ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

May 1999


Kid's Stuff

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Let's Go To The Oasis
by Peter Block


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Views for a Change

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Kid's Stuff
Managing Change and Defining Markets at Weekly Reader Corporation

NFC: The customers for the Weekly Reader are in one sense the students who are reading the Weekly Reader, but in the other sense, it’s the teachers.
Maccarone: Right, because the teacher is the gatekeeper. It’s a product where you have to reach the kids through the eyes of the teacher, which sometimes makes it hard.

NFC: How do you do that?
Maccarone: Well I think the product has to have both educational value and student interest if the teacher is going to use it during class time. So we have to give the teachers something worthwhile to use, and we also have to give the students something interesting. We have to make it easy enough so the teachers can teach it, and so the kids are interested. It has to be something the kids want to read when they see it.

Remember, the Weekly Reader is an option, not a necessary part of the curriculum. The teachers choose to use it or not to use it.

NFC: How do decisions get made? Do you work as a team?
Maccarone: Everything around here is teamwork. We have managing editors who are in charge of a group. Those managing editors are not only in charge of a staff group, but they’re also in charge of a periodical. Just as we have group art directors that are in charge of a staff group and who also work on periodicals. The managing editors and the editors work together to plan the issues. I can sit in on planning meetings if I want to, or I can just review planning memos.

For example, I got a planning memo this morning that I wasn’t thrilled with, so we had a long discussion about whether the idea was a newsworthy enough story for a fifth or sixth grader to get, what the article’s angle should be and so on.

But the decisions are basically the editors’ and the managing editors’. They know the criteria. They know what they need to do. They know how newsy we expect the products to be. They know their audience. They do a really good job of it.

NFC: Who establishes that criteria?
Maccarone: The criteria are grade specific. We know conceptually what is appropriate for each grade. A lot of my editors have taught at the grade levels at which they’re working and we have teacher advisory board members on whom the staff can call to confirm story ideas. We also have what we call lab schools. These are schools that we give subscriptions to and then our editors can do site visits to test ideas with students and teachers. It’s how we stay in touch with our market.

We also do a lot of questionnaires, asking teachers what they teach and when they teach it. Once we know their curriculum we try to give teachers articles that will upgrade and update their curriculum. We’ll use current science and health articles to upgrade the information in their science and health textbooks. Also we link the content back to history whenever we can.

Finally, we look at the news to see if it is appropriate for that age level and whether or not a kid would be interested in it. We know younger kids are interested in animal stories. We give harder news to older kids.

NFC: What kinds of things have you learned from the teacher advisory boards?
Maccarone: What kids like, what they don’t like, what the competition is doing and how we fare against the competition. Our advisory board teachers receive not only our periodicals but also those of our competitors.

NFC: Do you have a research department that deals with all this or are these everyone’s responsibility?
Maccarone: It’s everyone’s responsibility. Each editor is in charge of coalescing his/her material at the end of the school publishing year. Then we review what their customers have said, what they think they did well, what they think they could have done better and what they plan to do for the following publishing year. They also set goals for themselves for the next publishing year, based on what teachers have told them and how they feel about what they have done.

NFC: Did you cover the Monica Lewinsky story to fifth and sixth graders? How do you make a story like that appropriate for children?
Maccarone: We covered the impeachment trial with fourth, fifth and sixth graders. We did not cover Monica Lewinsky. She was never mentioned. We covered it from a social studies point of view by addressing “What does the constitution say?” and “What could happen to Bill Clinton?”

NFC: Was that tough?
Maccarone: Yes that was very tough—there was a lot of discussion. Not only about when should we do it, but how we should do it. Everybody had read the stories. We were very careful with our approach because at that point I think a lot of teachers were tired with it. We ran our story when Ken Starr delivered his report to the Senate. The article’s theme was, “What was going to happen next?”
We also did follow-up stories in Current Events, which is a sixth to ninth grade periodical. If we were more timely—if we were able to write our stories one week and then be in the schools the next week—we would have done more on the Bill Clinton story.

NFC: So much of what you deal with in current events is going to be value-based. The value base in New York could be very different than the value base in Nebraska. How do you produce a publication that appeals to everyone?
Maccarone: Very carefully.

NFC: Obviously you’ve been very successful at that. You’ve been able to manage a variety of customers’ unstated needs.
Maccarone: We continue to try to do that. I’m very aware of what the states require and what the pressure groups are saying and how far we can go with certain topics. I have to stay very attuned to all of that.
Sure we take chances. We do things that we know people might be upset with. But those who might be upset are usually such a small segment of the population that we feel we’re doing the greater good for the greater number. We can’t always be worried about pressure groups or we’d never publish anything. But at the same time we try to be really careful as to what does go into classrooms. We don’t want to scare kids.

