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Motivation without conflict, Part I

By Travis Feil

KSPA President-Elect

After the fall conferences this past week, I’ve been contacted by several students and advisers across the state with some meaningful questions about staff relationships, leadership and dealing with problems that arise during production cycles.

We’ve all had to deal with these types of concerns on our own staffs, and I have some humble suggestions that have worked with my own students. In an upcoming series of blogs, I’ll be sharing some insights on these issues. Please, feel free to comment with your own ideas and solutions!

For what it’s worth, here’s the first installment of “What I’ve come to understand about motivating people to do their best work without totally destroying the staff.”

In this installment:

  • How can I deal with a staff member who seems to make poor headline choices, design choices, or picture choices?

  • How do lazy choices impact the audience’s perception of the product and the readership’s willingness to invest in it?
  • How can advisers and editors help staff members see this relationship accurately?
  • What are some concrete ways to help staff members internalize this relationship before the issue of the paper or yearbook is distributed?
  • Why don’t staff members already understand this relationship?

Several students and advisers have recently asked me how to get staff members to put more effort into their work. While there are potentially infinite reasons a student doesn’t do his best, I often find a lazy approach to any of these things is rooted, at least in part, in a staff member’s misunderstanding of his relationship to his audience. A staff member has to be trained to understand for whom he is working and why that matters.

Let’s get started!

How can I deal with a staff member who seems to make poor headline choices, design choices, or picture choices?

Journalism students have to be trained to fully understand for whom they are working.

For instance, student journalists need to believe that the BEST pictures should be chosen so that the spread or news package BEST represents the story he is telling FOR the people he is covering. Specifically, if it is a low-quality football dominant in question, a staff member should learn to hunt for the best picture so that the football story is told really, really well visually as well as verbally FOR THE FOOTBALL TEAM.

The student journalist is a servant to the student body in this way and must be taught to understand that relationship with the audience. Staff members all volunteer to work as hard as they can for the people who pay good money for the product the staff makes. Whatever leads to laziness in a staff member, grasping this relationship to the audience can be a starting point for solving the problem and motivating the staff member.

What I’m NOT saying:

When I say the staff is a servant to the student body, I am not talking about content choices. Yes, the staff should be telling real, challenging, relevant and even controversial stories. Real investigative journalism may not always make the readers “happy.” What I am saying is that the readership deserves for all stories, no matter their affective impact, to be told well.

How do lazy choices impact the audience’s perception of the product and the readership’s willingness to invest in it?

If the readers feel the publication staff has been lazy or careless in taking or choosing good pictures, for example, there are a couple implications of which the staff must be made aware.

A) Doing lazy work turns people off from the product. Why would the student body want to buy the publication if the work seems careless?

B) Doing lazy work just makes future work more difficult. Why would the readers bother to give quality interviews if they perceive that the staff doesn’t care anyway? Why would readers respond to your emails if they’ve seen the way you handle information in the paper?

The readers need to feel the staff takes the job of making the publication seriously so that the readers themselves become willing participants in its creation and circulation; they’ll give better interviews, contribute their own pictures, and even support funding efforts of the staff if they honestly believe the publication is for and about them. Readers only come to believe that by seeing GREAT work in the publication, not just OK work.

How can advisers and editors help staff members see this relationship accurately?

Have open and honest training on the topic early in the year. Help your staff members see that every choice they make reflects on the sincerity of your staff, which has drastic consequences for the publication as a whole.

If a staff member can’t invest in that relationship from the start or see its importance after being trained to do so, maybe he shouldn’t be on staff in the first place.

What are some concrete ways to help staff members internalize this relationship before the issue of the paper or yearbook is distributed?

There are a thousand ways to show the students for whom they are working. These are just a few ways to bridge the gap between the staff and audience they serve.

A) Get a commitment from the start. Explain the relationship, establish clear expectations, and ask the staff members and their parents to sign a contract. I invite parents and potential staff members to an orientation night at my home before school begins for this very purpose, and I have a sample contract that I’m more than willing to share with anyone who wants it. Even if it is nearly October, it isn’t too late to go back to the basics and teach this relationship now.

B) Use by-lines. Always. Make the students put their names on the work, and direct praise as well as criticism from the readership directly to the student who did the work.

C) Ask staff members to imagine showing their work to the readers before it prints. Ask the staff member, “What would the choir director say to you, the writer, about that story?” Explain that if the writing is fair, balanced, thorough and accurate, the writer can hold his head high and defend the story. If it is not, ask how he would respond to disappointment or criticism. Role playing the situation can put the staff member in position to visualize the impacts of his work.

D) Illustrate the relationship in contexts they understand. Show them a really cool Hurley shirt in perfect condition and a one with a stain or tear, even a small one, on it. Ask which they’d buy. Ask which is more valuable to them. Ask if they’d buy anything at all from the store that tries to sell stained or torn clothing. Ask if they’d even shop there. Then tell them they are responsible for selling the damaged shirt, and see how they feel about being put in that position. You can do the same thing with a perfect iPad and one with a scratch on the screen. Chances are you could ask for all staff members to pull out their cell phones in class and come up with a perfect one and a not-so-perfect one. When they start to see how they, as consumers, feel about products that aren’t perfect, they start to understand how their readers feel about their mistakes – even the small ones.

E) Adopt a mission statement. I’m going to go into detail on the importance of a shared staff mission in a later post in response to another student’s question, but putting the publication-audience relationship in writing as a mission statement is a great way to help staff members realize what they’ve agreed to do.

F) Survey the readership. Get feedback after each issue. What did the readership enjoy? What do they want you to do in the next issue or edition?

Why don’t staff members already understand this relationship?

I’ll answer that question with another: where else in high school do students have to face this kind or relationship? Advisers, editors, and returning staff members have seen this publication-audience relationship in action. They’ve been to distribution events. They’ve passed out the paper. They’ve been complimented on good work, and they’ve been criticized for poor work. They’ve lived the relationship. New staff members have not.

In fact, in most of their educational career, their only audience has been the teacher, and quite frankly, some students are content with “C” quality work. Until they have felt the pride of a job well done as judged directly by the student body of their peers, they won’t know what it means to work hard and do well by someone else’s standards. Likewise, until they’ve felt the sting of criticism from someone whose name was misspelled or whose stats were recorded incorrectly, they won’t internalize the implications of their mistakes. It’s the task of the adviser and editor to help illustrate this relationship ahead of time.

Final Thoughts:

Like I said, there are infinite reasons that students may not always do their best work, and there are infinite solutions to this problem. In my experience, many causes as well as solutions have their genesis in the publication-audience relationship, and I’ve seen these principles work in my own classroom.

Please, feel free to add to the discussion by posting your own thoughts and sharing your success stories, too. What do you see as the root of this issue, and how do you handle it with your staff?

Next Time:

In the next installment, I’ll address another set of questions posed by a Kansas student editor:

  • Why do staff members get so offended when asked to correct their work?
  • How do I encourage them to make changes without hurting their feelings?
  • How can I help my staff not take critique so personally?

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