In looking for talent, journalism must tackle two blind spots

Lou Carlozo July 30, 2020

At today’s muckety-muck newsroom meeting: “Let’s ruminate endlessly on which great writers—especially the drones with zero people skills—to make editorial leaders.”

Having plied the scribe-editing-podcasting-multimedia journalism thing for three decades I retain two pet peeves, damn near impossible to kill. They’ve matured into full-grown-Tiger-King-sized peeves, in fact, and I will contend to any industry expert worth her espresso that they dog our industry now as much as in the pre-Internet age—perhaps more.

Both relate to talent and the challenge to find it and grow it. Do these resonate with you?

One: Journalism outlets fail when they promote based on reporting skills alone.

Sparky Anderson. Earl Weaver. Joe Madden. Tony La Russa. What did so many of baseball’s greatest managers have in common? Easy: They were terrible players who barely if ever reached in the major leagues. What should this teach us? Also easy: The bedrock skills to lead a team are 99 percent mutually exclusive from the abilities to play the game.

But in the “major league” newsrooms I worked in, I saw outstanding writers and award winners promoted into leadership positions based on their reporting accomplishments. Many times, it led to sad results. I remember one gifted writer who as an editor uttered a line almost straight from “There Will Be Blood”: “Basically I don’t like people.” And this was our leader.    

In other cases, deficient, freshly-minted “leaders” were sent to a “charm school” to learn personnel management from scratch. Huh. For starters, management isn’t leadership any more than a duck is an eagle. And second: Based on this logic, they should’ve sent freshly-minted staffers to school to learn writing or photography from scratch.

Leadership skills are such that an inspirational editor can come from outside traditional journalism. Superlative leaders get their charges to row in the same direction. They praise good work constantly and provide focused course correction. They create an electric environment where everyone learns and contributes. And, dare I say, they ban almost all meetings, except for those that brainstorm ideas everyone can—gasp!—kick into action.

Yes, it is possible to find true leaders among great writers. I’ve seen that happen, too. (Here, a shoutout to  George Papajohn, a beautiful writer and smart reporter who influenced my style and nurtured my nascent skill set when I was a Chicago Tribune cub.)

But usually, guys like George prove rare. A reporter who hunkers down at their desk in solitude and learns a plethora of priceless skills often has no ability or motivation to suddenly become sociable and pass them on. So: Find potential leaders with otherwise mediocre skills and promote them; let the lion’s share of star reporters do what they love in the first place.

Fact: The last major leaguer to hit .400, Ted Williams, compiled a managerial record of 273-364. He treated players meanly who didn’t rise to his (stuck nose in the air here) level of giftedness. No wonder by all accounts, he was considered much better fisherman.

Two: Finding superstar talent isn’t about internships and established credentials

Sometime in the 1980s, I saw a  transition take place that went like this: Before, journalists were recruited fresh from college—or sometimes while still in it. Even high school students with that extra hustle factor might shoehorn themselves in by, say, reporting local sports scores.

After: Internships, clips and credentials shoved it all aside—though for a precious few seconds, both employment paths co-existed equally. I walked into a newsroom in 1989 without any clips or experience. I soon took a seat beside Penn, Yale and University of Missouri grads. One of my colleagues, Ross Kerber, invited me to join him at Harvard’s Kennedy School to get a master’s in public policy. I had as much chance of getting in as a sea slug, though Ross did his very best to convince me otherwise. I stayed my course on the school-of-hard-knocks route for wayward lead guitarists; Ross took his and voila!—we landed high-level jobs at the same time. (Ross also went on to be my bike instructor and consigliere, but that’s another story.)

The non-traditional route cannot be underestimated as a source of powerful journalists. Gene Siskel, a philosophy major and recent military grunt, became the Chicago Tribune’s film critic after a single review. Raymond Bonner, who would later report on the El Mozote massacre for the New York Times, transitioned from a career as a lawyer.

Perhaps I’m getting this backwards—for certainly, a big story these days runs along the lines of “alternative careers for displaced journalists.”

But among those outlets that are hiring—in the freelance ranks especially—owners and supervisors feel financial pressure to hedge their bets. They either opt for the mid-level writer with the track record or the desperate grad ready to take her 80th “will work not even for food” internship. I get it. But the first path is unimaginative; the second exploitative.

We can do better. But how, exactly? It’s my hope, in future columns, to explore some of journalism’s biggest challenges and possible paths upward through eyes of those who know better than I. In the meantime, in terms of our talent search, it behooves us to move ahead by looking back:

Fact: This band couldn’t read music and had zero technical knowledge of their instruments or studio technology. Its founding members also had no previous professional experience. Not one attended music school. Pretend they were journalists: Would you hire them, Mr. Know-It-All Editor? 

We should all have been so prescient to take the chance. Because we know them better today as the most adored, accomplished and successful group in popular music history: The Beatles.

Lou Carlozo is Qwoted’s Editor In Chief: lou@qwoted.com

This week on Lou Carlozo’s “Bankadelic” podcast, Todd Robertson of ARGO discusses how customer experience has been forever changed by COVID-19.