How to become a better manager ft. Wendi C. Thomas and Samantha Ragland

A LION conversation about news business leadership and management, hosted by Outlier Media executive director Candice Fortman.

October 4, 2022 by Jenna Spinelle and Ben DeJarnette

News Guest featuring Wendi C. Thomas and Samantha Ragland and hosted by Candice Fortman

A formal education may prepare us well for a lot of things, but being a manager often isn’t one of them. 

In this News Guest episode, you’ll hear from two people who have been on both sides of newsroom management about how independent news publishers can be better managers.

  • Samantha Ragland is vice president of journalism programs at the American Press Institute and has coached newsroom leaders across the country. 
  • Wendi C. Thomas is the founder and publisher of MLK50, a LION member newsroom in Memphis that focuses on the intersection of poverty, power and policy.

You can listen and subscribe to News Guest on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts

Here are a few excerpts from the conversation with Wendi and Samantha, lightly edited for brevity and clarity:

On deciding if managing people is the right role for you:

Wendi C. Thomas: Many people think, ‘Oh, I want to have power, I want to have money and be the leader.’ But management is like being a servant – you are going to work so hard for so little recognition. The question to ask is: Do you want to serve, and do you want to set up other people to shine?

Samantha Ragland: Sisi Wei [editor-in-chief of The Markup] gave me some great advice – she challenged me to decide if I wanted to grow cool people or wanted to grow cool projects. I love that idea, and because of that challenge, I really enjoyed my first experience as a people manager. I thought that I was there and promoted into a position of power to help the team.

On what makes a good (or bad) manager:

Wendi: The really good editors and managers I had over the years were truly invested in my success as a person. They saw me as a person first, and my identity as a worker was second, third, fourth down the line. 

Candice Fortman: The best managers, if you wrote down what makes them good at their jobs, they often sound like the best volunteers at an organization. The same spirit that draws someone to work for free to serve a mission is often what you see in the best managers.

Samantha: There is no one-size-fits-all approach to leadership, and that is what makes it a hard, hard job. But if you are only focused right now on the journalism in your newsroom, then you are not doing the job of being a leader and a manager.

On taking care of yourself while leading an organization:

Wendi: I have been in regular therapy for the last eight years, and I also have people outside the newsroom – other Black women in newsroom leadership roles who I go to for support and counsel. You need to have that kind of outlet. I don’t know if it was Oprah or Beyonce or some other important person who said ‘You can’t pour from an empty cup.’ And that’s very true when you’re working with people. You want to be able to give them what they need, but first you have to be able to get what you need for yourself.

On mistakes and lessons learned as managers:

Samantha: One mistake I still think about often is how I managed across generations as my team at the Palm Beach Post grew. I inherited some folks who I don’t think I led well – I was way too hands-off. And that wasn’t about giving them autonomy, it was about fear, right? These are people who were very senior to me, legacy people, and I wish I would have found a way to communicate their value as I saw it earlier in my process of managing them, because we would have had a better working relationship.

Wendi: My biggest mistake has probably been not trusting myself enough to have the tough conversations with employees that needed to be had. And again, that’s coming out of fear. It’s not out of kindness or care for the team member, it’s out of me being fearful and not wanting to have that tough conversation, when the adult thing to do would be to go ahead and tell somebody, ‘We’re having a challenge. How can we fix this?’

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