HR Directors Talk Challenges and Opportunities in Staffing Newspaper Organizations

By: Gretchen A. Peck

It goes without saying that newsrooms are profoundly differently from even five to 10 years ago. Beyond the newsroom and across the news organization, no job title, no position and no role has benefitted from the comfort of status quo. Sales, graphics and production, circulation and audience, marketing, and more have been tested and changed. This has undoubtedly made recruiting and staffing more complicated.

Plus, consolidation, layoffs, and an image problem have been working against newspapers’ efforts to attract and keep skilled, experienced, talented people. These are all challenges we face, but they can also be fixed.

Recruiting From Today’s Talent Pool

As the director of talent acquisition for the New York Times, Stacey Olive is responsible for recruiting for a range of disciplines across the publication, except for newsroom hiring, which is managed by Carolyn Ryan. But beyond the newsroom, it’s Olive’s domain, and one of her most persistent challenges is courting talented people, especially from outside of publishing, and especially in the cases of technical positions.

“Those jobs require completely different skill sets today, so we are really borrowing people from other industries who have transferable skills or from competitive organizations…we are looking for people who can work within the newer digital landscape that we’re in now,” Olive said. “But I would say, definitely, this has become a challenge. It has caused us to think more creatively.”

In the case of the Times, the publisher might not recruit from another media company at all, Olive explained. A product manager position, for example, might be better filled by a great candidate courted away from the worlds of tech or e-commerce.

Stacey Olive

“The way that I have to find talent, and the type of talent we have to target, is not necessarily the traditional competitor set,” Olive said. “That’s what I would highlight to you as one of the real main differences: Our competitive set and a source of hire is different than it was in the past.

“It’s true that while we do recruit some people who have worked at companies such as Google or Amazon, Facebook or Netflix—the ‘West Coast technology companies’—and we definitely have recruited some of those, but in large measure, I’d say that we’d probably like to recruit a bunch more.”

There are soft barriers at play: Preconceived notions about the state and health of newspapers today, and a measurably different corporate culture. For example, tech companies are seen as being ideologically and technologically advanced; in comparison, newspapers have had a reputation for being stalwart and defiantly non-progressive.

“We find that sometimes they’re not leaving those companies because of the technology they’re exposed to, and because of the developer culture that they’re exposed to. It is challenging for a media company to compete with that,” Olive said.

Diversity and the Generational Gap

There are two labor force patterns that staffing professionals speak of with concern: a legacy of homogeneity among newspaper staff, and a “generational gap” between the highly skilled, seasoned newspaper professionals who have held on through the digital ride and the new generations of news pros who bring entirely different perspectives and talents to the table.

One of the mandates in the New York Times’ 2020 report (published last year) was a call for more diversity in the workplace, not just in the newsroom but company-wide. Olive said the publisher is following through on that vow: “(We remain committed to) having a more diverse workforce, especially when it comes to our journalists and reflecting the world that we report on.”

Still, there’s much work to be done with regards to inclusivity and diversity. Olive cautioned against presumptions that the Times and other newspapers are purely seeking young, digital savvy candidates in their 20s and 30s.

“We value our experienced talent very much,” she said. “In fact, part of our manager training programs includes segments managing an intergenerational workforce.”

Cooperation and teamwork are running themes throughout the Times’ organizations, perhaps most visible in the newsrooms, where journalists are routinely paired and grouped on assignments, and where stories are told through the cooperative efforts of cross-function teams—experts in graphics, video, production, IT and audience, helping journalists communicate the information they’ve compiled. And these pros come from all sorts of professional backgrounds.

Olive said that it’s commonplace to attend meetings with colleagues who are just launching their careers alongside others who have more than three decades of service to the newspaper under their belts.

At the Times, the hiring processes have all been revamped, too.

“We’ve put into place a new interview process that aims at fairness and allowing the hiring managers to make hiring decisions based on candidates’ skill and competency, while removing bias,” Olive explained. “For example, ‘Oh, that person went to my school,’ or ‘Hey, we used to work for the same company.’ Our new processes are aimed at providing transparency and fairness. We require diverse interview panels and competency-based interview questions. We require written feedback from interviews, so we’re not allowing someone coming out of an interview to just say, ‘Oh, that person wasn’t a good fit.’ That is not a suitable answer to base a hiring decision on.”

When we speak of diversity in human resources’ contexts, it’s important to define what it means—creating a news organization that reflects the market it serves, with its full representative spectrum of demographics, socio-economic backgrounds, professional experiences and other distinctive attributes. The goal isn’t to merely check off boxes, but to create a living, thriving, healthy news organization, and to deliver on a promise to readers.

A human resources director from a large publishing group (who preferred not to be named) suggested that diversity represents an uncomfortable yet long overdue topic of discussion for newspapers. He challenged readers to look no further than editorial boards for a startling lack of diversity and perspective.

To illustrate how important diverse perspectives can be to journalism and storytelling, he offered a timely analogy in the form of rapper Kanye West. Recently, West garnered national news when he sat for a live interview with two hosts from TMZ, the sensational gossip-driven celebrity-news publisher and broadcaster. When West revealed that he considered 400 years of slavery a “choice,” one of the hosts—an African-American—pumped the brakes, pushed back and followed-up on the musician’s assertion.

