Interview: Jill Geisler

Growing up in Milwaukee, Jill Geisler was an inspiration for me because not only was she a talented television reporter, she also became the news director. At the time, I thought this was really amazing. After all, I didn’t see a lot of women in charge back then, and especially not in a newsroom. As it turns out, that feat was even more incredible than I first realized, as you will find out in the following interview.

Jill Geisler worked for over 25 years in news and now creates the popular “What Great Bosses Know” columns and podcasts for the Poynter Institute. Her bio at Poynter says journalists are her favorite people in the world, and that they should “question authority and resist spin.” I agree! She also talks about writing for the web and how her background in broadcast journalism really helped her to write “clearly and concisely” which is a must for the Internet.

There’s much more to follow, so read on. Enjoy this interview!

I grew up in the 70s watching WITI in Milwaukee, and at the time I thought it was “really neat” (my favorite word back then) that you were the news director. Seeing a woman in that position was inspiring for me. It wasn’t until later that I realized you were actually the first female news director of a major market network affiliate in the entire country. What an accomplishment!

What first interested you about the news industry and what drove you to achieve the news director position?

I was a writer from a young age, really enjoying classes and extracurriculars that gave me that opportunity. In high school (Pulaski High), I was editor of the school newspaper. In that capacity, I attended a summer workshop for high school editors at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. We were offered an optional course in broadcast journalism — in which we were handed 16 millimeter silent film cameras and sent out to capture campus stories. I fell in love with the idea of marrying words and pictures. Also fell in love with UW-Madison, where I ultimately received my journalism degree. I began working at a station in Madison while a student, and later, after graduation, was hired as a reporter by WITI in my home town of Milwaukee. I reported, anchored and produced — and loved it. I volunteered for a lot of assignments and I think I was seen as a person who liked to solve problems, not just complain about them.

One day, our News Director, Rick Brown, called me into his office and said he was being hired away by CBS — and station management asked him about internal candidates as his replacement. He said he identified me. Then the legendary Carl Zimmermann took me to lunch and said he, too, had suggested me as news director. It was revolutionary and risky for them — I wasn’t a manager, had no management training — and even the station’s corporate brass responded to it all with the words: Are you crazy? Maybe they were — but I had a wonderful run of several decades leading a terrific team.

You’re author of the book, News Leadership at the Head of the Class. Tell us about the book and why you were inspired to write it.

The book was a special project, commissioned by the Radio-TV News Directors Association. I led a project that taught managers in broadcast journalism how to teach leadership skills to journalists. We gathered a group of top TV and radio managers and trained them to teach at workshops and conferences — everything from how to coach people for better performance, to motivation, to ethical decision-making. I wrote the book as a guide for those in the project, but also for everyone who wants to be a better teacher of leadership. It is available through the association: www.rtdna.org.

After a 26-year career in broadcast news, you joined the Poynter Institute in 1998. Your “What Great Bosses Know” columns and podcasts help leaders in all types of organizations. Can you share some recent advice from your column that might also apply to writers today?

I’ve been amazed at the reaction to our “What Great Bosses Know” columns and podcasts. We have thousands of subscribers to the column on Poynter.org — but the real shock came when we began posting my three-minute companion podcasts on iTunesU. Apple sends us metrics each week — and the podcasts have had over a million downloads since January! I now hear from all sorts of managers and aspiring leaders outside of journalism — from doctors to ministers to IT team leaders — who tell me they appreciate the practical advice. They also appreciate the bite-size lessons. People are busy and don’t often have time for long lessons. But meaningful columns and podcasts they can ingest on-the g- seem to fit the lives of harried leaders who want to learn. Coming from a broadcast background, I found it much easier to write for the web — clearly and concisely — than those who had to adapt from a long form style. My broadcast background REALLY helps the podcasts — which I ad lib from notes. I think the lesson for writers is knowing when to write in-depth and when a subject is best delivered in smaller portions, depending on the subject and the audience.

And all this has led to an exciting development: I’m in the process of writing “What Great Bosses Know” — the book. I’ve been asked so many times by people to recommend just one book for people who want to be better at management, and I can’t identify only one of the hundreds I’ve read — so I’ve decided to write it!

Writers of all types (freelance news, novelists, bloggers, online columnists, etc) read this blog. The writing and news worlds have changed rapidly in the last few years. One trend I’ve noticed is that sometimes rumblings about a story get out on Twitter, for example, before the news world can get the facts for the story. What are some of the positives and negatives involved with this type of instant access to events happening anywhere in the world?

Twitter has become the “police scanner” for the world. In the newsroom, we understood the importance of verifying what we heard on the scanner before broadcasting it. The scanner shares important information as well as false alarms. With Twitter, there is no editor doing a double-check, so information is passed along and sorted out later. This demands a good deal of medial literacy on the part of all of us — to be our own fact-checker and not assume everything is accurate without additional verification.

We love everything about writing and reading here at Working Writers, so my next question brings things to the book world. What’s the most interesting book you’ve ever read?

I fall in love with so many books — it would be like asking me to choose a favorite child!

Favorite authors?

In the area of leadership literature, I enjoy the work of Harvard’s John Kotter on change management, Stanford’s Bob Sutton on leadership and strategy, and Daniel Goleman on emotional intelligence. For fiction, I think Anna Quindlen is a gifted author.

Book you’re currently reading?

I’m reading Switch — a fun, research-based look at change by Dan and Chip Heath. Recently finished “The Edge of Change: Women in the Twenty-First-Century Press — a great collection of essays on women in journalism, written and edited by some terrific women, Deadlines– a journalism murder mystery written by my friend Paul McHugh and Drive – a great book on motivation by Daniel Pink.

Where can we learn more about you?

Check out the Poynter website: www.poynter.org/whatgreatbossesknow for a collection of columns. I’m also on Facebook and Twitter .

Anything else you’d like to add?

Did you know that your question “Anything else you’d like to add?” is priceless? Bob Schieffer of CBS News was with us at Poynter for a talk, and told the group that question has given him an abundance of great information over the years — and he suggests every reporter remember to use it! [Editor’s note: Whew! I’m glad I included it. I agree, this question has always worked to help me get just a little bit more information. Great tip, Ms. Geisler!]

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