Saturday, May 17, 2014

Baaaad Baaaad Bosses! One of Journalism's Tiny Imperfections



Why Bosses Tend To Be So Miserable, Difficult and Troubling in Journalism. A Memoir.

I am certain you have now concluded the New York Times is among the worst run places in the world of business, but I am here to assure you that is not the case, and to argue that many news organizations are run by perhaps the worst managers of all, that would be, in some cases...

Former Reporters!

First, a review of the particulars. To those of us who live outside the sanctum, word arrived this week that Jill Abramson was being bounced as executive editor of The New York Times. Her allies got to the news blower first and suggested it was because she was upset at her pay, said to be less than that of her predecessor, Bill Keller. That explanation had just enough time to firm up when it was blown clean out of the water by publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. who started a quick step aimed first at the staff and then at the rest of us.

No, he said, Jill was NOT paid less than her predecessor. The New York Times believes in equal pay for equal work, and so on. In fact, she was paid MORE than her predecessor.  Arthur suggests the problem was really about management style, how she was just a great journalist (true!) and a fine editor (maybe!) but just could not get the staff on her side, for some reason.

The mental word association "bitch," which is cruel, unfair and sexist, seems to pop up any time I read these things. I would never say or think that about her. Toughness and bitchiness are not the same things. Bitchy is someone who nags you like an unhappy spouse until you jump off the nearest ledge. Toughness is jumping off the nearest ledge because, goddamn it, you know SHE would do the same thing in that circumstance and you owed it to her.

My boss at The Chicago Tribune, Ann Marie Lipinski, was tough and the kind of editor I would leap off of the ledge for, but I would respond with a determined "fuck yourself" if anyone suggested she was a "bitch." She knew how to win people to her side with reasoned argument, set high standards and serve up nice big ladles of warmth when that was necessary. Jim Squires, her predecessor, was much the same, but a completely different kind of animal. Nuts in an engaging way for some of us, but just nuts for others. He was bold, pushy and affectionate. In both cases Squires and Lipinski, this worked for me.

Of course they both played favorites. They all have played favorites. It reminds me of one of old Mayor Daley's responses when someone asked him if he had given a contract to a city hall friend. He said something like, "You would expect me to give it to an enemy?" They were called Friends of Ann Marie (FOAMS) in her case, and I could never figure out how you got to be one until I heard from someone that I actually was one! I was immensely surprised and flattered because I avoided her as much as I could. I trusted her, but I didn't want to be seen as a suck up, especially when I was running the Sunday Perspective section, which I took over in 2001 on the grounds I would not have to meet with anybody very much and would pay attention only to the special voices in my head. (That 'nuts' thing works both ways. It worked for about five years, a good run.)

What I learned in 27 years at The Tribune and ten years at UPI before that and a couple of years at little papers even before that is an enduring lesson that plays right into the New York Times story. The fact that you are a great reporter and great handler of copy doesn't mean you will be a great boss. In fact the things that make you valuable in those areas, independence, diligence, drive and so on, may work against you when you slip into the unusual world of managing people.

The problem with bossing is that it shines a bright light on all of our weaknesses, amplifies them, and makes them defining characteristics that slip into the narratives of our careers. You actually get to hear people suggest you were a gaping asshole, something you were not aware of at all.  I think I know why.

First, there is no point in working for a newspaper that isn't pushy, so that's part of the formula. Second, pushy newspapers need to achieve great things. They do that with their staff, which is motivated by its editors, if everything works well. What you want is enough respect so if you say, "please go through this wall for me," your colleagues will say, "Yes Charles, because we know you would do it for us." That doesn't happen much. Most of the time you have to default to authority, which is the worst tool to use with people who are smart, creative and aggressive.

Defaulting to authority. That's what being pushy is about.

I had a great piece of advice from John Crewdson, a reporter without equal and a man with both Sherlock and Mycroft wrapped mysteriously inside, and a very hard boss. "Don't ever tell people you are asking them to do something because I want it. It has to be because YOU want it. You need that authority." That's pretty hard to build without training or experience, so you fall back on what seemed to work for people in your career, bullying and pushing people around.

I was a ghastly boss, I think, because I didn't like the idea of it. Even though I kept getting promoted no matter where I worked (mystified to this day about that!) I would usually revert to doing everyone's work myself and then spreading lots of praise to spackle over the damaged egos. The work would be well done, because I was good at it, but that wasn't the point. I became the person no one wanted to work with, the black hole that stared at copy and sucked in everything around me, emerging a bit later with, admittedly, a pretty good story.

That was all a mistake. I don't keep a list of people who dislike me because of how I was as a boss, but it would be pretty long, I think. I really regret that, not being the kind of leader I wanted to be.

That is why I have some feeling for Jill and her difficulties at the New York Times. She was given control of a whole room of very spirited horses, and apparently thought the whip was the best way to get them to jump through hoops. The took every crack personally and obviously whinnied right up the power chain so everyone knew how unhappy they were. In her defense, a long line of predecessors back many years were equally pushy and difficult. But they were men. In men, that is viewed as strength, although it is not.

All of these stories about failed management are individual, I know that. But somehow, at newspapers, they are not surprising. Being pushy can get you up the ladder, but it won't work unless you understand the people behind you have knives.

At least that's how it seems.