As collaborations expand, newsroom leadership jobs prove difficult to fill

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Public media organizations are struggling to recruit news directors and editors to help manage the growing number of collaborations among stations and networks.

Newsroom management jobs have always been difficult to fill, according to veteran newsroom consultants, editors and news directors. But the need has become more apparent in recent years as CPB, NPR and others work to foster a more collaborative model for public media.

“NPR and other producers of public radio are in the midst of trying to build a network of stations,” said Michael Oreskes, NPR’s senior v.p. of news and editorial director. “The system of collaboration we are building requires more editors.”

CPB’s Diverse Perspectives project currently provides two-year grants that support collaborative reporting among small groups of stations. The CPB-funded Regional Journalism Centers also aim to feed more station-produced news segments to public media’s national programs. And in 2014, NPR launched its Collaborative Coverage Initiative, an effort to strengthen NPR’s connections to its member stations’ newsrooms.

Managers who are arranging the collaborations agree that strong editorial leadership is essential if these new working relationships are to succeed.

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MacAdam (Photo: NPR)

Alison MacAdam, a senior editorial specialist at NPR, blames the shortage of editors on a deeply entrenched culture within the media. “Editors are invisible in the process, and so their role is often overlooked,” she said.

Some organizations have begun working to elevate the role of editors. When CPB convened editorial leaders from NPR, Marketplace, PRI’s The World and other news organizations last fall to discuss the future of public media news, the need for editorial leadership was a recurring theme.

“Everyone talked about wanting to elevate the role of the editor and cultivate new ones,” said Joyce MacDonald, CPB’s v.p. of journalism.

To address the need, NPR is developing an in-house editing fellowship to start this year, as well as a team that facilitates workshops for editors. CPB and NPR also partnered to bring together the eight editorial leaders of the Regional Journalism Centers to prepare them for their new roles and identify strategies for success earlier this month.

Big shoes to fill

While NPR and leaders of news collaborations work to deepen the editorial talent on their benches, stations are struggling to find news directors to lead their newsrooms.

News director jobs in public media are among the hardest positions to fill, according to Tom Livingston, whose Livingston Associates firm helps public media stations recruit employees. “I can think of two or three examples when the search has gone on for over a year,” he said.

One station that recently completed a lengthy search is KUNC-FM in Greeley, Colo. The station posted the news director job in late March 2015 and hired Michael de Yoanna in February. “We didn’t compromise at all, which is why it took so long,” said KUNC President Neil Best.

KUNC sought a newsroom manager with a strong sense of broadcast news and experience in public radio, Best said. The station also prioritized looking for candidates who could help KUNC take advantage of a new FM signal.

Public media newsroom veterans cite another problem: The system lacks sufficient training options for prospective news directors.

A news director needs the skills of a journalist, a leader and a manager, said Judith Smelser, a consultant and former news director. But “little training is often done on the managing side of things,” she said.

As public stations recover from the recession and look to invest in newsroom staff, jobs like the KUNC news director post continue to open. However, stations struggle to fill these roles because “demand is increasing without anything to increase the supply,” Smelser said.

Smelser and Public Radio News Directors Inc. have teamed up to attempt to fill this void. PRNDI “is working very hard to deal with this issue and address this need,” said President George Bodarky, news and public affairs director at WFUV in New York City.

News directors Elaine Baumgartel and John Haas participate in a role-playing exercise at a 2015 PRNDI training (Photo: Judith Smelser).

In 2013, PRNDI created a two-day training and certification workshop for news directors. The program includes an interactive training session and two post-workshop webinar check-ins led by Smelser and Michael Marcotte, a former PRNDI president who now consults with public radio newsrooms and teaches journalism at the University of New Mexico. Participants learn management strategies, editing tips and guidance in creating an action plan with clear post-workshop goals.

PRNDI and the trainers expanded the size of the workshops after getting strong interest from potential enrollees. “The first year, we expected it to be new news managers, but we had people there who had decades of experience in news management,” said Smelser. “I think it was pent-up demand, because there hadn’t been something like this before.”

Journalism training often depicts reporting as “the glitzy stuff,” Smelser said. “But I think that from the beginning … we need to emphasize that both editors and news managers are really important and fulfilling jobs. We should give students grounding and hear from news directors and editors.”

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  • bbabbo1

    One reason that public media may be having trouble finding editors is that very few people are willing to think beyond the traditional qualifications — meaning, prior experience as an editor in public media. But do that math: that won’t work! Seems to me the idea would be to look at people with some (but not all) of the following: broadcast experience of any kind, radio/podcasting experience of any kind, writing for the ear (conversational writing) of any kind, news experience of any kind, and overall smarts and leadership qualities. Then, create an editing “dry run” that really helps you see how people approach the work — ask people to do paper edits, detailed notes, and edits based on listening to both rough cuts and pieces that actually aired. I bet some new talent will surface!

  • Brad Deltan

    I feel like I’m missing something obvious here. There’s been MASSIVE layoffs in the newspaper biz for over a decade now. There should be an *ocean* of good talent in the news editor out there. Sure, it’s a different medium, and a lot of newsprint folks think it’s a lot easier to “do radio” than it really is. But I have a suspicion that too many radio stations need to loosen their sphincters when it comes to recruiting folks who’re just good newsroom managers…and giving them the mid-career training for radio if needed.

    • MarkJeffries

      Especially when NPR’s current news chief is a former print guy and their media reporter and TV critic are both former print journalists (and I’m sure there are many other instances that don’t come to mind immediately).