A First-Time News Manager’s Guide to Success

Tim Wolff

When I first became a news manager, I made some mistakes. In 20 years of news leadership, I learned a lot, and now I work with newsrooms across the U.S. to help them grow and evolve. This list of 10 things I learned can help any new manager.

tl/dr: scroll to the bottom for the top ten list

1: Being the best worker doesn’t automatically mean you’ll be a good manager.

Maybe you’re a producer making the jump to executive producer, or an assignment editor now managing the desk, or a reporter/anchor becoming a manager, or a photographer taking on the Chief Photographer role. Whatever your role was, you probably were the best in the newsroom at it. The first mistake new managers make is thinking that the product is still their job. It’s not, really. It’s about helping your people make the best product possible.

I can’t overstate the importance of this. I’ve seen too many new managers fail when they think their job is just to keep doing their previous role, except now to make sure every newscast is produced well by producing it (or reviewing it) themselves, 24/7; or assigning themselves to shoot video 60 hours a week to make sure it is covered properly. While in the short term of that individual newscast it may work out, that approach will eventually destroy you and the potential of your team.

The toughest part of managing is stepping back and letting someone else do your old job–even when you know they are not doing it as well as you did. But your job now is to help them learn and grow to become the best producer they can be. That could mean they will produce newscasts a lot like you did, or it could mean they show different strengths that could bring a whole new level to the product. Which leads me to my next tip.

2: Empower your team with freedom and guidance; only take over when it’s critical.

Here’s a real-life example of what happens when you get this part wrong.

I came to a TV station as a manager, and one of the evening producers had been there 8 years. In my first week, there was breaking news, and we needed to go live on the air. I asked her to run the breaking news from the control room…and she didn’t know how. In 8 years as a producer, she had never done it; the Executive Producer always manned the booth in breaking news himself.

This was, of course, a terrible system. Not only did it require the EP to be available 24/7, but it also stopped his producers from growing. And it made the producers feel like they weren’t good enough. Needless to say, the morale among producers there wasn’t great when I got there. One of the first things I did was empower that producer to learn how to run breaking news (which she ended up excelling at).

Whatever your role, that is the approach you need to take. Your team won’t grow if you don’t let them do the work themselves. Photographers need to be able to shoot sweeps stories sometimes; assignment desk editors need to run crews in big breaking events sometimes. If they’re not ready for it the first time they do it (and really, who is?), that’s why you’re there. Step in with help and guidance, and if it is critical, step in and take over. If you have to take over, make sure you do an immediate follow-up and help them learn why, and give them good guidance on what they need to learn and practice going forward.

I’ll also say this: know what “critical” really is. Every newscast is important, but sometimes you need to let them do an adequate job with something, then follow up and show comparisons of how they could do even better. This approach will help them learn much faster than taking over everything and only telling them why later.

But when something does happen…

3: Do debriefs.

The debrief, or post-mortem, is an excellent way for you and your team to learn how to improve.

It’s best to bring everyone involved together in the next day or so after a big event. Open the conversation to everyone, and make sure notes are taken and adapted into future plans.

If an individual failed and needs to be coached or reprimanded, make sure to do that in a private setting, not in front of the whole group.

The point of the debrief is really to figure out how to work your best as a team, and how to make sure everyone on the team has the right priorities. It’s important your team knows that, too. Help them understand the goal is to improve as a group, and create an environment for honesty–and one where people don’t feel defensive. Honest conversations without ego are the fastest path to growth.

This works for scheduled big events and breaking news, too. Election night over? Have a debrief the next day, and incorporate into plans for the next election night. Severe weather coverage live for hours on TV? Bring in the meteorologists, producers, directors and everyone involved to talk through the coverage and see if there is anything that can be improved or altered.

Coaching like this will make you and your team stronger.

Just one thing: make sure you do them when things go well, not just when things go wrong.

4: The hard conversations are the most important ones.

There are many situations that lead to hard conversations. Sometimes, people make terrible mistakes. Sometimes they deserve a raise and you can’t give them one. Sometimes you have to talk to them about how their attitude is affecting coworkers. And sometimes they need to tell you what you’ve been doing wrong.

