Why All This Team Play Talk from Poynter Seems Wrong

By Jack Limpert

A report from the Poynter Institute for Media Studies has concluded that being a good team player is very important to the future of journalism. Poynter advised journalism schools to emphasize being a good team player, adding: “Educators might want to think about how they can help students understand that journalism is not a ‘lone wolf’ profession.”

That seems to be saying that the main goal of young journalists should be working well with colleagues. That’s pretty much the opposite of what I learned in 50 years of editing.

Almost all the good writers I worked with, the ones who did great journalism, weren’t team players. Most had plenty of lone wolf in them. I said earlier that writers who did great stories wanted to be able to ask for help when needed but mostly wanted to be left alone.

What Poynter should advise journalism schools to teach:

Journalism is not the right profession if you like to be nice to people.

Most of your relationships with fellow journalists will be at best irrelevant and at worst get in the way. Writing to win applause from other journalists, rather than from readers, is a fool’s errand.

As an editor, my relationships with writers had nothing to do with likability or friendship or team play. It’s the story, not the relationship.

The reader doesn’t care if everyone in your newsroom gets along. The reader only cares about the final product.

What I tell young editors: Judge a piece of writing by how good it is and not by your feelings about the writer. In my early days at the Washingtonian, I had a beginning editor who made it clear that she liked some writers and didn’t want to commission stories from writers she didn’t like. She didn’t last long—making friends is not part of the job.

I recently asked another journalist for his assessment of another editor and he said, “Everyone likes her.” Am I misanthropic to think that’s a warning sign? Journalism has nothing to do with being liked.

I sent a draft of this post to another longtime editor and asked if she saw journalism the same way. “Yes,” she said, “journalists are a terrific group with which to spend your professional life. They’re verbal, skeptical, curious, witty, cynical.”

No mention of being good team players.


  1. Meryle Secrest says

    It depends what is meant by “team player.” If it means going along to get along, that is one thing, and I agree with you. But if it means camaraderie, then I do not agree. I worked on several small papers early in my career (wrote about it in “Shoot the Widow.”) It was a great experience.We stuck together & offered missing pieces on stories in the hopeless cause of beating the opposition.

    When I joined the Washington Post, I was repelled by an atmosphere of hostility and brutal competitiveness. Nobody helped anybody, Far too much blood on the floor.

  2. Donald Smith says

    I’m with you, Jack, and very much doubt Nelson Poynter would have approved of this pronouncement from the Institute. I’m sure Ben Bradlee would not have.

    When I was managing editor of the Post magazine Bradlee once told me that being an editor on any of the Post news desks was like being a lion-tamer. The good reporters (and those are the only ones he had) didn’t worry about competing with reporters from competing papers, including the Star and the NYT. They competed with each other. Luckily the blood on the floor was only metaphorical.

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