U.S. journalists – reeling from furloughs, layoffs, even a major bankruptcy – can still meet the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic if they are led with honesty, optimism and appreciation, two veteran editors said in a conversation Friday about resilient newsrooms.
Robyn Tomlin, McClatchy Southeast Regional Editor, and Mike Wilson, editor of The Dallas Morning News, shared their personal experiences in a video chat organized by the National Press Club Journalism Institute and moderated by Jill Geisler, Bill Plante Chair in Leadership & Media Integrity and Loyola University Chicago Freedom Forum Fellow in Women’s Leadership.
Among their insights:
Be optimistic and be honest about what you know for certain
Wilson: There’s a balance to be struck here between being genuinely optimistic and sounding optimistic in the face of difficult things, which I am. I tend to believe that things are going to come out okay by and large. I think we’re going to win this fight that we’re in.
At the same time, if we’re cutting people’s salaries as we did a couple of weeks ago, I can’t go to my staff and have any credibility if I say, you know, it’s not a big deal. I need to say I understand this is how you prepare for your future, and feed your families, and pay your bills, and that this is a terrible time for this to happen. So, just having the credibility as a leader that you speak the truth in hard situations, I think is really important.
Tomlin: The only thing I can do is tell people the things that I know for sure that are certain, that are going to affect them, and then try to be honest about the things that either I don’t know, or the questions I would be asking if I were in their shoes.
Wilson: I knew that there was a discussion. … about the possibility of salary cuts and how those might be apportioned. I don’t think anybody asked me directly during that period, ‘Are you guys thinking about salary cuts?’ But I think I would have felt comfortable saying, ‘Listen, we’re looking at a lot of options and I’ll let you know more when I can.’
Let people know who you are and what you value
Wilson: For me, there’s a little bit of ‘What do I have to lose here?’ For whatever reason, they made me the editor of this thing. At some point, somebody else will do it and that person will have a different approach or whatever. But, I mean, they have made me secure by putting me in this role so why not let people know who I am and what I’m thinking. I just don’t see the downside.
Tomlin: Yeah, like Mike, I guess I don’t know anything else. I believe that leadership is about being genuine. And part of that means being able to show your own individual vulnerabilities, and then to talk through them in a clear and coherent way so that other people can see how you’re processing difficult things because they need to process as well.
Focus on the mission
Wilson: I’d love to tell you about a conversation I had with Alfredo Carbajal of our staff. Carbajal made the point that the core values of journalism — accuracy, diversity and fairness — are not suspended because of the emergency. That’s how he put it. It’s been a real opportunity for us to reassert what our values and expectations are. Especially when we’ve just cut salaries, especially when people are in crisis. Yes, this is a hard thing. Yes, we’re going to go through it together. But this is what we stand for, and there’s no better time to say it than that.
Tomlin: This situation, in a weird way, has made our journalists feel a lot more connected and close to our community. Both because our community is responding by reading our work, subscribing to our work, donating to journalism that we’re doing through crowdfunding efforts and then sending the loveliest comments. …
What I see as a result is just an incredible passion and enthusiasm for doing meaningful journalism… . That has, in some ways, helped to drown out some of the noise that does get under your skin, that we’re all dealing with inside, and the fear and anxiety.
Be aware and show gratitude
Wilson: The thing that I try to guard against the most is not leaving people unseen.
Anytime, but especially now, the biggest mistake I regularly make is not acknowledging people’s effort, sacrifice, good work, existence.
So all the things that we’re doing to let people know, ‘Hey, thanks, I appreciate what you’re doing. I know you may be balancing your work with homeschooling children right now or worrying about an elder parent in another place.’ The more that I can just acknowledge people, the better.
Tomlin: The people I’m actually the most worried about in my orbit tend to be the people who are alone right now, because they don’t necessarily have someone that they can just say, ‘You won’t believe what happened in this Zoom call.’ Or they don’t have that instant connection. So I am making a personal note of trying to check in with them. …One nice thing that I discovered is there’s a site called groupgreeting.com where you can start a card and have everybody sign a card virtually and send it to them. We had someone who lost their dog, and she was alone. She’s just moved here, and this is a really tough time. And so we did a big group greeting. And it’s not the same as being there and being able to give her a hug and say, ‘We’re with you.’ But I do think small things like that make a difference.