3 ways you know you’re ready for the top newsroom job

I won my first news director job twenty years into my career. My resume said I was ready. I had worked in several markets across the country, in increasing levels of oversight. I had managed large projects and excelled in breaking and major news situations. My RTDNA leadership and volunteering experience in the decade leading up to my news director job search had filled my contacts lists with excellent references. And as I interviewed around the country to find the best match for my first ND job, I talked like I was ready – strategic plans, ratings management, personnel experience. I felt I made a good candidate, and I was rewarded for my preparation with multiple offers.

But after moving to a new city and getting settled into my new job, how ready – really – was I? I never felt overmatched, in large part because I won a job with a general manager who told me he used to be a news director, and didn’t want to be a news director any more – that’s why he hired me. And he lived like that – supporting and guiding me into my new job. I was truly lucky on that part! But I also quickly realized, when I showed up in my newsroom, several things I had to learn fast to succeed.

So, do you think you’re ready? There’s no one tool that can accurately measure anyone’s readiness for a job as challenging and dynamic as a news director, but here are three questions to ask yourself.

1) Are you ready to go on a 24-hour watch? Is your family ready?
As a news director, you’re in charge. Not just some of the time, but all of the time. In each of my news director jobs, I inherited and/or built a terrific team of managers who absolutely did their share of the hard work. But no matter how self-reliant your managers or your overnight staff or anyone else, you’re the one who’ll likely get the call whenever someone needs to make a tough decision. You’re the one who will get the draw of fill a tough shift when someone calls out sick in the last minute, or when someone on your team is having a personal emergency. How are you going to keep tabs on newscasts that begin as early as 4am and last past 11:30pm, seven days a week? How are you going to monitor social media accounts and website stories, published at all hours? Some of this you’ll have to delegate; some of this you’ll have to do yourself. More on this below.

2) Are you good with your ethics?
The first time any of us was left in charge of a news team, for any length of time, we all dreaded that moment when we would be exposed for a poor ethical decision we made. None of us wants to show up in someone else’s blog or news publication because we made a decision that turned out badly, and we felt we could have/should have made a more responsible ethical decision. You’ll never know when you’ll succeed or be found wanting, and any news that breaks late today or tomorrow could put us in that difficult place. Years and experience do matter. Have you been tested in ethical decision-making? Training matters. There’s not a short course on ethics, but the RTDNA website has several great resources, including our Code of Ethics and nearly 40 one-sheets of guidelines for specific types of stories. As for me, I’ve always leaned on simple advice from Bob Steele and other teachers along the way, for making decisions when ethics are involved:

  • Seek the truth and report it as fully as possible.
  • Act independently.
  • Minimize harm.
  • Be accountable.

Here are 10 good questions to keep in your back pocket for your toughest situations.

3) Seriously, how much experience do you have managing people? And do you have the heart and the courage to be the manager they deserve? 
Ask yourself these additional questions. Do you have experience going through the full process of hiring (posting, screening, interviewing, deciding, negotiating, onboarding?) Do you have experience terminating an employee? More important day to day, do you have experience in writing performance reviews, delivering on-the-spot feedback and newscast/digital product reviews? Your team needs an active and involved leader, one who (seemingly) watches everything and is ready to give a or a correction at a moment’s notice?

And by the way, #3 in this list loops back to #1. Your team needs you 24 hours a day. But, you won’t be there 24 hours a day. You can’t be there 24 hours a day. How will you keep up with the rest of your life – your physical and spiritual health, your spouse, your family and friends, your hobbies, your sleep – when you take on the role of leading the entire team? Some of this you will have to figure out as you go, but as you take on your new job, you need to communicate your outside interests and needs to your new boss and your new staff, and ask them up front to help you commit to a positive work/life balance, so you in turn can help them do the same thing.

I look forward to discussing this more in a session at EIJ this September. There’s a HUGE difference between #2 and #1, and the session will give you a better understanding of what’s in store when you get your first opportunity. Our teaching team will outline strategies for winning that top job and then succeeding in it. We’ll discuss establishing a personal leadership style, setting your priorities, working with your boss, building a management team.

Bring your questions; we’ll answer those too! See you in San Antonio!

Learn more from Chip at “Aim High: Getting to the Top Job in the Newsroom” on Thursday, Sept. 5, 3-4 p.m., Excellence in Journalism.