a risk when you hire someone from The Outside. Sometimes it pays off in spades (one of the best hosts I’ve ever heard anywhere started his public radio career at my station in Orlando, and he came straight from commercial radio — he wasn’t my hire, but I sure wish I could take credit for him).  On the other hand, sometimes you take that risk, and it bites you right in the butt.

The best advice I can give to pubmedia news managers is to keep an open mind … but always hold out for the right person. Hiring is one of the most important things you will ever do.

In Hiring, Public Radio Still Favors its Tribe

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.

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