How newsroom leaders can learn to navigate challenges inherent to their jobs

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This commentary is adapted from an op-ed first published by the Poynter Institute. It is republished with permission.

I was ready for the long hours, hard decisions and the energy it would take to successfully manage a newsroom. I hoped to lead with empathy and understanding instead of fear. I wanted to guide by conversations and trust, not yelling and unreasonable demands.

I was ready for it, or at least I thought I was.

I was 28 when I accepted my first management role as an assignment manager at a mid-market television station. I managed seven people, a number that seemed manageable (pun intended), as an overly ambitious recovering reporter. 

The job challenged me in all the right ways and paid me enough to buy a house and start a family. It came with a level of respect I had so desperately craved since joining the industry. It was the natural next step.

I had a great staff and an even better mentor. I was given the tools and training to succeed and the runway to make mistakes. It was fulfilling and fun.

The role eventually progressed into an assistant news director title under one of the best bosses I could have asked for, a man I now consider a close friend. When I took my current job at Nebraska Public Media, my fortune repeated, and I now work for a strong leader who has invested in me, given me room to grow and never doubted my ability to do the job.

I was given the tools to succeed in my role. But still, there is so much that I wasn’t taught or didn’t know. And that isn’t due to poor leadership, but rather a lack of discussions about the side effects of management.

There were rarely conversations about how stressful the constant pressure to perform is or how difficult it is to stop worrying about letting your team down. Or about how suddenly long-standing relationships change when you go from peer to manager.

We’re told, “You’re the boss now, those things come with the territory.” That may be true, but there is inherent risk in not discussing these difficulties openly. Not being able to talk about the challenges of editorial leadership is one of the things causing talented managers to leave the industry, something journalism simply cannot afford right now.

As news director at Nebraska Public Media, I have been very fortunate in many ways. One of the biggest was being accepted into Poynter’s Editorial Integrity and Leadership Initiative, often called EILI, which began last September. This free ongoing fellowship, made up of 24 incredibly talented public media leaders from around the country, has benefited me tremendously. I have a group of people who understand the challenges I am experiencing. It’s also provided me something I didn’t anticipate: a space to explore the inherent difficulties of management. 

These conversations happen primarily with my EILI coach, Tony Elkins. Everything I’m saying here, Tony has heard me talk about, in either anger, appreciation or reflection, depending on my mood.

These conversations have helped me clarify something I’ve felt for a long time — young managers are unprepared to lead because they don’t know what it takes to do so. I have occupied way too much of Tony’s time explaining my beliefs on how newsroom leaders must change the way they treat their staff, how news directors should think about people before the product and, above all, how most managers aren’t given a space to discuss the struggles they face.

We’re told not to vent down because you shouldn’t burden your staff with what’s eating away at you. But we’re also told not to vent up because our bosses might think we’re unfit or unable to properly do our jobs. Welcome to middle management limbo.

Through my EILI discussions, I’ve realized that young managers shouldn’t have to be accepted into a fellowship and receive one-on-one coaching to feel comfortable talking about the hardships of management. The culture around what is expected of managers needs to change, especially in how we define strength and weakness.

I believe that the expectation of a leader to be a rock is flawed. No one navigates life without emotional hardship.

Slowly, that narrative is shifting in newsrooms. The days of “suck it up or get out” are going away. That management style often doesn’t play anymore, and for good reason. Being a journalist is challenging, tiring, heavy and, in far too many cases, traumatizing.

I’ve been encouraged by an increased focus on mental health care for reporters, allowing people to take time off without guilt, and providing well-deserved pay increases. There’s growing recognition that employee-first thinking won’t crumble the foundations of a newsroom.

This forward thinking is a movement led by young journalists who are just as passionate about their jobs as they are about healthy work-life balances. It’s time for managers to join them.

As young leaders step into new roles, they need to understand the hidden challenges to help them prepare. Let’s build proper support systems and processes to deal with high levels of stress and unrealistic expectations. Let’s give them support in the form of employee assistance programs or speaking to other managers in similar situations. And above all — let them know that being in charge does not mean having it all figured out.

In your moments of vulnerability as a leader, your staff will see themselves in you, and respect will follow.

As I continue my management career, there’s one thing I am certain of: I can help others. If I can start one conversation or let one young manager know they are not alone in the isolation or anxiety that often comes with being in a leadership position, that will be enough.

If newsrooms are able to make this adjustment and provide rising leaders not only the tools to succeed, but also the support, we could see real positive change in journalism management. I speak from experience — that support is something I wish everyone could have.

Jay Omar, news director at Nebraska Public Media, is participating in the first cohort of Poynter’s Editorial Integrity and Leadership program, which is now accepting applications for its second group of fellows. Applications are due Monday. Omar can be reached at [email protected].

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