Right skills, recruitment tactics key to successful editorial team development (Webinar summary)

IFMS Media Consultancy has worked with many companies both large and small, but they all have one thing in common: the importance of — and struggle for — hiring the right people for the right jobs. This is particularly crucial as legacy media companies have been moving into the new digital era and navigating the post-COVID world.

IFMS founder and principal Dietmar Schantin shared valuable insights into this with INMA members in a Webinar on Wednesday. Schantin believes it all begins by getting the right assessment and profile for every position.

The keys to hiring the right people are the same no matter the size or location of the company. He began by outlining staff-related challenges during transformational times:

  • Growing demands on editorial staff and executives.
  • New jobs emerging for digital publishing.
  • Lack of digital skills in newsrooms and distribution.
  • Existing promotion strategies are failing.
  • Getting the required skills (internally or externally) is slow.

“It takes time to train up people,” Schantin said. “It takes weeks, months, years to build up the skills — and to find the right person in a highly competitive market. At the same time, there’s a strong image that publishing houses are not innovative, and so not attractive to a young talent.”

Today’s digital world moves and changes so fast, he added, that sometimes finding the right person for a role takes too long — causing the company to fall behind even more.

It all starts with people

“In my personal view, people are actually the core of every company,” Schantin said. “However, the investment in people at many companies is not very developed. It’s very much, you come into the company and then you learn by doing.”

Along with people, proper technology needs to be in place and operated properly, and workflows (particularly with digital) need to be functional. The goal is to get the right people, in the right strategic positions that make the technology and the workflows work.

So, what is the process for getting the right people into the right seats? Schantin shared the steps he has found successful.

  • Have a clear picture about the tasks the position needs to fulfil. “This is where it falls apart very often. What are the workflows, what are the responsibilities, what are the decisions that this person has to make? What are the skills that the person needs for this?”
  • Have a clearly defined job description. In working with companies for 15 years, Schantin said he has never arrived at a company where he was given adequate job descriptions. It’s important to be clear about what is expected of each person in each role.
  • Have a structured training and development plan.
  • Have a structured and transparent recruiting and assessment process. “This is also something I have rarely found in newsrooms.” A lack of a formal recruiting and assessment process may have worked in the past, but not today.
  • Have regular reviews and potential corrections of poor hiring decisions. Keeping the wrong person for too long can be very damaging.

Schantin shared an example of what the workflow for a particular editorial position might look like. This workflow diagram will inform the detailed job description.

“We know then ideally what we need, and if a person doesn’t fit certain areas it’s a conscious decision: ‘Okay, I accept it but I will train him up.’ Without having a clear job description, it’s basically only gut feeling and you don’t know what kinds of activities or skills are crucial,” Schantin said.

He added that in most other industries, this is standard practice. But because the publishing world is a creative industry, at least editorially speaking, this formal process is not something that he has found common within media.

Multi-dimensional skill areas for editorial staff members

The workflow and job description for a role will reveal the skills that a particular person must have for that position. Schantin identified five areas of multi-dimensional skills that editorial hires might require.

  • Journalistic skills: those that are directly connected to the core tasks of a journalist, concerning content and craftsmanship. Example: the skill to create articles for the target audience in a compelling way.
  • Media technology skills: those that are required for the media technological implementation and staging of the journalistic concept. Example: the skill to create a video slideshow with voice-over.
  • Management skills: those that are required to manage journalistic and editorial processes. Example: the skill to lead a team of journalists efficiently in a project.
  • Social skills: those that are needed to work and interact with other people in a professional and constructive way. Example: the skill to react in an appropriate way in case of personal conflict.
  • Personal skills: those that are connected to the personal character and mind-set. Examples: integrity, self-motivation, open-mindedness.

Some of these skills are easier to teach than others, while some are more inherent, Schantin said. Personal skills are harder to train people in, while technology skills are easier.

“Personal skills are about values and attitude: self-motivation, integrity, open-mindedness,” he said. “You can work on social skills to a certain degree. Journalistic skills can be trained. Management skills take a certain talent; also for journalism, talent is important. But to become a better manager is easier to learn than journalism when there is no core skillset or talent for journalism. And media technology skills are actually the ones that can be trained easily.”

