Exploring What Makes Training Successful
Whether editors’ training takes place in a single newsroom or as a regional gathering, its essential elements remain consistent.
In April 2005, I invited 84 frontline editors attending a NewsTrain workshop in Seattle to spend an hour talking about job-related issues that were keeping them awake at night. The idea was this: divide into groups of three and have one editor describe a problem for which the two others would offer possible solutions. Let each editor present a problem. But even before I could finish these instructions, the group cut me off, and the sound in the room rose quickly to a roar. Only the lunch bell brought the exercise to a close. This eruption of conversation vividly demonstrated how overworked and overwhelmed these editors are and how hungry they are for advice on how to navigate this rapidly changing terrain.
NewsTrain, the Associated Press Managing Editors' (APME) training program for frontline editors, has crisscrossed the nation since May 2004, hiring top-flight trainers to teach practical skills. These two-day workshops, largely funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, should reach more than 3,000 editors at 40 sites by December 2006. At NewsTrain, Carol Nunnelley, the APME projects director; Elaine Kramer, the project's manager, and I have seen what works-and what doesn't-and what follows are tips and advice we and other trainers have learned about teaching frontline editors.
Meet them where they are by letting them know you understand how complex, isolating and stressful their jobs can be. It's a role that requires a high degree of problem-solving skills, a critical evaluation of everything they read, and an understanding of human nature.
Design a training program focused on improving editing and management skills alongside their interpersonal skills. "These are skills that usually have to be taught," said Michael Schwartz, manager of editorial training for COXnet and Cox Newspapers. "Otherwise they may be absorbed through examples and experiences, both good and bad, in the newsroom. They will not be based on the advice of professionals who know how to do it well." When frontline editors improve in these three areas, their skill and confidence in handling stories and managing people rises along with their credibility in the newsroom. This sets them on the path toward becoming real newsroom leaders.
Leave behind theory and academic instruction. Instead, give frontline editors practical advice, useful information they can use on the job immediately. Remember, they are busy people who are constantly evaluating what they need to know and casting off what they don't.
Base the instruction on real-life examples. Be as specific as possible. "The more real-world that you make the learning, the more it is going to stick," Schwartz said.
Give editors a range of solutions to their most pressing problems. Foster a discussion that helps them reach inside themselves for the answers. Butch Ward, a Distinguished Fellow at the Poynter Institute, offers this advice: "Frontline editors respond well to concrete suggestions-how to relate better to their bosses; resolve conflicts; better manage their time. These are the day in, day out challenges they face." The solutions must take into account an editor's style and a newsroom's culture. It's important to remember, Ward says, that one size does not fit all. "Training works when you give them enough room to design their own response to a challenge."
Classes must be interactive, because editors learn as much from each other as they do from the teacher. Learning occurs through practice and small groups for discussion. Involve them in role-playing and problem-solving exercises. "Lectures and war stories accomplish very little," said Michael Roberts, deputy managing editor/staff development at The Arizona Republic.
Vary the format. Steve Buttry, director of tailored programs at the American Press Institute, says "exercises are essential, but because they are staged, they get old if you don't vary the approach." Buttry often gets the stories flowing by describing how a special editor helped him grow professionally. Then he invites editors to relate their own examples. "The stories start pouring forth," he said, "each one inspiring and each one with clear lessons we can identify."
If trainers come from outside the newsroom, pay what it costs to hire the best. Great teachers know the issues, are engaging and entertaining, and use humor to get their points across. They must tap into the experience of a newsroom, taking into account the traditions, nuances and creativity of journalists. One of their first tasks will be to create an environment that is safe for editors to express ideas and opinions, even when misguided. The classes must operate under Las Vegas rules: What is said in the classroom, stays in the classroom.
Approaches in Different Newsrooms
A valuable benefit of this kind of training is that it can build a support network and reduce the isolation that frontline editors often feel. At the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Gail Bulfin, editor for news research, training and readership, runs a six-month program involving 10 editors from across all disciplines of the newsroom. The group meets twice a month for half-day sessions to discuss job-related issues. The editors have access to top-notch trainers, high-level editors, workshops not available to others in the newsroom, and great food.
"By far, the comment that I hear most frequently-and with the most passion-is the value of just interacting with other assistant city editors in a 'safe environment,' " Bulfin said. "They learn to share similar issues, problems and concerns. One of the first things they learn is that no one seems to be a pro in this job. They are very interested in hearing how their peers are dealing with issues, and there is comfort in knowing they are not alone."
Giving these editors this chance to step back from demands of their jobs can be a big plus. They view their work in a different light and emerge with tools to help them make better decisions about how they spend their time. Ward suggests including an exercise that gives editors an opportunity to reflect on why they got into journalism and why they do their jobs. "This is extremely valuable for a group of people who mostly think about how to survive their jobs," he said.
At The Arizona Republic, Roberts created an Editor's Circle program, a series of readings and discussions that spans 10 weeks. One circle is for those considering joining the editing ranks, another is for those already on the desk. Every two weeks the participants read assigned material, then meet with others in the group to discuss how to apply this to their work. Roberts also sets up experiences for them to practice using new skills. During the past year, eight new editors went through the Editor's Circle program and then moved into frontline editing jobs. "Helping these new editors find their footing through the first year is very important," Roberts said.
At The Washington Post, Peter Perl, director of training and professional development, has used feedback-from those who report to the editors-as an important learning tool. Nineteen assigning editors, all volunteers, took part in a training program that included the feedback component. Reporters were asked seven questions about their editor's greatest strengths, including communication skills, their ability to manage conflict, and other core parts of the job, as well as asked to recommend areas in which the editor could improve. Each editor received anonymous feedback from at least six people they worked with. The result was a lot of positive reinforcement for editors, Perl said, as well as a raised awareness of what aspects of their work were getting in their way.
NewsTrain's Regional Strategy
Unlike the training that goes on within a newsroom, NewsTrain takes a regional approach that relies on local partners to help produce the workshops. Though one newspaper serves as a host site, the workshop will draw as many as 100 editors from across a region. We have been surprised to find no need to offer separate classes for editors who work at large and small newspapers. They can talk to and learn from each other because the problems they face are essentially the same, though more complicated in larger newsrooms.
Likewise, veteran editors and rookies can be in the same classes, though the benefits they take back to the newsroom from them will be different. Veterans leave with a few new insights, but with renewed confidence about what they are doing. Rookies depart with new tools and with hope that they can succeed. We've also found-no matter what the mix of participants might be-that it's important to leave time for editors to network and talk about problems with each other. The hard part is getting them to stop.
Lillian Swanson is project director of NewsTrain, a training program for frontline editors developed by the Associated Press Managing Editors.