Talking TV: Improving TV News’ Leaders At The Kneeland Project
Carole Kneeland was, by all accounts, a news director ahead of her time, deeply empathetic and generous with her talents. When her life was cut short by breast cancer, the colleagues who loved her established an initiative in her name, The Carole Kneeland Project for Responsible Journalism, which just celebrated its 25th year.
Once or twice each year, the Kneeland Project convenes news directors and other leaders from across the country and different station groups for a multi-day immersion in ethical and professional training. They emerge reenergized and ready to tackle the ceaseless barrage of challenges that now confront every newsroom.
In this Talking TV conversation, Joan Barrett, president and GM of WCNC, and Anzio Williams, SVP of diversity, equity and inclusion at NBCUniversal Local, both Kneeland board members, talk about Kneeland’s legacy, what the project has been able to achieve and how its evolving to new realities of the news business.
Episode transcript below, edited for clarity.
Michael Depp: The Carole Kneeland Project for Responsible Journalism aims to strengthen broadcast TV news leadership and improve the quality of news across the country. Now celebrating its 25th anniversary, Kneeland Project fellows have included Rashida Jones, president of MSNBC and leaders from almost every station group and every state in the U.S.
I’m Michael Depp, editor of TVNewsCheck, and this is Talking TV. Today I’m talking with Joan Barrett, president and GM of WCNC, and Anzio Williams, SVP of diversity, equity and inclusion at NBCUniversal Local. Both are board members of the Kneeland Project. We’ll be talking about how the project is endeavoring to spread best practices and better newsgathering techniques across the industry, along with how those practices and techniques have evolved as the news landscape itself has. We’ll be right back with that conversation.
Welcome, Joan Barrett and Anzio Williams, to Talking TV.
Joan Barrett: Hello!
Anzio Williams: Hello, thank you.
Joan, who was Carole Kneeland, and how did this project come about?
Joan Barrett: Carole was a tenacious reporter back in Texas in the day. Lots of stories on how Carole worked her way into television reporting, and one of my favorites is I think she had applied for a job a couple of times in Houston. She was a print reporter in Corpus Christi, and the news director said, you know, I’ll never hire women on this team because their voices are too nagging. Things happened, and oh! Carole got a job as a TV news reporter. And eventually she was the political bureau chief for WFAA based in Austin. Did a lot of really tough, groundbreaking coverage at the time, really leading the way in Texas, for which we know is a rich state in politics. And then she wanted to move into management, and she started reading management books and learning about it.
Eventually, Craig Dubow, who was eventually the president of Gannett, was the GM there, and he gave her first break because as a news director, that’s when I went to work for Carole as a 10 o’clock producer. And she was just ahead of her time like she was one of the first people that did the truth test on TV ads. You know how we all see that today? You do a truth check to see if they’re true or not on political ads. She was just ahead of her time and so many of the things she did and how she operated and ran a newsroom.
Unfortunately, Carole was diagnosed with breast cancer in her 40s, and as we got to the end of her life and journey, we got on the phone with her. It was Ann Arnold who ran the TAB [Texas Association of Broadcasters] in Texas; myself; I think Dave McNeely, her husband, was on it, and Carole, and we talked about what could we do after her death, because we would raise money and funds as people wanted to reach out.
And she said, I really want to start some kind of mid-career training for news directors, people who maybe want to move into it, or people who just need that inspiration mid-career to reengage. And so, within that first year, we raised by word of mouth about $100,000, and we launched the first session. She died in January, and we had the first one that fall in Austin. And we’ve done an average of about two a year, some years three, one or two years one. But we’re on, you know, our 25th year, and I think we just held our 50th conference.
Anzio, what does the program actually look like for its fellows? Is this a retreat? Is it workshops? Both? Something else?
Anzio Williams: You know, you could call it a retreat from the sense that you are collaborating with other leaders. You’re collaborating with folks who are in the newsroom just like you are. But it’s really learning, it’s getting a chance to just step away, take a big picture look at, you know, what you are experiencing, how others are experiencing. And then you have these great, wonderful leaders that are right there to give you answers, to give you all the right things to do about it.
