Secret to success? Giving ownership

Had a great day at Fall Media Monday, a media conference hosted by Oklahoma Scholastic Media, housed at the University Of Oklahoma. I take my two staffs – newspaper and yearbook – twice a year, once in the fall, where the focus is on yearbook, and once in the spring, where the focus is on newspaper. Each time I’m so proud of my students I could bust, and it truly seems to get better every year, if that’s even possible.

Several of the breakout sessions today focused on student leadership, and my students, anxious to be good leaders, either this year or planning ahead for next year, attended one. One of my news co-managing editors told that he was surprised at the problems shared by some of the editors from other schools. They talked of lack of communication between eds and staff, between eds and advisers. He look at his partner-in-crime, the other co-managing editor, and I can imagine them shrugging shoulders and smirk-grinning, glad they have things as good as they do. But what they have is of their own making.

As I sat with advisers in a dish and dine luncheon session, we old-timers (at 7 years? really?) shared advice with the newer advisers. The first one to speak up, good friend of mine who has been advising 33 years, hit the nail on the head, “you need good editors.” But what makes a good editor and where can we get one?

That was pretty much the next question. Good editors are built by teaching them the ways and then giving them ownership of their publication. When a staffer comes to me to ask about doing a story on so-and-so, my immediate response is, “that’s an editor question. I’m in charge of your grade; you guys are in charge of the paper/book.” At first they are dumbfounded. No one’s given them this sort of freedom or power before. But they rise to the occasion. Once they realize the have this power, but also the responsibility to handle the power in a balanced, fair, accurate way, the best sorts of things happen.

Is it perfect? No. Failure happens. But failure is a beautiful thing; failure is the best teacher of all. Got some quotes wrong in a couple stories one month? We instituted having interview notes initialed by the interviewee. Hard time adhering to deadlines when staffers have more than one project and lose track? Add some mini-deadlines, like the new interview deadline those co-managing editors introduced this fall. Had some trouble connecting with some staff members last year? Yearbook editor started a monthly yearbook brownbag lunch in the newsroom. We turn on music, munch on lunch, visit about whatever (not necessarily work, but it sneaks in).

We have meetings, we brainstorm, we come up with ideas. But if the ideas are coming from those editors, and even sometimes from the other staffers, there is a pride element involved that doesn’t happen when they are simply told what to do. When they are treated as responsible editors, they are responsible editors, and that has been successful for my staffs.

How successful? We returned from Media Monday with an assortment of plaques and certificates awarding the yearbook staff with, among other things, sweepstakes for our division and the editor of the year for Oklahoma. Not too shabby.

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About teachjournalism
I am a high school teacher of journalism, technology and reading. I advise the school's newspaper and yearbook, both student-led publications. Documenting and sharing my experiences is a way of reflecting to improve my own work and and inviting commentary so that we might all benefit. I believe, as I tell my students each year, that we all learn from each other.

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