Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Arrogance and Where it Gets You.

Hey Gang,

The local journalism world's been abuzz lately with a pair of media-related scandals, both of which have highlighted a basic fact of good management. In one case, we've seen the former managing editor of the Daily News, Doug Dowie, convicted of some very serious ethical violations after he left the business that could land him in prison for a significant amount of time. In the latter, our neighbor to the north, the Ventura County Star, fired its managing editor Richard Luna for reasons stemming from his bizarre attempt to wrangle a press credential to a sporting event he had no journalistic reason to cover.

Each case has been well documented and since I don't know either of the gentlemen personally, I won't comment on what got them into trouble. But in case you didn't see either, it's worth checking out former DN staffer Colleen Cason's piece on Dowie (http://www.venturacountystar.com/vcs/coleen_cason/article/0,1375,VCS_221_4716116,00.html) and a letter to Romenesko's Poynter site defending Luna (http://poynter.org/forum/?id=32178) [both links found via LAObserved.com].

In the former, we get an account of Dowie's high pressure, intimidating management style. In the latter, we get a strange attempt to defend a disgraced journalist by his former boss and friend.

The Cason piece details the cause-and-effect of Dowie's attempts to motivate by fear, the subsequent drive to unionize the Daily News and his abrupt departure for the PR world. It wasn't about the money, she says, it was about grievances. That, and plenty of other things, set off years of mistrust and anger at the paper that I'm sure we're still dealing with to this day. To hear people tell it now, the climate was so poisonous, people felt their only options were to quit or to rise together to force change. Because things became so rancorous back then, today, we have the union to fight for us when Dowie-like behavior resurfaces.

That all makes sense, something I can't say about the letter from Steven A. Smith, editor of the Spokesman Review. In his attempts to stick up for his friend Luna, he wrote some things that I couldn't believe. He took particular umbrage with a quote in the Editor and Publisher story about Luna in which a newsroom source referred to the Star's former ME's shameful departure and responded as such:

"I don't know an editor anywhere to which the "disliked by many" line
would not apply. For Christ's sake, when did being liked by the majority
of a newsroom staff mean diddly. Good editors had damn well better be
disliked by some on the staff, ought to make their bosses nervous and
piss off readers. If this were a popularity contest most of the editors
I know, including me, would be out of work, too, ethical problems or no."

Sure, the guy's emotional because his friend just got marched out of the newsroom a laughingstock, but these comments are nothing short of ludicrous. I know this is a small business where my future employment could be determined by people like Mr. Smith, but when I read arrogant, contempt-laden nonsense like that, I can't keep my mouth shut. If this means I can never get a job from Smith or people who agree with him, so be it.

First off, I know plenty of editors who are not "disliked by many." Secondly, to hold the respect of one's staff up as something to be ridiculed is idiotic. You may not want to hang out with your boss at the end of the day, you may not consider them a friend, but if they want to get anywhere, they'd better be sure you respect them. It would be extraordinarily difficult to want to report to work each day for someone who writes things such as Smith's line: "Newsroom staff, bless their hearts, are like piranhas."

I don't have a long resume, but from the experience I have picked up, both here and elsewhere, I know that a boss who uses fear as a subsitute for leadership is ultimately doomed. Both Dowie and Luna fell from power for other reasons, but the unifying theme is that they didn't have the backing of their staffs. A good editor makes you excited to come to work, pushes you to get that better story, then thanks you and sends you out once again.

A colleague told me recently, "if you've got a good boss, you'd walk across the desert for them." That's certainly true, as is the flip side: if you've got a bad one, the only walk you'll be motivated to take is off to a better job.

This isn't to say a boss can't be tough or that conflict won't spring up. To that extent, Smith is right, this isn't a popularity contest. But there's a difference between being tough and being a tyrant. Pushing your people to get better work is an important part of management; abusing them because of your own personal failings is not. A good editor inspires creative friction, not personal dischord.

Every boss who screams at their employees, slams things around on their desk, humiliates them in public, lords their authority over the ones below them, can get people to work hard. Maybe it's on one story, maybe it's for a week, maybe it's for years. But the day will come, as the two gentlemen here found, that fear disappears. At the Daily News, Dowie lost part of his bite when the union came together and he was faced with an equal who he couldn't arbitrarily boss around. At the Star, Luna's ethical transgressions undid him, but it was the lack of support from the staff that appears to have finished him off.

We've seen similar things here at the paper in recent years, where relations have improved significantly since the chair-throwing era. Though some challenges remain, managers who haven't treated their people right have been moved aside in favor of bosses who understand how to motivate their workers without belittling them. We've still got work to do and some people have been slow to change, but things are on the right road. I'm proud to say that the union and management can usually work together, rather than as bitter adversaries.

Now I've taken up enough of your time, so let me close now with this thought: as a boss, do you want to be the one whose workers would take that desert trek, who'll work hard in good times and defend you in bad ones? Or do you want to end up on your way out, trudging sadly through the newsroom, the same way you sent good people before? It's your call, but judging from the current examples and plenty of others, I know which one I'd pick.

Thanks for your time, as always, and keep up the good work.



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