7 things newsroom managers can learn from beekeeping

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This essay was first published on the Poynter Institute’s website and is republished here with permission.

Have you ever described the newsroom as a hive of activity, or noted how reporters are just buzzing with excitement over a story? We are both news editors and beekeepers and we see similarities between beekeeping and news management, beyond the metaphors.

Every beekeeper manages their hives a little differently, and every hive has a personality of its own. But here are some lessons from beekeeping that we believe can be applied to newsrooms, too.

1. It’s not actually a monarchy.

Despite her name, the queen bee is not really in charge, unless her name is Beyoncé. She’s merely the ovary, laying about 2,000 eggs a day. And yes, the hive will die without a queen, but she’s dependent on the worker bees, who run the hive a bit like a democracy.

In his book “Honeybee Democracy,” Tom Seeley describes how worker bees make important decisions for the survival of the hive collectively. They have a bee debate of sorts on things like when to swarm or what’s the best spot to put the honey. From his research, he concludes that a “decision-making group should consist of individuals with shared interests and mutual respect.”

The most effective newsrooms are similar. Sure, there’s someone technically at the top, but if they aren’t listening to the rest of the team, they’re missing out on ideas that might elevate everyone’s work and they run the risk of making mistakes others might have pointed out. And news managers should always seek the collective wisdom of their newsrooms for major projects.

2. Mood matters.

Susanna Capelouto (in middle) walks two newer beekeepers through a hive inspection. (Photo courtesy Molly Samuel)

Often, when a hive is aggressive — impatient with beekeepers’ intrusions, for instance, or stinging more than usual — it’s because there’s an internal issue making the worker bees unhappy. There might be a weak queen who’s not laying eggs well who needs to be replaced. Or the bees might have one of the many diseases that can befall a hive. Once the beekeeper finds the problem, it’s important to step in and treat it if possible.

We’re not saying no one should ever be cranky in a newsroom, just like we can’t say a honeybee should never sting. They can get really antsy after a few days of rain. But if there is an undercurrent of frustration, distrust, gossip, lack of inspiration or any number of other bad vibes in the newsroom, there’s likely an underlying cause. An unhappy newsroom isn’t going to perform at its best, and it’s worth figuring out what’s going on instead of just trying to make things work.

3. Check in regularly.

Learning to care for a bee hive can be messy. During a hive inspection, smoke can get in your eyes, honey can drip where it’s not supposed to go and some bees can get smushed.

But regular check-ins are key to healthy hives — and new beekeepers learn by taking out each frame and examining it. That’s how a beekeeper finds out if there are issues with disease, makes sure the queen is alive and laying well, and checks that the bees have enough honey stored to survive the winter.

Regular one-on-ones with the members of your newsroom might get messy, too, though hopefully no one gets smushed. But regular check-ins mean reporters, editors, producers and other team members have time to explore ideas, brainstorm projects and talk about any issues, concerns, hopes or dreams that might not come up in bigger meetings.

Just asking, “how is everything” can make a big difference.

Too many check-ins can be a time-suck for a manager, though. And too many hives needing inspections can overwhelm a hobbyist beekeeper.

4. Know everyone’s strengths.

Honeybees forage on flowers in Molly Samuel’s yard. (Photo courtesy Molly Samuel)

The queen’s the queen, but other bees have different jobs, and some of them graduate into new roles.

The drones, or the male bees, have a very specific job. They fly out and hang out with other drones in a drone congregation area until a virgin queen from another hive flies by. They mate with her, then die.

Worker bees go through a few roles throughout their life cycle, which is about six weeks for summer bees and six months for winter bees. They start out as cleaners by first cleaning the cells they emerged from. After a few days, they become babysitters and feed the new larvae. Then they graduate to specific jobs like guarding the hive at the entrance or processing the honey and making wax. Only the oldest bees are the foragers, who fly out in search of food. So, when you see a bee on a flower, she’s likely the oldest and wisest of the hive.

In a newsroom, everyone’s got a job, but also needs to grow and advance to the next step, the next story, the next opportunity. It’s worth it to make sure their roles play to their strengths. Let an excellent talk show producer produce new talk shows. Help a young reporter with an ear for great community voices find new ways to cultivate them. Recognize an investigative reporter’s drive and give them time and guidance to work.

At the same time, people may be ready to change roles as they gain experience or develop new interests. A strong newsroom can nourish talent, but not keep people stuck in a role they’ve outgrown.

As for the drones, we like to think of them as the newsroom consultants. They come in and bring new ideas to management in hopes of improvement. Then they kind of go away.

5. Effective communication is key to success.

Bees are great communicators and they don’t even have ears. One way they transmit information is through the waggle dance, which is like a twerking bee doing a figure eight. Aristotle observed it, but scientist Karl von Frisch figured out what it meant about a hundred years ago and got a Nobel Prize for it. When a forager bee finds a tree with lots of flowers, it flies back to the hive and starts to waggle or twerk to get other bees excited about it, too. The bigger the food source, the wilder the twerk. And the figure eight tells the other bees the direction and distance in relation to the sun.

Clear communication is key to every successful newsroom. A newsroom leader needs to get the team excited about stories while making sure everyone knows where to find sources, scenes, and any other information needed to report them. When something about a story changes, as it inevitably will, reporters need to let their editors know, and have confidence they can work through it together. Clear communication about expectations, standards, deadlines and newsroom culture can save a lot of headaches later on, and help make sure people are being treated fairly.

6. Swarming is natural, so accept it.

A swarm of bees is how the hive reproduces. When there are too many bees and not enough space for growth, a third of the bees just leave with the old queen to start somewhere new. Swarm prevention is a beekeeper’s biggest headache in the spring. Some swarms can easily be caught once they settle, as you can see in this video where we’re trying to coach a swarm that landed on a brick wall into a box. Other times beekeepers make artificial swarms by splitting the hives into two boxes. Beekeepers can add boxes on top of the hive and make more space to prevent swarming. Sometimes, however, a swarm will just get away. It’s too high in a tree, or the beekeeper wasn’t there in time to catch it. In that case, just wish your bees good luck.

So yes, swarming is natural. But if a hive is swarming too often, or if one day a beekeeper finds all the bees abandoned the hive entirely, then there’s probably something wrong — or at least something the beekeeper could be doing better.

Reporters, editors and producers want to grow and move on. They want a promotion, a raise or they have a better job offer you need to match. They may also want more space to be creative, try something new, investigate a lead and get a chance to do their best journalism. But sometimes they want to move to a bigger market and you just have to accept that all you can do is wish them luck. It’s all a sign of growth.

But beware of a newsroom exodus. If you see a lot of people leave, something’s off.

7. Be ready when disaster strikes.

Bees will attack when they feel threatened. Ask any beekeeper who accidentally squashed bees while doing an inspection. Immediately all the bees become guard bees and fighters to defend the hive. They change jobs to do what needs to be done. Some bees go straight for the beekeeper’s face, others for the feet. It’s like they think you’re a bear and they know where to weaken you.

Breaking news is similar. Everyone pitches in and does what they can.

A good newsroom has a breaking news protocol, so you don’t have to decide in the midst of disaster who goes for the head and who for the feet.

Molly Samuel is deputy managing editor at WABE in Atlanta and a fellow in Poynter’s Editorial Integrity and Leadership Initiative. Before shifting into editing full-time, she worked for 15 years in Atlanta and the San Francisco Bay Area as an environment reporter and editor. 

Susanna Capelouto is the Southern Bureau Chief for NPR. Before joining NPR, she was the Deputy Managing Editor at public radio station WABE in Atlanta. 

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