NFC: How do you manage to keep your staff in touch with the market so they can cover these complex issues in an appropriate fashion?
Maccarone: As I said, a lot of our staff has taught. They’re supposed to know what the state guidelines are. They’re supposed to stay in touch by making classroom visits. They need to know what a child of a particular age is conceptually capable of understanding

NFC: If I talked to your staff, what would they say is the most difficult thing about the work you do?
Maccarone: Finding really good stories that they think will really interest kids. Especially on a week that doesn’t have a lot of news.

NFC: How would you describe your work environment? What problems come up?
Maccarone: There’s not much controversy here, and I’m not being Pollyannaish. There’s sometimes a ying and a yang between editorial and design, but that’s to be expected in publishing. And there’s scheduling problems with manufacturing, such as when photos or art don’t arrive on time. But that happens everywhere.

NFC: How do those get resolved?
Maccarone: If we’re late, we’re late. We just make sure everybody involved knows ahead of time when something is going to be late and why and when the material can be expected. Then we can let the printer and everyone else down the line know.

NFC: How did that system come about?
Maccarone: I just sent out a mandate. I think sometimes as a manager, you just have to tell people these are the steps you have to follow. I try to let people resolve differences, but when those differences can’t be resolved, you have to step in and put procedures in place that will help resolve conflicts.

NFC: How do you work with them for that?
Maccarone: Well we work together and sit down and go over it and talk about, “Why do you want to make these changes now? Is this going to make the story better?” If it is, we’ll make the changes and if it’s not, there’s no sense in making the change.

NFC: Do you have any quality goals in terms of error-free, no-typos or timely delivery? Are there any quality programs in your organization?
Maccarone: Sure, each of us has performance objectives that we need to adhere to. They all have to do with quality, deadlines and budgets. Those objectives also address customer satisfaction, renewal rates and new customer acquisition.

We all set our own performance objectives. I have to set my own goals for the year, and at the end of the year I do an examination of conscience and say whether or not I’ve met my goals. If I have, why? And if I didn’t, why not?

NFC: Does everyone do one of these self-evaluations?
Maccarone: The managers do more of them than the rest of the staff.

NFC: Are these evaluations valuable?
Maccarone: Yes, I think you need to be able to quantify performance. I think it is fair, not only to have qualitative information, but to have quantitative information. So my performance objectives are, “I will do what?” ,“by when?” and “measured how?”

NFC: Is it necessary to monitor performance that closely?
Maccarone: Well, I have 45 people that report to me, and I think it’s important for them to know what’s expected of them. I think it’s also important that I’m not setting goals for them; that they’re setting goals for themselves. We work as a team. I don’t set my goals until I’ve looked at the goals of the people under me. We then discuss these goals together so that everything is in concert. I’ll even look at marketing’s goals when I set mine so that I’m not doing something that is contrary to what they want to do.

NFC: That would take a lot of time on your part.
Maccarone: It does, but at least you know where everybody is coming from and what everyone’s goals are. We write a strategic memo for the company every year, so the goals also have to feed into the strategic memo in order to grow our business.

NFC: As you look back, what have been the biggest changes since you’ve been here, or even in the past 10 years?
Maccarone: We’re delivering much more news and harder news and we look more like a slick news magazine than we did before. We changed not only the editorial thrust of the periodicals, but also the design.

I think those were good changes. I think we’ve revitalized the brand name. There are two things about Weekly Reader that I think are great. One is that when you say I work for Weekly Reader, everybody says, “I remember that.” The bad thing is, people add to that, “Is it still around?” I think we used to do a good job of hiding the fact that we’re still around. Now we are much more aggressive about our presence.

NFC: As you’ve made these changes over the last five years, has it been difficult? What’s been the hardest part of the change?
Maccarone: I think getting people to look at editorial and design changes, and making people realize that when you do focus group testing and customers tell you that this is what they want, that you have to implement those changes. The other thing is to try new things. Try a new product. Keep going out with new things and see what the market wants.

NFC: Is that difficult?
Maccarone: It’s fun, but it’s difficult. Everybody’s really busy doing what they do every day. So the development of new product ideas has to be done during the little downtime we have during the publishing year and over the summer.