And when I think about my foundation and Carole Kneeland’s teachings, it really is my foundation for how I was treating people in the newsroom, how I was able to value the people that worked for us, how I was able to put them first and know that journalism was going to take place on a daily basis. So, I know I got that almost 20 years ago, and so even when I walk in now as a visiting fellow, when I’m having conversations with the board, I could feel Carole in the room. You could feel her in the room. And I would like to think that when I go back now, you know, I was like, oh, this great program I did in this market—I would like to think that I came up with this great idea myself. And we laugh about this like, wait a minute. Oh, I got this from Carole. I just gave the 2023 version of it. So, I know other leaders are getting that as well, too.
Well, it’s nice to think that that someone would have such a long-standing legacy as she has. How big of a group do you convene each year, and where do you do it? Is it always in Texas?
Joan Barrett: For the most part, it’s been in Austin. We tend to train 18 fellows because that’s divisive by two and by three. And so, you can do work groups in a really nice setting that way. It’s about the right size. The Texas Association of Broadcasters is a wonderful host for us. They have a great meeting facility, and they donate that space to us as part of their fiduciary role in the in the group. We did one at Scripps, we did one at Media General in Florida, one at Tegna in D.C. And we really found Austin is the home. It’s just where Carole was. That’s kind of where the heart of the project is.
Not a bad place to go out at night after.
Joan Barrett: Absolutely. The fellows usually enjoy that.
Is this a weekend-long kind of event?
Joan Barrett: It starts Wednesday at 4. I do an opening session. We have a keynote that night and then we do all day Thursday, Friday, and we wrap up by noon Saturday.
And who pays for this? Is this the project itself paying for the attendees?
Joan Barrett: We do hotel, the trainers, you know, all the costs associated with it. The fellows will usually pay for their own flight or get there and a meal or two in the evenings are on them.
Who are the instructors here? Are there instructors, or is there some other model in place to facilitate this?
Joan Barrett: For the most part, I have been a trainer at 49 of the 50 of them, so I am one of the lead trainers with Kevin Benz, who runs his own consulting and training business out of Austin. He is a former fellow and former news director. We’ve had other trainers in the past, but right now we’ve really built this. I would say Kevin and I do a majority of it, and then folks like Anzio come in and take a piece. Michael Fabac with News-Press Gazette does a couple of pieces. Gosh, help me out Anzio.
Anzio Williams: We regularly do the panels with Rashida Jones and folks like that. And really, I don’t consider myself a host, you know, because I come and learn something every time. Each time it means something different. Just where you are in your career. I am there helping others. I’m also getting something back.
Joan Barrett: We also brought in a few folks depending on the topic of the time, like during George Floyd, we had someone from Color of Change come in a couple of times and talk to us. We’ve had someone from a local mosque come in and help us understand the Muslim religion. You know, so kind of also what’s going on at the time. If there’s something topical that’s appropriate, we might also add that in.
Anzio Williams: You know, I was just thinking about this, Michael, in terms of what’s happening right now in the world. And the big story, you know, today with Israel and how Carole’s teachings and how we’re able to continue to spread that. It helps on a regular day, but it really kicks in in the crisis of the moment. It really kicks in when big things are happening and you’re able to, you know, kind of rely and lean on these teachings, if you will. And I’ve been thinking about that a lot just over the last couple of days when we talk about taking care of our people, that it’s easy to do that knowing you know, that you’re taking care of folks. It’s the right thing to do.
Does the curriculum or the agenda come together around major news events that might be happening at that moment? Or does it tend to focus more on broader dynamics and themes in the newsroom and then intersects with current things?
Joan Barrett: It’s really been stable for the most part over the 25 years. And the cores of it are ethical decision making, how to go about coverage and ethics. What’s changed is it was maybe more linear focused, and now it’s broadened out to talk about internet and social media and the challenges with those decisions. It’s about people: How to manage people, lead people, create a collaborative culture in your newsrooms, push decision making down, empower people in your newsroom, how to coach and give feedback. You know, we talk about people over product. We talk about Carole’s motto, which is it’s never the wrong time to do the right thing. And so that’s 90% of it, and it’s pretty stable.
Like in the last couple of years, we’re talking more about recruiting and what are some ideas and ways to help you with recruiting. We’ve done the mosque and you know, a local leader in or so – those are small pieces, though usually, they’re, you know, an hour or two hours added into this 90% core product, which is how to be a good leader, how to how to empower your people, push decision making down, make ethical decisions. That’s the core and the heart of Kneeland.
