Elements of Nonprofit News Management Chapter 4: People

By Richard J. Tofel

October 4, 2022

Nonprofit news organizations are a classic example of the old saw, from pre-pandemic days, about how “the most important assets all take the elevator down each evening.” People are the heart of the matter. Herewith, a few thoughts on the implications. 

Building a culture 

One of the most crucial aspects of forging an effective organization is building and maintaining a culture that works.  

As with mission, no two cultures should, or really could, be the same. But workplace cultures do exist, and they evolve. If you aren’t being intentional about them, they will find their own course, and you — and the people who work for you — may not like the results. 

Here are some key variables to consider as you work to forge and then maintain your workplace culture: 

  • How formal or informal do you want the place to be? Before you take what may seem like the easy route these days and opt for “informal” all the way, does that mean chains of command are meaningless to you? That people should be able to regularly sleep in the office (if you have one)? That all members of the staff should feel entitled to join any meeting they wish? Probably not. Again, be intentional. 
  • How rigorous are your standards? Again, beware the easy answer. Do even trivial mistakes in work merit censure? How important is it that work is disappointing if exceptional effort was put into it? And whose judgments about standards are most meaningful? Those of awards judges? Editors? Readers? Board members? 
  • How do you strike the balance between the organization serving its readers and community and serving its staff? This is especially tricky in the contemporary workplace, and is worth pointing out to staff explicitly. Ideally, you can always serve both interests; in real life, sometimes not. Having said that, it is a balance, not a binary choice, and it does need to be struck. 
  • How transparent are you prepared to be? Here, unlike with the previous variables, I do want to suggest what I think is the right answer. We in the news business depend heavily on, and frequently advocate for, transparency by others. I think we need to practice it ourselves as well. This is reflected above in the discussion about disclosing donors, but I think it should apply also to communicating with staff about how our own businesses are faring, and to how and why we are managing the place in the way that we are. “Ask me anything” sessions with staff should be regular and fulsome. Nondisclosure agreements, and especially nondisparagement agreements, seem, at least to me, largely antithetical to what we do. In addition, nonprofit news organizations should be expected to annually disclose the racial and gender diversity of their staff, both by responding to the leading industry survey and by posting on their own website. 

Job classifications 

I’ve left out the particulars of human resources policies and practices here, partly because most of it, in my experience, is not unique to journalism and also because I don’t have a great deal to add to the conventional wisdom. 

But there is one subject I want to highlight, because it has significant implications for two issues commanding a lot of managers’ attention these days: pay equity and unionization. That subject is the seemingly mundane but practically important one of job classifications.  

The central notion here is both that people in similar jobs should be treated similarly — that’s a basic issue of fairness — and that it’s important not to equate jobs that are fundamentally different. So, for instance, reporters of similar experience, skill and productivity in locations of roughly equivalent cost of living should be paid similarly (and certainly not differently on account of race or gender). But reporters and editors need not be paid similarly: The market for reporters is different from that for editors, the requisite experience is not the same, and the demand for and supply of such talent may vary differently from time to time (and place to place). The same is true for less common jobs in research, social media and engagement, product development and design, etc. 

In managing for pay equity even in a nonunion environment, and for many purposes in a unionized workplace, it will therefore be wise to have as few classifications as are called for by varying tasks (to avoid confusion in roles), but also as many as a diversified staff requires (to provide clarity in responsibilities). What no one, especially managers, should want is a system that requires you, either explicitly (through a union contract) or implicitly (through any number of incentives and practices), to treat people who are doing fundamentally different jobs as if they were the same. 

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