NFC: Particularly in the publishing business, there’s a particular comfort with the routine. So when you want to break up that routine...
Maccarone: Change is what I say, “Prickly.” People don’t react well to it. When I got here, someone said, “You ask an awful lot of questions for someone who is new. You should learn the Weekly Reader way of doing things.” I looked at them and said, “I was brought in here not to do things the Weekly Reader way. I was brought in to make changes.”

NFC: What was the Weekly Reader way of doing things?
Maccarone: I have no idea...slowly. There have been huge changes. We had management overload here. I had an executive editor. There were managing editors that had no direct product responsibility. They supervised. We had more supervisors than we had editors, and people were tripping over each other rewriting copy. If somebody’s going to rewrite your copy, why write it correctly the first time?

So we’ve changed that. Editors have more say in what they write. They have more responsibility for what they write. They have a much better work ethic, and they feel much better about themselves with less management.

NFC: What was the effect of the changes on your employee retention?
Maccarone: Well people would leave and we would reorganize. In May, 1997 we moved from Middletown to Stanford, Conn. And I had a 75 percent staff turnover. Its been quite an interesting six years for me.
NFC: What was the impact on you having a 75 percent turnover?
Maccarone: I wasn’t panicked. We were closer to New York, so I knew we would be able to staff. I don’t feel that we lost anything in the quality of the product. I think new, fresh blood brings new kinds of insights into what we’re doing. I was asked, how I felt about the move and was I panicked about possible staff attrition? Did I think I could manage it? And the answer was yes. I had an experience prior to this. I moved with Harcourt Brace from New York to Florida and set up a reading/language arts department. I had two editors at the time of the move and was able to staff in Orlando. So I have had experience with restaffing an organization.

NFC: It’s hard when people leave, unless they are people who aren’t adding value.
Maccarone: We are so lean that we feel we have really great performers. We monitor what people are doing and we talk to them. If we have someone who is not working the way he or she should, we try to help that person as much as we can. I also used to say that a good thing about Weekly Reader was that people stayed for 40 years. There was a bad thing about Weekly Reader too. People stayed for 40 years. I think we have lost history and continuity and gained new ideas. The question is, “Is it balanced out?” I think it is.

NFC: Changes can be so massive for the people who are there, since change instills fear. How did you manage that with the people you worked with, or wasn’t it there?
Maccarone: I don’t think people were afraid. I think the only fear was, would we be fully staffed so that we could get the products out. We knew 18 months ahead of time where we were going and as soon as we knew, the staff was informed that we were moving and when and where. All were offered jobs. They had to tell us by a certain date whether they were or weren’t coming. Key employees were offered what we call “stay pay” to help with the transition and to train their replacements. We planned for most contingencies and it paid off.

NFC: Who was a mentor for you? If you look at how you manage, who influenced you?
Maccarone: I’ve had a lot of good managers and some not so good ones. I think sometimes one tries really hard not to be like the not-so-good managers. I’ve had some wonderful role models. There was the Editor in Chief of Harcourt Brace, Ricky Cantor, who was an absolutely wonderful manager and role model.

NFC: Why was she wonderful?
Maccarone: She had a very nice way with people and a very calm way of settling conflict. I think I’ve learned to hold my tongue and not to speak out in temper. However, no one is perfect and there are times when I do, but I try really hard not to.

NFC: And when you do?
Maccarone: I let it rip. Which anybody does. Then I come back and talk to people afterwards.

NFC: And say, “I’m sorry.”
Maccarone: Yes, yes.

NFC: The worst managers that you had, what did you try not to do, that they did?
Maccarone: I think I’ve watched people not mentor people under them. I was a teacher, and I still see my role as teaching, only my students are my staff. I get a big charge out of watching people succeed. I’ll do whatever I have to, to get them to succeed and to be good at what they’re doing. I’m not threatened by that. I’ve had some managers who were threatened by people under them, if they thought they were taking the spotlight away, and it doesn’t bother me at all. I’m thrilled when my staff gets recognition.

NFC: Maybe if we had more teachers in the business world, maybe business would do better.
Maccarone: Could be. You also have to have this bottom line idea and mentality. There are certain things that you have to do. You have to understand the business aspect of it. You also do have to mentor people and understand that they are learning and let them know what is expected from them. As that level is achieved you push more onto them.

NFC: What about your job keeps you up at night?
Maccarone: Not too much. There are some stories that I worry about. Is that the right angle? I also have a 60-mile drive each way, so I have plenty of time to think. That commute is not a bad thing to have, where you just sit and think.

May '99 News for a Change | Email Editor
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