"Carole Kneeland leaves a legacy of courage, compassion, and conscience"
-by Carole Kneeland
The Poynter Report, Winter 1998

I came right out of the field as the senior political reporter at WFAA-TV in Dallas, and that street perspective, more than anything else, shaped my approach to leading the newsroom. I had observed managers who weren't as in touch with people in the field as they could be. I knew I wanted to bring grass-roots, out-in-the-field thinking into the newsroom.

I attacked two different things when I first arrived at KVUE as news director: logistics and the bigger picture, the newsroom culture.

Tackling Traditions

I had noticed that at most stations, KVUE included, all the green reporters worked the 10 p.m. newscast even though, in the central time zone, it's the most important newscast of the day. So one of the first things I did was rotate photographers and reporters to make sure the most senior people worked on the 10 p.m. program. But I didn't do it arbitrarily. I connected it with another change I thought was important.

I strengthened the beat system already in place at KVUE. I made reporters responsible for certain subjects. This was part of my larger goal as well, to make sure reporters and photographers understand the context and know the perspective of the news. So then, whatever night their particular governmental body met, that was the night they were on the late shift.

I started scheduling holidays and vacations way ahead of time, so that people would know a year ahead when they would be off. It was part of my effort to make the system more fair. The seniority system penalizes new and up-and-coming people. Some senior employees, for example, would get off on both Thanksgiving and Christmas. Now, the more senior people still get the first choice of days off, but they may wind up working on Christmas, if they had Thanksgiving off.

I analyzed who works with whom and got seating arranged that way. I got anchors seated next to producers out in the newsroom-the people with whom they work most closely. At KVUE anchors didn't have offices, but they do in many stations. Even when we gutted and redesigned the newsroom, we didn't build offices for anchors. That's also part of my sense of treating people fairly: everyone sits near the people they work with most often.

That push for fairness made me want to establish a culture in which information and ideas come from the ground up and then get acted on. I wanted our newsroom to be a democracy.

So we require that all newsroom employees who are physically present in the newsroom for the morning and afternoon editorial meetings attend them. No excuses. If you're not on deadline or out of the office, you're at that meeting. That's because these meetings are not a top-down recitation of ideas from an assignment editor's list. Everyone is expected to contribute. Still, I have always been in the editorial meetings. I use them as a coaching opportunity to reinforce the culture, to stimulate enterprise thinking, to show my priorities in terms of coverage, and to encourage ethical decision-making.

Commitment to Teamwork

The democratic approach led me to establish a team system for much of the major work of the newsroom. We have had teams for hiring each new person, teams for designing and building the new newsroom, teams for critiquing our own work, for building the news set, creating our new radar system, even for setting the budget. I meet with each task force weekly. It takes longer to do this work with teams than it does with the conventional boss-down method, but you get good buy-in from people you wouldn't otherwise, you cover more bases, and there are fewer surprises.

Thanks to this system, the police radios at the assignment desk are placed where they're least disruptive and the maps are hung where they're readily available but not in the way. The photographers' office now has a desk and a workbench. And the news set has computers the anchors can use between stories.

When the people in your newsroom are involved to that degree, they're more enthusiastic and you make fewer mistakes. When the main anchor helps hire her co-anchor, she's a lot more likely to help make the partnership work. Managers are involved in the decision-making, of course. But in some newsrooms this system never would be allowed, because the managers don't want to give up control.

The teamwork approach led to another useful idea: the "buddy" system. There's so much orientation a person needs right off the bat, so we assign a buddy, who was not a part of the hiring team for that person, to take them around and introduce them and show them the ropes. That takes that responsibility off the back of the news director and top managers. We have a check list of what buddies do. So instead of just the news director being invested in the new hire's success, as is the case in most newsrooms, at KVUE you end up with a buddy and a hiring team on your side, making sure you succeed.

In keeping with this goal of sharing responsibility and increasing employees' investment in our product, I wanted a station in which the maximum amount of information is shared. So I convinced the general manager to share audience research projects with the entire station: sales, engineering, news, everyone. We share everything with everybody except the specific research on our anchors, but we share that with the anchors themselves. That way everyone in the station knows what we've found and how to brainstorm around what we've learned.

Investing in Individuals

There was some nervousness about doing this sharing at first. Managers were afraid someone would tell the competition what our research showed. But the competition finds out what we do eventually anyway, and they're not huge secrets. If only top managers know, you'll take your whole year trying to force down changes instead of bringing in people at the front end and having them participate in responding to what the research shows.

