In the memories of any journalist are phrases and advice from mentors that helped shape careers.
Trouble is, if you’ve lived through the drastic change in the newspaper industry, that advice can be terribly out of date. Lately, I have been thinking about the best advice I ever received and how I might update the old to today’s world of newspapers. Here are the words of wisdom I recall.
“Any time you have spent three months on your investigative piece for the Sunday paper, take three days to try to disprove your major premise. You’ll either strengthen the story, or kill it and save yourself a lot of embarrassment.” James Crow, chairman of the University of New Mexico Journalism Department, approximately 1977
Professor Crow’s advice holds up very well. It is even more profound given the nature of instant communication and websites that publish without proper verification. As a reporter and editor, I tried to follow his advice. He was right. Most times we fortified the investigative piece by trying to disprove it. Once or twice, we killed the piece because we found sizable holes.
“The system don’t work.” Pete Giannettino, news editor, The Albuquerque (N.M.) Tribune
Pete’s grammatical goof of exasperation echoed through the years. He uttered this infamous phrase after another deadline session spent negotiating between an intractable composing room and a newsroom that ignored deadlines. (For those of you on the younger side, a “composing room” was a shop of union employees who would take galley proofs of type and place them on a page that went into a camera room before a plate was made for the press.)
What made the phrase memorable was Pete’s utter frustration over his inability to change the situation. He had neither the authority to order change from either side, nor the skill set to negotiate a settlement. Instead, he was caught between two sides absolutely convinced they were right. Their intransigence created an inferior product delivered late and no one above him recognized the need for leadership.
Leaders can’t accept such resignation—not with the stakes so high. Real leaders search out the toughest problems and solve them.
“No problem—no matter how terrible it seems—is quite as bad tomorrow morning. And any success—no matter how great—is quite as wonderful tomorrow morning. It’s amazing what perspective you get from one night’s sleep.” Ralph Looney, editor, The Rocky Mountain News (Denver, Colo.)
Ralph called me to offer this advice shortly after I became editor of The Albuquerque Tribune at the age of 30 when I could use all the sage advice offered. He was right. And this advice stands the test of time as well. A night’s sleep mitigates pain and moderates success.
“There are only two good ships in the Navy—the last one you were on and the next one you are going to.” John Hays, circulation director, El Paso (Texas) Herald-Post
John was old school. He chewed cigars, made inappropriate remarks about female employees and offered me drinks from the flask in his drawer. But John was a philosopher when I was a kid city editor and he liked me. I would lament to him about the complaints from my reporters about their pay, their morale, their long work hours. And I would conclude that I was running the worst operation in the history of newspapers because everyone claimed to be miserable.
I think this advice is time-tested too. Leaders can get lost while trying to make the chronic moaners happy. (And Lord knows there is plenty to moan about.) But the real leader sets a direction for the ship and asks for help in navigating. Folks either grab an oar and start rowing, or get off at the next port.
“You build circulation a half-percent at a time.” John Wilcox, publisher, Ventura County (Calif.) Star
You don’t build massive audience overnight, John taught me. You tweak your content to add audience and leave the basics alone. This is absolutely true with today’s delivery systems that can deliver specialized content. Those websites with largest audience are the ones that aggregate specialized content that add incremental reader segments.
“To thine own self be true.” Bill Burleigh, president, E.W. Scripps Co.
Bill’s advice came when he appointed me to take over one of the Scripps newspapers. He recognized that as a young editor, I would be getting a lot of free advice, and he wanted to remind me that my instincts had gotten me to this place. What better way than to quote Shakespeare.
This advice, too, ought to work for newspaper leaders today when there is a critic behind every keyboard.
Tim Gallagher is president of The 20/20 Network, a public relations and strategic communications firm. He is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning editor and publisher at The Albuquerque Tribune and the Ventura County Star newspapers. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.