Well, this is a very transitional moment for local TV news. Many groups and stations seem to have come to the realization that they cannot just keep doing the same thing again and again and hope to hold on to or gain new viewers. I wonder how that is filtering into the work that’s happening at the project now.
Anzio Williams: You know, I left the day-to-day of the newsroom three years ago, right in the middle of 2020. And I’m reminded every time I step back into a newsroom – one of the NBC or Telemundo newsrooms – how different things have changed in this three-year period of time for our leaders. You know, we used to just worry about what stories we’re going to cover today. Then all of a sudden, we turned into contact tracers, you know, who has Covid? Who was beside who? And how are you going to count those days that they’re out and their sick days or whatever. So, it is much more workload on our news leaders. I don’t think it’s a moment. This has been building up over time, it’s transitioning with the world.
The things from the first Carole Kneeland Project are even more relevant today. You know, you think about people. We talk about ethics, and we talk about, you know, folks losing confidence in local journalism and other journalism. Well, you know, we’ve been talking ethics every year. You know, we are reinforcing that ethics is first. So, I like to say that, you know, Kneeland is something that, you know, we keep looking for this magic bullet that’s going to help save journalism. We’ve been doing it here.
And so, I’m thankful that, you know, companies I worked for, including NBC Universal, has always supported it. And frankly, you know, most of the time when I’m interviewing people, I love to see that they are Carole Kneeland on the resume. That’s a star, a shield of approval in my book.
Given the focus on ethics and empowering people inside of newsrooms, pulling people up for leaders to empower other people to lead in some ways. One of the big issues that is afflicting newsrooms everywhere is burnout and attrition. And so, you know, you talked a little bit to recruitment before and how that’s come up. I wonder how you are engaging those issues now because these leaders are dealing with this, you know, day to day with people who just find the profession to be unsustainable. They’re leaving after just a couple of years or they’re just opting out altogether and not going from journalism school necessarily into TV news anymore. So, how are you tackling those problems in your discussions at the project?
Joan Barrett: We do some homework beforehand, and it’s fair to say a fair percentage are burned out themselves coming in, right? And thinking about leaving the business and what we hear from them at the end of it, either they tell us, or they write to us is you reinspired me, reengaged me. I remember why I got into the business to begin with. So, I do think that’s part of it.
And I think what we’re trying to do to stem the burnout or the issues in the newsroom is to give the managers tools to be better leaders and managers, you know, to manage with respect, to give feedback. Because what we hear from our people is they want feedback. That’s one of the things they want the most. So, we’ve got to talk to them about their work with specific feedback, not just, Hey, great story, but why did you like the story and what went well? Let’s see more of that, right?
Those are the tools I think that in some way when you run a better newsroom and the managers are, you know, kind and respectful and professional and treat people in this way that we try to talk about at Kneeland, the morale of the newsroom goes up. The retention goes up. People like working in that environment better.
There are mental health issues today. We in fact did a breakout group both last sessions on what are we doing to help with mental health, your own personal mental health and your employees? What are some things that we’re all doing that we can take from each other?
Anzio Williams: Joan, you know, my favorite session to sit in with yours is it’s OK not to be Superman. It’s OK not to be Superwoman. It’s OK not to have your phone on 24 hours a day. It’s OK to be vulnerable with your staff and let them know why you’re going to be gone for a little while.
And I love seeing everybody’s eyes because that certainly was not something that I practiced, an idea that I used running the newsroom. But this is also part of the problem there. So, to see and hear Joan do that from a position of a general manager and, you know, running stations and she tells them that it’s OK, you can see it. You can see them start thinking alright, somebody’s saying this. And I admit I, I did not do a good job of the work/life balance. And so, when people always ask me, I could speak from the I didn’t get it right, don’t be like me perspective.
Well, it’s good to know that you’re addressing this among the station leadership, because the subject of the previous episode of this podcast was about mental health and how organizations are trying to start to get a handle on it. First, an acknowledgment of the extent to which this job has become unduly stressful and has many people operating daily with PTSD and the ways in which organizations might start to respond to that proactively.
You know, speaking of that, we’re coming to an extremely volatile election year with threats to journalism likely to be common again and stress fissures in newsrooms are likely to widen. How are you talking with your fellows about managing through those conditions in their newsrooms?
