When Benjamin Franklin, digital revolution and mentorship of journalists met up

Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association logo    SubmittedThe Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association sponsors the Benjamin Franklin Award for Excellence, the Lifetime Achievement Award and other statewide award competitions.

In accepting Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association’s recent Benjamin Franklin Award for Excellence, I attempted to weave together two favorite topics – mentorship and the digital revolution.

The following is adapted from that speech:

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I thought about commenting tonight about all things digital. I mean, there are exciting things going on. Consider Guardian Australia’s Katharine Viner’s comments about digital in a recent speech:

“In fact, digital is a huge conceptual change, a sociological change, a cluster bomb blowing apart who we are and how our world is ordered, how we see ourselves, how we live. It’s a change we’re in the middle of, so close up that sometimes it’s hard to see. But it is deeply profound and it is happening at an almost unbelievable speed.”
Important, challenging stuff.

But then I thought about a moment in about 1980 when I was at a PNA conference at the Penn Harris in Harrisburg.

John V.R. Bull was one of the speakers, the A.M.E. at the Philadelphia Inquirer when it was somewhere in its string of winning Pulitzers. I was in awe. Here I was, a young journalist at a small daily at a conference with the greats. I managed to meet him, and I still remember his interest in me and what I was doing. In fact, next time we met, he even remembered my name. We enjoyed a warm relationship – a relationship sparked by PNA — over the years, and I consider him a mentor. Even today, I enjoy emailing him when we win the FOI/open government award that carries his name. And he always gets back with the warmest of words.

So it’s such moments that made me decide to say a few words here about mentoring – and how that really does connect with the digital revolution.

I’ve been blessed with bosses, who were also mentors, all along the way. I’d like to list several; many of these names you’ll know. Let’s start with:

– Phil Buckner, who showed you can be engaging and civil while possessing an iron-ribbed inner toughness.
– Dave Martens taught the value of your people and your need to read people and bring the good ones into your organization. In other words, understand how to read people.
– Jim Dible had a gift of carefully saying the right thing in the right way at the right time – whether it was encouragement or identifying something that needed work — something that was easier for him as a former radio man than for some of us.
– Dennis Hetzel believed in the importance of involvement in PSNE, PNA and other organizations such as these. He urged the gathering of several of us on the PAPME board to start an AP wire watch in Pa. that is going to this day. I am proud to say that the outgrowth of Dennis’ inspiration has been seven past or future PSNE presidents or presidents from the YDR and sister publications in less than 15 years.
– Fred Uffelman showed me that you can use humor to defuse difficult moments – such as when you’re in the throes of putting a budget together. Fred would also have your back when you got pushback from the community – something you need when you do difficult stories. Scott Blanchard, one of our editors, said in a speech that we have a tendency at the YDR to do hard stories — and we do them because they’re hard.
Sara Glines, our publisher, shows a contagious tenaciousness in ensuring that projects are done – and done well. She has also advocated a renewed emphasis on community engagement – a major component in this digital world.
– And Jim Brady, Digital First Media’s editor, is remarkable because of his interest in the progress of DFM journalists – all DFM journalists. He knows many of those 2,000 or more journalists by name.

So I’ve been blessed with impressive bosses who I’ve had the opportunity to learn from.

I’ve also had mentors outside the business whose teachings have become fundamental at the YDR. (I’ve never met them, but I’ve read about the way they think).

Now these guys might not be popular with everyone here tonight, but look at what they’ve done.

The first is the New England Patriots’ Bill Belichick, who knows something about developing a team. He has put forth a system, an infrastructure that works no matter who the players are. Of course, it matters who the players are. He brings in players who will fit that system and recognizes their often unsung accomplishments in making that system work. For example, he focuses praise on the tight end who successfully blocks a linebacker to free a runner. At the YDR, the keys to the system rest with the so-called middle managers – the city editors, etc. Their contributions, under M.E. Randy Parker’s leadership, can be overlooked, but they are the keepers of the system. (Of course, Sara Glines’ assistant Donna Mandl runs the whole place). It’s fashionable to cut out middle managers in right-sizing moments, but these servant leaders are the key to spawning change while at the same time repairing and preserving our newsroom culture.

