Expert advice from a visual pioneer rings true as journalism faces a leadership deficit

For the last few years my guilty pleasure has been driving south to a cedar cabin in the spectacularly beautiful Canaan Valley in West Virginia to spend weekends working with Bob Lynn on his book Vision, Courage & Heart.

Book cover

Vision, Courage & Heart was launched at the 2013 Northern Short Course in Photojournalism, where author Bob Lynn has been sharing his management and design expertise for many years.

Even if the book hadn’t worked out, spending time with Bob was like getting a PhD. in visual leadership and management. Not to mention some great insight into how to live a full life.

The VC&H team was actually a lot more than the two of us. Kevin Dilley designed the book. Bill Ostendorf contributed insightful feedback. My wife, Stacie, and Bill’s wife, Fran, did the proof reading. Bob’s daughter-in-law Chana designed the website and his wife Millie proofed text and contributed many great suggestions. In the best sense of the phrase, it was a community effort.

But most of the weekends were just Bob and me. Reading through drafts, organizing chapters, discussing which phrases were exactly right. Bob writing and me editing with sunlight streaming through the windows and a roaring blaze in the cabin’s giant fireplace.

VC&H is one-of-a-kind in many ways. It’s distinctly Bob. If you’ve ever heard him speak, you’ll recognize his voice on every page. It’s also the only book I’ve seen that’s entirely devoted to leading and managing visual journalists — something Bob did with notable success at newspapers in Charleston, W.Va., and Norfolk, Va.

In VC&H Bob does a great job of breaking down the skills that make a great leader — how to recruit good people, empower them to do ground-breaking work, get that work published and create a culture that can sustain this high level of creative output. One of the things that working on this book has helped me to realize is that these skills transcend particular news platforms, and even the news business.

His impact at the Virginian-Pilot, in particular, established a tradition that continues to produce outstanding visual journalists like Ross Taylor, who was named the National Press Photographers Association large market photographer of the year. In an interview with NPPA News Photographer magazine editor Don Winslow, Taylor talked about the Pilot’s newsroom culture. “ ”The Pilot is really good at allowing photographers to create their own path, to have time off to do personal work … and to have time to research and pitch stories.” (Taylor will be spending at least the next year passing that successful visual culture on to students as a Multimedia, Photography and Design Fellow at Syracuse University).

As an industry we’ve never needed a book like VC&H more than we do now. Journalism is suffering from a deficit of leadership.

Advance Publications is in the process of gutting newsrooms and shifting resources from print to online in New Orleans, Alabama, Harrisburg and Syracuse. The same thing appears to be underway in Cleveland and Portland. Unfortunately this initiative — which profoundly affects communities and journalists — is being done without first creating effective website or mobile tools.

The Chicago Sun-Times devalued photojournalism to the point that it was willing to eliminate the position of staff photographer in order to emphasize video content, without first committing the necessary resources to produce compelling video (and apparently ignoring the potential traffic and revenue generated by photo galleries).

Questionable decision-making like this can be found across the country. In an email sent to Bob (and shared with me with permission to publish these excerpts), a photographer at a West Coast paper describes the situation in his newsroom like this:

“I’m a believer in ‘power comes from the top.’ You can do all the education and working with editors and designers — but in the end it comes from the top. We certainly seem to be an example of that now. Decades of improving photo sort of means nothing now — we’re stripped of all the photo leaders. Decisions about photos, about assignments, everything — are made in places other than photo.

We essentially have no photo editors anymore. The former lab manager is the assignment editor and pretty much runs photo. A clerk is the night photo editor (don’t really call him a photo EDITOR [my emphasis]).”

In VC&H Bob addresses the industry’s present state like this:

Whether content is delivered on the printed page or digitally, “there are two things that will not change. First, our core mission to deliver to our readers the most effective and highest quality news content, in pictures and words. Second, the need for your inspirational leadership to motivate your staff to perform at its highest possible level.”

Bob and I sat down to talk about this issue while he was writing the book.

Yes, our business model is evolving, both for publications and for individual journalists. Yes, it’s hard to step back from the day-to-day grind to hone a greater vision. Yes, it’s easy to pine for the good old days when resources were far more abundant.

But the reality is we need to leverage what we’ve got, not what we wish we had.

No journalist wants to do a bad job. If our work doesn’t engage an audience by being relevant and compelling how can we expect them to seek us out?

The need for better leadership — from the executive editor to the assignment desk — has never been greater.

Vision, Courage & Heart provides Bob’s road map for visual leaders to create a culture of success. It’s a lesson everyone in the industry could focus on better.

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