Hard conversations may be the biggest key to growth for you and your team. It’s important that you don’t avoid them; otherwise, issues will grow and become worse (it turns out problems don’t just usually go away). If you have to give someone bad news or reprimand them, it’s best to consider how you would want to be treated if someone were having the conversation with you. Be honest. Be direct. Offer coaching, not just a list of what was wrong. Be sure to keep the focus on the end goal: helping them be the best they can be.

And listen. Sometimes, our teams fail us because we made assumptions or didn’t communicate well; we have to acknowledge our own mistakes.

Not all hard conversations are because someone did something wrong. I’ve certainly been in the position where I’ve had great employees who really deserved to be paid better…but it wasn’t in the budget (this is a major problem in journalism). You’ll also have to tell them when they didn’t get a promotion that went to someone else. And you’ll have to give them feedback from your bosses that you may not agree with. Which gets us to the next lesson…

5: You have to manage up, too.

So you made it to manager, and now you’re the boss, right? Except you’ve got bosses, too. Yes, middle management is great–all the responsibilities of managing people while still having someone manage you.

If you’re lucky, you and your boss will have similar philosophies on news judgment and on managing people. But you will definitely have times in your career when that is not the case. So how do you manage when you and your boss don’t see eye to eye?

The first thing to do is make sure you and your boss have talked it through, and that you have a good understanding of each other’s reasoning. Then, you’ll have to deliver the boss’s message–and not undermine the boss by telling your team that you think the boss is wrong. You can tell them it’s a group decision; you can tell them all the reasons why management believes in this issue; you can even tell them you disagree with your boss (if your boss knows you’re going to). But you absolutely cannot try to play the good guy by throwing your boss under the bus. That will immediately lead to a toxic work environment for all of you.

The only way those conversations go well is if you start with the right approach. Here are the first two things you should do in your first meeting as a manager with your boss: Ask what your boss’s top priorities for you are, and ask how and how often they would like to communicate. Some bosses want to be in the loop on every little thing; some only want to know when it’s a big deal. You need to adjust to what your boss needs, and having a strong understanding of how you communicate together will go a long way toward avoiding problems for both of you.

6: Scheduling is hard, and may be the most important thing you do.

News is 24/7. This creates all kinds of scheduling challenges around the 40-hour workweek. And on top of that, your staff want to take vacations!

People have lives. Managing to allow them to have lives is really, really important. Unfortunately, so is managing to make sure you have enough staff to cover what the newsroom needs. These two priorities often conflict.

To avoid turmoil in your newsroom over schedules, it’s best to have a plan that everyone can agree to. What I found worked best was establishing a minimum number of people on the different shifts, then having a deadline of January 31st for everyone to put in their vacation requests for the entire year. If all the shifts met their minimums, great! If not, I went by seniority to decide who wouldn’t get their vacation. (I would amend this if human circumstances warranted; like if a new employee’s sister was getting married out of town, I’d talk to the more senior person and ask them to move their vacation.) As long as you are transparent with everyone and they all can see there is a system, it will greatly reduce negativity over the schedule (and by schedule, I mean their real lives outside work). After January 31st, I made it first-come, first-serve.

But there is more you need to do than make a system. You need to be creative to find solutions, looking at every possible option to give people the time off they need. You’ll even need to cover for them sometimes, stepping in on a Friday night, or a morning or a weekend. When they see you fighting to do everything you can to try to get them the time off they need, they will appreciate you and be much more understanding when they can’t get the time they want.

Because no matter what you do, sometimes you have to cancel people’s vacations. That’s a fact of news, news events and staff turnover. When those times come, refer to the hard conversations section earlier in this article.

7: Do NOT over-rely on your top people.

This is a big one. Lot of managers think their job is to put the best people in the most important places…and there is a time for that. But the real job is get everyone to perform at the highest level.