Another mentor outside of the newsroom is Oakland A’s G.M. Billy Beane of “Moneyball” fame. His philosophies have been instructive: He finds players who have asymmetrical skills – perhaps not flamboyant but gifted and efficient and often overlooked. We love to snag gifted journos who are overlooked by the big boys, who want to win more than gain personal clips, and then we work them into our system. So instead of having a bunch of disconnected journalists, we have a team of journalists who are grateful that we bet on them and then take the time to develop – to mentor – them.

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All the voices of these mentors went through my head in Newtown last December. That terrible moment – the gunman who killed 6 teachers and 20 students and his own mother – was proximate to eastern DFM flagship New Haven Register. So we assembled teams to supplement the effective and expansive leadership of the editor there, Matt DeRienzo. We created a satellite newsroom near Newtown to supplement the New Haven newsroom, and our job was to forge six different teams covering more than 100 journalists into one team – really overnight.

We had:
– The N.H. Register newsroom,
– Journalists from two other Connecticut daily newsrooms,
– Journalists from about 17 other DFM newsrooms on the east coast.
– A team from Thunderdome, from our national desk.
– A team from DFM’s Denver Post, including journalists who just worked on the Aurora theater shooting that later won the Pulitzer Prize.
– And a gifted editor, Frank Scandale, who would supervise a Sunday special section.

So a big piece of what I did was work with Matt to blend these teams. The counsel of this cloud of mentors came constantly to mind. That team from east coast newsrooms included about 20 from Pennsylvania. Many covered the funerals of the young victims. I want to tell you that they represented this state well.

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We emerged from that tough moment with a different way to cover big stories within our company. We tried out this model with a satellite newsroom and more than 40 journalists from four newsrooms in covering Gettysburg 150.

And when the next big story happens in our East coast coverage area, we’ll deploy this model. And here’s where all this ties to things that are with us in this digital world.

As leaders of our organizations, we should be ready to make a big statement to our readers – and staffs – when we have a big story. And we must not forget in the digital world that interest among readers goes beyond traditional print boundaries, so we should not hesitate to commit resources when big stories seem out of bounds. When there’s that moment – for example, if a story like Nickel Mines occurred again, heaven forbid – we would establish a satellite newsroom. Then we would bring in journalists from our 10 Pennsylvania dailies. We might also invite Lancaster and Harrisburg to use that newsroom – The Patriot-News used ours in Gettysburg. Competitors in the past are partners in the digital world.

So here’s another way that digital and mentorship come together. Digital does not alleviate our need to grow our people. In fact, talented people are going to be even more in demand and harder to keep. The faster-paced digital world, with its array of often-complicated tools, means we have to be even more intentional about mentoring.

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It’s always good to give a practical way to boost mentorship at a moment like this in which there are so many people of influence in the room. Try this by way of strengthening relationships with your people. On your way out of your plant every day, stop at someone’s desk and give them a good word. Talk about their work. Or just acknowledge them in an intentional way.

Social media/engagement guru Steve Buttry wears a lot of hats for DFM. He provokes thoughts about what it takes to be a digital journalist, that also tie into mentorship. In a list – 10 ways to Think Like a Digital First Journalist – Buttry writes: “A Digital First journalist thinks journalism has a bright and boundless future.” So, just for example, more readers potentially are viewing our content than when we were print only.

We must believe in the bright and boundless future of journalism in the pit of our stomachs. We must inculcate this in all our people and particularly in the hearts and minds of those we are mentoring.

They are our future as we seek – to borrow from Katharine Viner’s speech – “a fundamental redrawing of journalists’ relationship with our audience, how we think about our readers, our perception of our role in society, our status.”
Be intentional about mentoring, because you never know when you’ll cross paths with that journalist – as did John V.R. Bull that day at the Penn Harris – who is looking up to you.

Also of interest

Sandy Hook coverage shows scope of Digital First teamwork.

sectionThis is the cover of the Sunday special section published in the New Haven Register and other DFM newspapers and websites in the aftermath of the slayings at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

About Jim McClure

Editor of the York Daily Record/Sunday News, ydr.com and its many digital products. Journalism/history blogger: yorktownsquare.com. Author or co-author of seven York County, Pa., history books.

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