Exploring What Makes Training Successful: Whether Editors' Training Takes Place in a Single Newsroom or as a Regional Gathering, Its Essential Elements Remain Consistent

By Swanson, Lillian | Nieman Reports, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Exploring What Makes Training Successful: Whether Editors' Training Takes Place in a Single Newsroom or as a Regional Gathering, Its Essential Elements Remain Consistent


Swanson, Lillian, Nieman Reports


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 maybe 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. …

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