In a newsroom, this usually looks like this: Say there are two morning reporters, and one is great on live breaking news, and the other isn’t. Most managers think their job is to always make sure the better reporter goes to breaking news. But your actual job is to get the weaker reporter to become a strong breaking news reporter.

If you can do that, you create a much stronger newsroom. You also avoid burnout of your top people, and you keep your less-experienced employees from feeling resentful and like they are not growing. (To read my article “The good reporter who became a bad reporter and how to be good again,” click here).

8: Hiring is harder than ever, and you must dedicate time to it.

I remember how shocked I was when I became an Executive Producer and was in charge of hiring new producers. I’d always thought I was a great producer because I was always offered the job I interviewed for. When I had to hire producers, I realized that we’d hardly get any qualified candidates–especially for what we were paying.

So I learned how to become a recruiter. I made contact with as many prospects as possible and talked to as many people as possible. All of this took a lot of time–especially with a shorthanded newsroom trying to get through the day. But it is critical you set aside this time, because if you don’t, days and weeks and months will go by, and you won’t have hired anyone.

Timing is critical in another way, too. Once you’ve got a good prospect, you have to move quickly. This might mean working with a recruiter or with your own HR team. If multiple people need to talk to this person, make those interviews happen ASAP–don’t wait and do it when it is convenient on everyone’s calendar. And if you need to bring them in for a visit, do it right away–and be ready to make an offer the day after they leave.

If you are slow in the hiring process, they’ll get an offer from someone else first–and you’ll be back to square one.

9: Know where you have to learn and grow.

You’re not perfect. That’s true even though you’re a manager now. You’ll be tempted to think you are always the expert, that you are always right. Maybe you are, but chances are pretty good your team will have better ideas about some things.

A good exercise to do as a new manager is to sit down and explore your own strengths and weaknesses. You might want to do this with your boss, with a mentor, a friend, alone, or with some resources your HR team might have.

You also need to spend some time outside the daily news demands to learn about the latest trends and technologies in news. Being a leader means you have to be able to contribute to evolving strategies, and you need to see the future of where news is heading.

When you take the time to learn about yourself, you can make your own path to growth.

10: Know your personal core ethics, and know your company’s ethics and goals.

If you are the luckiest person to ever be a manager, you will spend your entire career working for bosses and companies that wholly share your values. I’d also like you to contact me, because I have never met anyone who has been that lucky for an entire news career.

If not at the start of your career, then almost certainly at some point you will work for someone who doesn’t match your ethics in journalism or in the treatment of people. If you have done the work to fully understand your own ethics, you can be strong in knowing how to drive change within your organization–or knowing when it is time to leave. If you haven’t explored and understood your own ethics, you may fall right into the bad leadership you’re being exposed to–and become a problem leader yourself.

It’s best to know the company’s ethics and goals before you start the job, but you also have to stay connected to leadership to know when things change. If company strategies and tactics change due to economic conditions, for example, but you don’t know it, you could end up going in the opposite direction of your leadership. And that could cause a lot of problems.

To recap, here are my ten tips for first-time news managers:

  • Being the best worker doesn’t automatically mean you’ll be a good manager
  • Give your team freedom and guidance; only take over when it’s critical
  • Do debriefs
  • The hard conversations are the most important ones
  • It’s not just managing down; you have to manage up
  • Scheduling is hard, and may be the most important thing you do
  • Do NOT overly rely on your top people; make everyone able to do every part of the job well
  • Hiring is harder than ever, and you must dedicate time to it
  • Know where you have to learn and grow
  • Know your core ethics, and know your company’s ethics and goals

As you start your career as a first-time news manager, I hope these tips can get you off to a good start, and that you will share with me some of the lessons you learn along your career journey. Thank you for choosing a career in news, and for helping to lead our industry into a bright future. Good luck!

Tim Wolff has 20+ years of experience as a digital and broadcasting leader who’s led top-performing teams across the country at companies including Gannet, Belo, and Cox Media Group Ohio, which includes three daily newspapers, three radio stations, WHIO-TV, and more. Wolff, who holds a Master’s in Journalism from the University of Missouri, also makes a mean green chile stew.
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