Schantin believes these five main areas should be a part of any editorial job description. They may vary depending on the specific position — for example, there might be differences in requirements for a certain journalistic style, topic expertise, or skills in different media formats.

Likewise, required media technology skills may include the ability to master certain editorial tools, media production, social media, and/or analytics. Management skills might require market and business understanding, entrepreneurial thinking and acting, and leadership and change management.

Social skills needed might include being a team player, conflict handling, and networking. Examples of necessary personal skills include a willingness to learn, self-motivation, and taking initiative.

“These are the areas that become more and more important in every organisation,” Schantin said. “Especially now that so many things are changing. But in most cases, from what I have observed, the most important part is always the journalistic skillset.”

However, the danger is focusing only on one skillset at the expense of others. For example, a great journalist might get promoted, but turns out to be a terrible manager: “So you lose a good writer, but you don’t gain a good manager.”

There are different skill levels that are important in each different area, he said. By knowing the skills needed for every position, it’s possible to build up an individual’s skillsets so that they will have the skills needed for an advanced role.

“It’s a lot of work to think it through,” he acknowledged, “but then you get a very clear picture what kind of people you need.”

He shared a matrix of what a balanced build-up of skills might look like in the editorial career model.

“You don’t need C-level skills for each job,” Schantin explained. “If you want to hire new people, you look at A-level. But you know exactly what kind of profile this person needs to have. It’s important, before you hire a person for a job, that you know what their weaknesses and strengths are. If you want to have this person in the job, you know exactly which areas you need to invest in.”

He shared another insight, which is that people don’t leave companies — they leave managers. “If you lose good people, it’s not because the company’s crap. It’s because whoever this person reported to didn’t do a good job.”

Money isn’t always the deciding factor, either, he added.

Basic recruitment options

Now that the workflow, job description, and skillsets are identified, how does one begin the recruitment process? Schantin shared three basic recruitment options: internal reassignment, internal hiring with re-application, and external hiring. Each has its own set of pros and cons.

With internal reassignment, the advantage is it’s quick and easy. There are numerous disadvantages, however:

  • Necessary, often specific skills, are not always present.
  • Skill development takes time.
  • The achieved skills could potentially be sub-par.
  • “Old buddy” networks can come into play.
  • The decision making often lacks transparency.

Internal hiring with re-application, where the candidate comes from within the organisation but must apply for the position and go through the entire hiring process, offers several advantages:

  • Transparent assessment and decision making.
  • Encouragement of new, sometimes hidden talents.
  • Opportunity for personal reflection by applicants.
  • The chance of getting the best internal option.

It also has a couple of disadvantages:

  • Potential culture shock and agitation in the organisation.
  • Skill development may still be needed, which takes time.

In this method, the position may only be open to candidates being hired from within the company — or it can include both internal and external applicants.

To go outside the organisation and hire externally, the advantages are:

  • Transparent assessment and decision making.
  • An infusion of “fresh blood” into the organisation.
  • Required skills are existent.

The disadvantages, however, are:

  • It’s expensive and time-consuming.
  • It’s potentially difficult to get high-quality people due to the image of the media industry.

“In my opinion, you don’t do people a favour by keeping them in a job they aren’t suited for, because it’s permanent stress,” Schantin said.

When it comes to recruiters, or “headhunters,” Schantin said he has never seen good results from that.

“The mixture between all the three [hiring options] is actually something that works,” he said. “The re-application and the external hiring, in my experience, have the best success.

In summary, Schantin reiterated that people — along with digital technology — are the most important success factors for the future of a media organisation. However, the wrong people can have a devastating impact on the business.

He shared one case where two people from editorial were put into digital leadership roles, directly as a result of the “old buddy” system. “They did not perform, but the editor-in-chief was not able to make the hard decision to put someone else in. This cost him five years of progress.”

Lastly, the professional recruitment and development process is a must-have for any modern media company.

“In most companies, it’s not very professional,” Schantin said. “It’s not even existing [in some]. Everything else doesn’t fall into place if there is no professional process.”

This article was also published on the INMA Media Leaders blog as a summary of the INMA Webinar