Journalists aren’t superhero content machines

A little over a year ago, I voiced serious concerns about the ever-increasing demands on journalists to be multi-platform – to create more content for more types of media and to promote that content on all types of social platforms.

I argued that this push for content volume, driven by a panicked rush by news organizations to grasp at every bright shiny digital object, had caused a collective loss of focus on basic reporting and real journalism.

Somewhere along the way, we got so worried about the “content” a reporter can “create” that we forgot about the need to tell meaningful stories.  We got so excited about re-Tweets and Facebook likes and web hits that we lost focus on our mission to inform and enlighten.

I also argued that news organizations were demanding too much of their journalists, to the detriment of the content itself.

When you have to file for three major platforms and “engage” on whatever social media are en vogue at the moment, it’s easy to forget about finding the crux of the story.

Last week, my concerns were echoed in an excellent post by Erica Berger, formerly of the Economist and Storyful.

“Many newsroom writers and editors feel that they are bumping up against their maximum output,” she writes in the online news site Quartz, “even as their bosses demand ever-more productivity.”

She goes on to point to some of the ill effects of this phenomenon that she’s observed:

The need to churn out constant content means that editors often lack the time to do more than proofread. Then there are the intangible things we’re losing: the art and joy of writing; the ability to leave the office in search of interesting people and stories begging to be told. Most worrisome of all, we could lose journalists’ ability to act as watch dogs on behalf of the public.

I couldn’t have said it better.

I encounter this all the time in my work as a newsroom consultant and trainer. I see journalists pushed to the point of burnout, who’ve lost all motivation and sense of joy, as the pressure continues for more content on more platforms – more, more, more.

Time for action, not hand-wringing

I’m glad to see more observers commenting on this and more people having the courage to say the obvious – that there is a breaking point, and that we may well have surpassed it.

But the time for hand-wringing is over.

What are we going to do about this, fellow journalists, news leaders, content directors, publishers, station managers?

Some have argued that podcasts will become the place for real, meaningful journalism going forward. I’m skeptical. As I argued recently, podcasts and “storytelling” formats are compelling, but too often they blur the lines between journalism and entertainment.

News organizations should re-embrace, not abdicate, their responsibility to provide real journalism based on original reporting, creative writing and presentation, and solid ethical principles.

Less is more …

For that to be possible, news organizations must have the courage to reject the more-is-better mindset.

Almost every time I consult with a newsroom, I recommend a reduction in content.

I recommend cutting down on the day-to-day grind stories to give reporters more time to work on longer, more meaningful ones.

… but if you want more, hire more

News organizations also need to realize that reporters are not superheroes. If you want more content, hire more people. If you can’t hire more people, hire good people, and let them focus on quality, not quantity.

In my post last year, I also argued for a return to a degree of platform specialization. If you want great digital content, hire digital specialists; if you want great audio content, hire audio specialists, etc.

Perhaps we can try to create a framework in which people and news outlets can survive and thrive by concentrating on their strengths instead of diluting that strength by trying to do it all.

I’m continually shocked by the amount of content many of my client stations try to produce given their staff sizes – that holds true for large and small stations alike. I almost always find myself me recommending new hires – usually at least one platform-specific hire.

Working journalists must lead the change

I will continue to make these recommendations, even though it means going against current trends. But I can only do so much. It’s up to journalists working in news organizations to push this mindset shift.

I’m not saying that will be easy.

Journalists have been conditioned to think they can’t get a job without saying they’re willing and able do it all – high volume content on all platforms at all hours of the day or night.

But it’s time to start injecting some realism into the conversation. It’s time to admit to your bosses that you’re not, in fact, a superhero.

I hope for a time when it’s ok to say in a job interview, “I’m really great at audio journalism (or photojournalism or data reporting or social media engagement), and while I’m willing to step into other platforms from time to time, I really want to focus on doing great work in my specialty area.”

I hope for a time when the art and joy and the watchdog journalism that Erin wrote about are once again the rule in newsrooms rather than the exception.

Judith’s website
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Journalists aren’t superhero content machines

7 thoughts on “Journalists aren’t superhero content machines

  1. Morgan Holm says:

    Judith, you make an important point here that all public media stations should be thinking about strategically. One of the most important ways we should measure what we do is in the reach and impact of our work. OPB’s staff worried about this as we started to reboot our digital strategy, and I quickly realized that what we needed to focus on was not producing more stories, but being more innovative in how we share and engage with the stories we are already doing. That being said, if you decide your station is in the daily news business, you have to do enough daily stories to be a meaningful source for an audience. But simply running up the numbers of spots and quick turnaround features you produce should not be the measure of a successful newsroom. Thanks for advancing the discussion on this topic.

    1. scribblesandscruples says:

      I agree, Morgan. I think news organizations need to start getting specific in how they define success. Someone shared this post on Facebook and mentioned not wanting to have a newsroom culture that doesn’t care about going after stories when they happen. That’s a healthy impulse, but now that public media has embraced daily news in a way it never used to (which I think is a good thing), we have to start defining what makes a story worth going after and what we can forego in the interest of preserving the high-quality, in depth journalism we’re most proud of.

  2. At KPBS, we added staff and reduced the number of stories we expect per staffer (especially dailies). Doing it this way meant we still had enough dailies–since we had more journalists. But I believe wholeheartedly that we should indeed be having one person–the reporter who did all that research and writing–tell the story across platforms, especially since they are signature, in-depth pieces that stand out from the churnalism of our competitors. You need to give the reporter more time to craft the story for each medium, and the editor time to edit the radio, TV and web, but this is still overall more efficient than having a whole parallel team do the same story for a different platform. Being multiplatform takes more time, and is hard because it challenges us to think visually, aurally and to know our AP style online. But it doesn’t mean you have to water down the quality.

    1. scribblesandscruples says:

      Suzanne, you make a great point, and from what I’ve seen, your shop is doing a lot of things right when it comes to multimedia – hiring more people, training them on unfamiliar platforms, and giving them time to produce for multiple platforms. What I reject is using the concept of “multimedia” as an excuse to demand more content from the same number of people in the same amount of time – to expect every reporter to be a one-man-band, singlehandedly and simultaneously serving every platform on the same deadlines that used to apply for just one.

      I absolutely agree with you that it makes sense for there to be one lead reporter on a story – that you shouldn’t have two completely separate teams telling the exact same story on different platforms. But I also think it makes sense to have a team to support that lead reporter, including platform specialists like videographers, photographers, data visualization experts, etc. That’s the piece that’s missing in many shops.

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