EXECUTIVE SESSION WITH JULIE WOLFE

TVN Executive Session | For Tegna, A Proactive Take On Hiring, Onboarding During The Pademic

Julie Wolfe, news director at Tegna’s WHAS Louisville, Ky., has tackled hiring and training new personnel during COVID by leaning on pre-pandemic habits. Those include constantly networking even before newsroom positions open, lots of one-on-one communication with new personnel and building a newsroom culture with a ready embrace of digital tools.

This time last year, no news director expected a global pandemic, but Julie Wolfe may have been readier than many when it came.

The news director of Tegna’s ABC affiliate WHAS Louisville, Ky., Wolfe came up through the company’s ranks as a multimedia journalist (MMJ) and digital director before taking the newsroom’s helm. The skills she honed helped put the station on a strong footing during its forced remote transition last year. They’ve also helped her process of hiring and onboarding new personnel, two of the hardest tasks to virtualize in an industry long accustomed to an in-person approach to both.

In an interview with TVNewsCheck Editor Michael Depp, Wolfe says she never stops recruiting, which has made filling newsroom gaps in the pandemic easier. She adds that a detailed, personalized onboarding plan is essential for new personnel at all experience levels. And she says news directors like herself have a responsibility to shoulder staffers’ burdens when the relentless pressures they face become too much.

An edited transcript.

One of the major challenges that stations have faced since the pandemic’s onset is hiring and onboarding new people. How are you handling the hiring side virtually?

I am always in recruiting mode, whether I have an opening or not, always doing mentoring and feedback with journalists in smaller markets and keeping in touch with journalists who have gone on to big markets. That is really important so you can make sure you are ready and understand what piece of the puzzle you need when it opens. That hasn’t changed at all in the pandemic. If anything, it has exacerbated the need to be hyperaware of the talent out there and building those relationships, having those conversations ahead of time.

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Building a culture within the newsroom is the best thing you can do with recruiting because you get retention. If people like where they are working, they stay. We don’t want to put so much time and effort into recruiting and then not put that into retention. Also, we have a finder’s fee. People who recommend people that make it through the interview process get a little bonus. They are helping me recruit as well.

Tegna has been very vocal about its commitment to diversity in hiring. Is the pandemic exacerbating that challenge?

I have not found it so because building a diverse newsroom has been a priority for me since I walked in this door. It might take a bit more work because you have to be more vocal, making sure you are communicating to the right people in the right networks. I have continued to get diverse candidates and to work through a very inclusive interview process. We have a diversity and inclusion internal committee at WHAS. That goes back to making sure that diverse employees are feeling heard and included, and it makes recruiting a lot easier.

There is also the challenge of training new people outside of the newsroom environment. How are you tackling that?

Through my own experience as an MMJ and seeing other people both succeed or struggle, my belief as a leader is it’s better to spend the time coaching and training up front. We try to have a very structured entry. Depending on the individual’s experience and background, our onboarding is about six to eight weeks, and it is a very detailed plan.

We use it as a recruiting tool. We come up with a personalized plan that we give to them before their first day. Part of that was you would shadow each different place in the newsroom no matter what your role is to build an appreciation of what everybody was doing.

We had to figure out how we still get that remotely. You cannot underestimate how much learning used to happen by osmosis, sitting next to people and having spontaneous conversations. So much learning happened that we lost going remote. You have to be intentional, do a lot of check-ins. Have a lot of one-on-one communication with the new employee.

What have you found to be the stickiest elements of virtualized onboarding?

The human interaction — the way that you build a team that works really well together, particularly those important close relationships between producers and anchors, producers and field crews, editors and producers. A great producer and anchor read each other’s minds.

But getting to that point is slower because you are not next to each other. What is the voice that you use? What is the perspective? What is the expertise that you bring to the table? All of that comes through conversations, and because those are less frequent and a bit more formalized in a Zoom and phone call, it is taking us longer to get to that comfort level where the real magic happens.

You came up through the ranks as a multimedia journalist. Is the pandemic accelerating a shift to where MMJ skills are going to be essential for most newsroom personnel?

The more skills that you know how to do help you understand the people around you even if you don’t use them. I am a news director and occasionally I still edit things just because I enjoy it. I understand what it takes to edit a show, to get a live shot. Because I have done them, I can better support the team around me.

I am hearing from my staff and other journalists in my network that they want to do more things. The idea of the being multiskilled isn’t new from the pandemic. People in other industries are learning new skills and trying to keep up with the demands of the world we live in. I have not seen a change in the value of that.

When I see at-home studios that look beautiful and are amazingly well lit, I uncover a lot of MMJs in those scenarios. In the same way when there is a studio that is struggling or a station doing a lot of remote and it doesn’t meet the standards of what we think production should look like, I often find there aren’t very many MMJ skills.

Are you starting to envision what more permanent post-pandemic newsroom workflow changes are going to look like?

That is a question we have continued to ask ourselves from the very beginning. Every day is so different. Things that might work for certain days might not work for others.  The team misses seeing each other. There are opportunities for more remote work and better uses of technology that make sure that we are spending our time creating great stories and coaching opportunities and not wasting as much time in meetings. All of that will move forward, but there is nothing that we can do to replace spontaneous brainstorming. We want to come back to that human interaction that is important for us to build relationships and is good for our mental health.

You have an extensive background as a digital director for Tegna before becoming a news director. How have you been able to draw on that experience to manage your remote working conditions?

The things that we did to prepare ourselves to be a content team — making sure we can use analytics to understand things and communicate — have poised us to do really well in the pandemic. We were already using communication tools like Slack, different closed Facebook groups and remote contributions and an app for communication. When you put the right tools in the hands of your team and you train them well, magic will happen.

How are you grappling with viewer trust right now?

Facts are more important today than they have ever been. Cutting out the noise and focusing on facts is our job. Whether you are talking about the pandemic, taxes or stimulus checks, if you keep going back to that facts you will never go wrong.

It’s really important to be able to be transparent. Here is something you want us to investigate, here are the experts, here are the sources — really laying that down for people. Often times people get it. It doesn’t mean they necessarily agree, but they understand and appreciate the transparency.

We spend a good bit of time battling through data at city, county and state levels. Making sure that we build data sets that are dependable is not an easy thing to do, but it is worth it for us because the data tells the truth.

How are you helping your journalists to get through the relentless pressure that they are still facing both in the field and on social media, where reporters everywhere are taking so much heat?

It has been a challenging year for everybody. All I can do as a leader is to try to be empathetic and accountable for the work that we do. We are a support system for each other. We all believe in the work that we do, or we wouldn’t be doing it. I have heard from my team that with all of the big stories that we covered, they are recommitted to this career and this calling.

It’s important to help us be aware of our own mental health and the mental health of our coworkers. Tegna has made Teledoc [a provider of telehealth and telemedicine services] and being able to talk through things with people very accessible.

Leaders in newsrooms have big shoulders. If [journalists] are feeling attacked or overwhelmed, say it is OK to step away from it. I will monitor it, respond to it, handle it. That is what good leaders do in these kind of situations — let people have room to breathe. It is my job to give them room to breathe.

Julie Wolfe, news director at Tegna’s WHAS Louisville, Ky., has tackled hiring and training new personnel during COVID by leaning on pre-pandemic habits. Those include constantly networking even before newsroom positions open, lots of… Click To Tweet

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