Business of News: Why Dissonant Voices are Crucial to Every Newsroom

The epochal story of my early years as the editor of a small daily involves a mild-mannered city editor, a talented yet volatile investigative reporter, and the first draft of a major series she submitted after months of work.

The city editor (in our main office) did a major rewrite and sent it back to the reporter (in our downtown office) for review. She read it and called the desk to speak about her opinion of the rewrite to the city editor who was not available. She left a message for him that she was driving to the main office and would be there in 15 minutes and planned to surgically remove his myocardium for observation. (As I recall, her language was a bit more graphic and NSFW.)

The city editor, upon hearing the message, stepped out for coffee while I intercepted the reporter. The managing editor and I talked through the reasons the rewrite actually strengthened her work. Eventually, she grudgingly agreed—and four months later, she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for the series on how the U.S. government experimented with plutonium on unwitting citizens.

It’s been my experience that often the most talented people in news organizations are the most difficult to manage. Managing them seriously alters your mood, but it comes with the biggest rewards.

Especially in these difficult times, I would urge managers to encourage dissent, manage new ideas with an open mind, and not stifle those talented people with good ideas and indelicate manners. (I am not trying to be funny about threats of violence, which must be taken seriously and treated differently.)

In preparing this column, I interviewed (not for attribution, of course) several employees of news organizations about their experiences as being a large pain in the backside of the organizations where they worked. Here is what they told me:

“Don’t dismiss my crazy ideas out of hand.” None other than Charles Scripps, the scion of the Scripps Howard concern where I worked for years, had an edict: No new idea could be shot down by a single person in the organization. In other words, new ideas deserved to be heard and vetted. Because of this rule, Scripps Howard became the incubator and parent of HGTV, a lucrative cable network that helped the company grow famously. To hear the story from Ken Lowe, who created HGTV, “I was pitching an idea to our board of directors about a network that would feature programs about paint drying and grass growing.” But Scripps’ wonderful advice created an atmosphere that allowed an unconventional idea to take root and grow.

“Define the rules and success.” Talented people often want to take you down the rabbit hole with them, explaining their genius and describing in excruciating detail the steps they took. I had an operations manager who increased productivity, cut expenses, made money and took hours of my time. I changed the rules. We would agree in advance on his goals, draw solid lines around what he should and should not do, and meet twice weekly for 30 minutes.

“Don’t give me an assignment and tell me how it will turn out.” In other words, “Let me do my job.” Several reporters expressed frustration with editors who know what they want a story to say before the journalist has done any actual reporting. The notion of the boss sending out the robot to complete the pre-determined task is anathema to talented people. Managers ought to create an atmosphere that lets the talent thrive, not send staff out with a paint-by-number approach.

“Be fair. Don’t judge me by my past.” Reputation often precedes the erratic, creative type. Yet several I spoke to told me their characterization as “the crazy one” was unfair and prevented their ideas from receiving a fair hearing.

“Remove the blockage.” A manager who embraces convention will never mesh with the challenging and creative types. Find the Gayle to her Oprah. The Ben to his Jerry. Changing managers, changing work locations, even office hours, can unlock success for those difficult people.

“You’re not a therapist, but you play one on TV.” Very often, intelligent and talented people just want someone to listen to them. You’ve got to manage your time, of course, but giving an ear to them creates an empathetic situation and often success.

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 tim@the2020network.com.

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