Joan Barrett: It’s really the same principles apply, Michael. Right? It’s creating mechanisms to create relationships and feedback and loops with your team. You know, I tell the story how when I got to one job, nobody felt comfortable coming into the news director’s office. They would kind of walk up, lean in like the carpet was hot lava because they didn’t want to step in, you know. And so, I think all the things we teach go toward that idea of when stress comes up that they know they can pick up the phone and say, I don’t feel safe. And we say, that’s OK, get out. Right? Or that they know those things are OK. And if we create that respect and those relationships and those loops of communication as a general practice, when I think temperatures escalate, our staff is better equipped to raise a hand and say, I need help.
What about DEI in the discussion here, too? Is that woven in more so now than it used to be in these discussions in terms of diversifying your personnel, diversifying the subjects that are being covered, being more inclusive of the entire community that a news organization finds itself in?
Anzio Williams: You know, I like to say that Carole was using the principles of diversity, equity, inclusion before anybody called it DEI. You know, when I go back and look at the things that you and I talk about, Michael, where we are able to measure, you know, our crime content, we’re able to measure at our television stations how we show people of color.
You know, in our news broadcast, you know, Carole was talking about that years, years, years ago. So, yes, we do include it. It Is a thing now. It is important, and that’s part of ethics, too. That’s part of the responsibility of being a news leader, is to take a look and see are we being fair by the communities that we serve in. If they can take an assessment of their own newscast and say, whoa, you know, this looks out of whack, well, then we also give them some principles. What steps can you take to make that better?
Well, all of this sounds very promising. Carole Kneeland certainly sounds like a person to have known. How does one apply to be a fellow? Do you have to hold a certain newsroom position to be eligible? Do you need to be a news director?
Joan Barrett: At this point, we’re really looking for content leaders. So, digital content leaders, news directors. We will also consider maybe an assistant news director at a larger market whose news director has been. You know, because we found that if everyone’s heard it, you know, that helps. And it’s a good investment of our funds, so to speak. Use of our dollars, our fundraising dollars. So, you just apply.
We have one in the fall, typically in September, one in March. The window opens a few months out. I think we asked for a letter of recommendation from either your GM or your corporate VP of news. And you know, we try to diversify it by market size, by geography. I think this time we had New York and we had Lincoln, Neb., which is like market 208, maybe. And I think the beauty of this is those people will learn from each other all through it. Right? It doesn’t matter what market size you are. Everyone’s learning from each other and from the trainers, and it’s very collaborative. So, you put your submission and KneelandProject.org. Just apply.
You know, we also talk to the groups, particularly those that help fund us and most of the major groups fund us, still working to get a few more in the door. We typically don’t have more than two from a group, sometimes one, just so that it’s not a Tegna meeting or a Hearst meeting.
First thing we tell them is you’re going to sit by someone you don’t know every time you come to a room or a table. And your goal is to have a significant conversation with everyone in this room by the end of the session. And I will tell you, we always give them time at the end of the session to speak whatever they want to say.
And what we hear, Michael, are things like this was life changing. I was thinking about leaving the business, but I am not. I am so inspired. You know, usually someone cries, you know, because it’s so moving and powerful and some of it is about this work/life management. I don’t call it balance because it’s not a balance. Right. But this work life that we talk about how to handle that and what are some ideas. Some of it’s just about them and how they can do these really important jobs.
You know, one of the things I say to them at the end is, you know, what you do is one of the most important jobs because, you know, local news is part of a thriving democracy. Without a free and vibrant press, we do not have a democracy. And so, what we do is a democratic job. It’s really you know, it helps support our democracy. It’s so critical. It’s protected by the U.S. Constitution. We’re the only profession actually protected by the Constitution. You know, so it’s really important. Remember that, and here are some tools to help you do it better for yourself and also for the people that work with you and for you.
Well, if that’s not enticing to apply, I don’t know what would be. Thank you very much, Joan Barrett and Anzio Williams for talking with me today about the Carole Kneeland Project for Responsible Journalism. I appreciate it.
Joan Barrett: Thank you, Michael.
Thanks to all of you for watching and listening. You can find past episodes of this video podcast at TVNewsCheck.com and on our YouTube channel where I encourage you to like and subscribe. You can also find an audio version most places that you find podcasts. We are back most Fridays with a new episode. Thanks for watching this one again. See you next time.