We increase the quality of that participation by working to increase everyone's skills. Training is constant and everyone gets it. Our goal is to have at least one training opportunity for everyone each quarter and for each person to have individual training, away from the station, once each year: Poynter, National Press Photographers Association, Investigative Reporters & Editors. That includes sending the newsroom secretary to a skills seminar at least once a year.

One of our quarterly training sessions is with our station attorney on legal matters. One is on the audience research. One is craft oriented: writing, shooting, leadership. We have budgeted as much as $250 per person annually for training, and we use that money well. Whenever someone returns from an individual training experience, they do a workshop for people in their job category. KVUE's owner, Gannett Broadcasting, offers lots of training with the "Winning in News" series, which brings together people with similar jobs from across the country. We snag network correspondents and photographers coming through town to give us workshops.

It's part of everyone's job description to attend these training sessions. But we do try to make it an enjoyable requirement. Food is the key in getting people to come. Our unofficial slogan is, "KVUE: Where the news comes first and the food's not far behind!"

Certain realities of being a smaller market moved us to make it a top priority to nurture and develop our staff. People move through here on their way to bigger cities, so we have to have ways to get people up to speed and doing their best work quickly. Knowing that this is a place for taking risks, knowing we're all in this together, that we keep no secrets-this has helped us attract some of the best and brightest young people to our station. That, and the knowledge that a lot of our employees go on to work at really big stations when they leave here. That is a magnet.

And we're realistic. Reporters and producers sign two-year contracts. Anchors sign for three to five years. It's another way we try to keep churn to a minimum.

Taking Chances

But the training doesn't amount to much if you don't give people the chance to try what they've learned. So we've created a culture in which taking risks is the norm. We celebrate both success and failure so people feel like trying things. We have many examples where people take risks in individual daily stories or series, but two got national attention: our "Truth Test" political commercials and our criteria for crime coverage. KVUE put campaign commercials to the "Truth Test" and inspired similar efforts in dozens of other TV newsrooms

Most stations ignore politics until election night. They don't cover the races leading up to the election in ways that really help voters. So we decided to test political ads for truthfulness. We didn't ever pretend we were covering the waterfront, but we wanted at least to police our own air. Dozens of TV stations and newspapers followed our lead on this project. We were the first.

Our research told us year after year that people want less crime coverage and they want it to be less sensational when they get it. So we took a big risk and established criteria to apply to every crime before we report it. We're known for that in Austin now and we have the top ratings by far, so this approach can work.

Of all these, I'm most proud of our training and our team approach to hiring and other projects. The whole package is ground-up, not top-down. It gives the news director more time to really pay attention to broadcasts and the people in the newsroom because so much of the busywork is delegated. Someone else is calling references and previewing audition tapes. Someone else is organizing the training workshop. It gives me time to interact with everybody. Spend your time knowing your people well so you know what to delegate to whom.

I don't have to work with unions here, but I have to think if the unions were included in teams like ours they'd be less inclined to make the news director's life miserable, frankly. A lot of what they want is a piece of the action. There are aspects of this approach that unions would appreciate: sharing the research information, for example. All of this gives people in all jobs more power and responsibility and it would seem to me it would appeal to unions.

I want us to look for new risks to take. And as we approach 2000, I want us to continue to carry out these techniques in various ways. Training continues to be extraordinarily important, especially with newscast producers being so hard to find.

And I want our ethical standards to remain high. Gannett corporate policy prohibits employees from accepting freebies or gifts of any kind. We tell our people to make sure they take the high ethical road in other areas as well. So if they're on the street and must make a judgment call about whether to move the camera closer to a grieving family, they know they won't be penalized for exercising restraint.

It wasn't always easy

I won't say my approach was instantly and universally accepted and appreciated when I arrived at KVUE. Especially in the beginning, when the staff had this new-found power, people questioned everything, and that, at times, can get a little tiresome. But I'd rather have them questioning out loud than grumbling under their breath. It was not popular to rotate senior staffers through nights and weekends, and tell them they could no longer have both Thanksgiving and Christmas off. At some points you just say that's one area we're not going to discuss further. I told them if you don't want to accept this new system you can work somewhere else. I just believe in fairness, so get over it!

We were number two on some newscasts and on a downward slide when we started doing all these things in 1989. Things slowly started to turn around, until we became a solid number one in 1995, after the network switches. But ratings were not my motivation. It's really a matter of doing the right thing, treating people well. You expect the best and you get the best. We dole out a lot of responsibility and we get a lot of good work in return.

Kneeland believed having a life outside the newsroom makes journalists do better work. She and her husband, Dave McNeely, enjoyed hikes in the hill country near their Austin home.