Speakers in the session “Managers: Coordinating an investigative team” addressed the leadership of investigative teams from several different perspectives.
Greg Borowski of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel focused on managing in the economic “down times” in newsrooms, which is an experience many journalists have dealt with regularly in the past few years. Borowski noted that even when times are tough, setting the right tone starts with management. Managers must set expectations and hold employees accountable for their work, but must also be human. “Life is too short to work for a jerk,” Borowski said. It is important to eliminate the “if only we had” mindset by finding ways to remove roadblocks to whatever the investigative team needs to accomplish. Don’t put limits on who can do good work on investigative projects if they are capable, Borowski advised. Instead, give everyone the opportunity to do the project work from time to time. As managers, it’s important to set a tone of being accepting of all ideas for investigative projects, but then you have to reject some of the ideas. Turning to a baseball analogy, Borowski said, “Solid singles count.” Not every investigative effort has to turn into a home run, and the short-term “singles” stories boost confidence and keep the investigative team in the newspaper or on TV. Sometimes a couple of good singles will lead reporters to the grand slam story, too. Big projects are a team sport, but you have to put the right partners together, according to Borowski. Set processes for getting investigations accomplished and stick to those processes to make sure the projects get accomplished with consistency. Borowski also suggested that, when planning an investigative project, managers set benchmarks rather than a final deadline. That allows for adjusting intermediate deadlines and project expectations based on what has and has not been accomplished. Returning to the importance of the tone set by managers, Borowski finished by saying, “Keep calm…and provide candy.”
Richard Esposito of NBC talked about the new investigative unit that NBC News is building. He said that while many TV units are driven by the personality fronting the stories (i.e. Brian Ross of ABC News), the new NBC unit will consist of producers, researchers, and data people who will work with the entire ensemble of NBC News reporters. Esposito said it is important to pick the right people who fit your mission, and that’s what NBC News will do with each investigative story. The new unit will also work with the affiliates and the various branches of NBC News to gather ideas and will give them materials to promote the network’s investigative stories, Esposito said.
Michael Leary of the San Antonio Express-News rounded out the panel of managers. He echoed many of the ideas and themes that Borowski addressed. Good investigative reporters will be self-starters, digging up data on their own. It’s important to have a mix of long-term, medium-term, and “one-day wonder” projects all going at the same time, Leary said. Editors should help move the investigations along with efficient organization and by investing appropriate time in the really good projects. Leary also said that any good reporter can be coached to turn a great investigative piece. And he said that following up on stories is key to having your investigations make a difference and get noticed by a wide audience.
In the Q&A period, the panel offered some additional suggestions in response to audience questions:
* Compromise on the management team to get long-term projects completed – sometimes daily stuff has to get done.
* Trello.com is an organizational tool that teams might find helpful.
* If a topic is breaking in the news…there’s probably more to it. Put the investigative team to work.
* Tell employees you can’t do their job for them. As managers, pull back and put your ego aside to give them the opportunity to grow.