In Depth

Finding Today's Newsroom Leaders

 By Tom Petner

A news director at WCBS-TV once told me in the heat of a nose-to-nose newsroom discussion, “Tom, you will never understand my decision until you have to come around to my side of the desk and sit in my chair.”

Lucky for me, he ignored my dog-with-a-rag-in-its-mouth approach, and didn’t toss me out of the newsroom on my butt.

He was right. You never really understand what it’s like to lead a newsroom until you have to sit in “the chair.” Running a newsroom was complicated 10 and 20 years ago. It’s much tougher now.

“We are in the midst of a significant expansion of news,” said Bob Papper, chairman of Hofstra’s journalism department and the person responsible for leading RTDNA research. “We’re doing it in the midst of huge pressure to take a three-platform approach for what we should be doing. And we’re doing it in the midst of the biggest staff reduction we’ve ever had. This is an impossible situation. I think the notion that the news director can literally be all things, all the time, is really absurd on the surface.“

Absurd or not, someone has to take the lead. Until another surefire newsroom model rolls around, it’s the news director and his contingent of news managers who are the ones anointed.
Where are these new newsroom leaders coming from?

You’ll find a ton of news management jobs advertised online. But the real hunt-and-peck searches to fill the jobs are done by a handful of consultants and search firms, from Talent Dynamics, Magid Associates, to Broadcast Image Group and Dolan Media Management.

Finding the right newsroom leaders to fit a company and its culture can be daunting. There’s no one-size-fits-all candidate.

“Many news directors, going back 10 or 15 years, were really good at one good thing,” said Tom Dolan, president of Dolan Media Management. “They were good at newsgathering and content, or they were show doctors who came up through the producing side, or they were a longtime news director who was really professional and effective as a manager. They managed the managers. That’s not good enough anymore. You need to reach down and drive it on a daily basis because there’s so much news.”

Indeed, today’s news directors and managers need a certain stamina to handle it all — to drive the hours of broadcast content daily and develop the newsroom culture, all the while maintaining an hourly Web and digital strategy.

“The most dramatic change is that managers today have to be agile, current, contemporary and somewhat opportunistic, and on so many different platforms,” said Dolan. “They have to be so knowledgeable, quick and sharp versus the old approach of working all day on an end product. The end product now is hourly.”

Dolan, who has placed over 450 newsroom managers, says news directors who stay on the edge of what he calls the “rim” of innovation and viewer change are the ones who are in demand and who get the call.

One news director who got the call is Matthew Hilk at WSMV-TV in Nashville, Tenn. I caught up with Matthew on one of those days that seem so typical in today’s broadcast newsrooms — he was working, as he put it, “with two producers to produce three shows and no writing help.”

“Everybody in the industry is being pushed to the max — news directors, news producers, news reporters and news photographers,” Hilk told me. “The difficult transition period now is the fact that no one is 100 percent sure what the top priorities are. And you can only have so many top priorities. That’s the difficult part. I think the toughest part of the job is keeping an eye on the future and innovating while everyone is grinding the gears to the max to get a product out every day. There really isn’t a day that’s only about pondering or strategizing and plotting for the future. But you have to work that stuff in or it simply doesn’t happen. Time is a huge commodity.”

It was no surprise, then, to catch up with one longtime news director who was coming out of a budget meeting — another of part of today’s multitasking news director job. “You have to do personnel, you have to do business, but you can’t lose sight of being a good news person,” said Brad Remington, executive news director at KTVK-TV in Phoenix. “But I try to give my newsroom a sense of purpose. People that got into news just want to do news. So I say let’s go cover news and then I’ll try and insulate them from the business side.”

“I don’t see myself so much as a manager, but trying to be a leader. Maybe it’s an old cliché but it works for me — you manage resources, you lead people. I spend a lot of time trying to get people to buy in. It’s not just that something needs to be done, but the why of it.”

That’s a real departure from the way some of my old bosses handled questions about their decision-making. Maybe the difference today is that news directors, on top of all the other job demands they’re coping with, are taking the time to explain the “why.”

So are we asking too much of news directors?

“We ask the same of all our employees. We ask all our employees to be the king of all domains in terms of television and Web, and we’re just leading the charge,” said Andrew Vrees, news director at WCVB-TV in Boston. “The challenge today always seems to be doing more with less.”

More with less — it’s the new newsroom mantra.