“Now imagine if he hadn’t been in the room? Who would’ve challenged that though?” the human resources director asked. “Without that perspective, that story isn’t told. In fact, diversity is our biggest challenge.”

At Block Communications, Inc. (BCI)—the 115-year-old media company and publisher of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Blade in Toledo, Ohio—ensuring that the newspapers’ staff is diverse is a requirement.

“It is a major thrust for our department,” said Steve Spolar, chief human resources officer for BCI. “We’ve talked about it and have engaged broad recruiting methods to make sure that we have a diverse group when we go to make hires.”

The problem, Spolar noted, isn’t that there’s a lack of plan—it’s that the economic stressors on the newspapers has limited the number of new hires as a whole.

Steve Spolar

“Every time we post for a position, I ask: ‘Have we looked at a diverse pool of candidates who reflect our community?’ That’s a value and a principle for us. We need to also have diversity of thought,” Spolar said.

One of the ways in which BCI finds quality job applicants is through a “very robust internship program.” Each year, the newspapers attract as many as 25 interns from the nation’s top colleges and universities, including University of Michigan, Stanford and Yale, according to Spolar.

The internships often become jumping-off places for young professionals just starting their careers in news. Often, they move on to larger markets or national titles. That becomes an issue of retention, Spolar explained, noting that it’s one of the greatest human resources challenges they face today.

In contemporary context, retention largely depends on two factors: employees truly believe in their craft, and they’re fulfilled in their jobs and trust the newspaper’s mission, Spolar suggested. It also helps if they have a familiar local connection and want to stay in Pittsburgh or Toledo because of it.

Moving forward, these common denominators may not be enough to improve upon retention rates, especially at BCI and so many other small- to mid-market newspapers. Publishers must reconsider how they’re going to be competitive with other newspapers, with other companies, and with other industries.

Gone are the days when the bullpen of job candidates was deep and assured for newspapers. Generally speaking, people just aren’t clamoring for newspaper jobs like they once did, and that may be due to the uncertainty running through our industry.

Another human resources professional I spoke with told me that during interviews, candidates frequently asked: “Will I have a job in six months?” and “Will you be around in two years?”

Publishers need to hear this and think about how they would answer those questions.

The Precarious State of Sales

Finding and retaining “good fits” for sales positions is a serious concern for newspaper publishers, both here in North America and around the world, according to Peter Lamb, president of Miami-based Lamb Consulting, USA. Lamb counsels publishers on how to pursue new revenue opportunities, and he suggested that some of their rate of success is determined by the caliber of sales professionals they employ.

“It is increasingly harder to find good people, especially on the sales side. Period,” he said. “I am blessed to work around the world, and you can pick any country, and it’s the same thing. You cannot find good people, and more importantly, when you do find them, it’s hard to keep them.”

Part of the problem has to do with platform and reputation. As others have noted here and Lamb echoed: Print is perceived to be a dying medium.

Peter Lamb

“Newspapers are seen as very safe, stodgy organizations that aren’t known for change. In the technological area, they’re not progressive,” he said. “However, when I have had clients who interview and recruit for the digital side of the business, they don’t have a problem getting candidates at all.”

A natural fault line has formed between highly capable print ad sales personnel and those who are better equipped to sell the digital proposition, Lamb has observed. This has actually worked to the benefit of the newspaper organization.

“When there are dedicated teams, whether they’re print and digital, or individual product teams, there is a lot more simplicity,” Lamb said. “It’s easier for the salespeople to wrap their heads around the value proposition and easier to communicate it to the customers. Organizations that haven’t been progressive in this way, that still take the one-size-fits-all approach in today’s environment? (Advertisers) don’t want that. They really want expertise.”

With regard to sales specifically, news publishers aren’t exactly known for their generous compensation packages or monetary incentives. Lamb pointed out that most compensation plans at newspapers date back a quarter century when people were paid differently. According to him, compensation plans at newspapers need a major reinvention.

Incentivizing existing salespersons to recruit on behalf of the organization can be a smart way to recruit, Lamb suggested. “The salespeople you have now know the job and the company well, and they may know three or four friends who could be a good match. So the publisher might offer a referral bonus once they’ve stayed on for 90 days. That’s where a large portion of the sales talent comes from today, and the beauty of that is that the people who come in through that channel know exactly what to expect. No one is walking in blind.”

Colleges and universities continue to be a wellspring of recently graduated candidates. Lamb said, “I recommend to all my clients that they find a local university or college—one that has a marketing, advertising, entrepreneurial programs—and get to know the heads of the departments. When talented students graduate, you’ll be in a position to meet them.”

Inside the sales department, sales managers should be investing a significant amount of time on mentoring salespersons and coaching them on how to be more effective at selling, and also on how to adapt and advance their careers.

Sadly, the lifespan of a new-hire sales rep is painfully short. Lamb said that it should be the goal of publishers to create professional development and advancement opportunities that retain great sales people beyond the one- to two-year expectancy. Through promotion, management opportunities, or retraining for entirely new roles, newspapers should make a concerted effort to extend the relationship to at least five years.

Gretchen A. Peck is an independent journalist who has reported on publishing and printing for more than two decades. She has contributed to Editor & Publisher since 2010 and can be reached at gretchenapeck@gmail.com.

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Published: June 11, 2018

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