What NOT to do? The hard part of setting newsroom priorities

When Michigan Radio News Director Vince Duffy shared my last post, Journalists aren’t superhero content machines, on Facebook, he highlighted this quote:

News organizations need to realize that reporters are not superheroes. If you want more content, hire more people.

Vince should know. His newsroom has spent the past several months covering the Flint water crisis nonstop, to a great deal of critical acclaim. But Vince says his staff is working at an “unsustainable pace.”

“The audience is appreciative and congratulatory,” he wrote in his post, “but we’ve set a standard we can’t frequently meet.”

That’s despite the fact that his staff has more than doubled over the past five years and the station has significantly expanded news resources, as this post from the Columbia Journalism Review details.

“Good people don’t work for free, nor can they work 60 hour weeks forever,” Vince wrote.

But then he put his finger on the crux of the conundrum. 

“I also don’t want to work in a newsroom where the culture is ‘Meh, let’s not rise to the challenge, we’re understaffed.’ So I don’t really have an answer for this.”

“What are our priorities?”

Vince’s comments suggest that my “more content requires more people” admonition may need a disclaimer:

No matter how many people you hire, there will always be more news than you can cover, more investigations than you can undertake, more compelling personal stories than you can ever possibly tell.

So what’s a newsroom to do?

Michigan Radio’s Assistant News Director Sarah Hulett offered this astute response:

“I think we need to define, for our shop, what ‘rising to the challenge’ means.”

“We’re not just burning out our staff,” she wrote, “we’re harming our ability to do what we all really want to do: dig deeper and break news on a story we have owned.”

“I think a discussion about strategy is in order,” she suggested. “What are our priorities?”

The hard part is deciding what not to do.

Sarah’s question is key, and not just for her shop. The strategy discussion is crucial – newsrooms should have it sooner rather than later.

But here’s a heads up from someone who’s facilitated a number of those discussions:

Deciding what you want to do is pretty easy. The hard part is deciding – and accepting – what not to do.

  • You want to do more in-depth journalism? That means you can’t go after as many daily stories.
  • You want to be the go-to source for daily and breaking news? That means you can’t do as many in-depth features or long-term investigations.
  • You want to do more health coverage? That means you can’t do as many arts stories.
  • You want to do more complex web build-outs of your stories? That means you can’t do as many stories, period. 
  • You want to lose ten pounds? That means you can’t eat a pint of Ben & Jerry’s in one sitting. (It’s kind of the same thing!)

These are tough choices.

It’s hard enough to get people to talk about them in a strategy discussion; it’s even harder for a news leader to make the decision, in the moment, to say “no” to a story.

What does success look like to you?

In a comment on the Superhero postOregon Public Broadcasting’s Chief Content Officer Morgan Holm said his staff worried that a recent reboot of his station’s digital strategy would mean a demand for more content without more people.

“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,” he wrote.

“Simply running up the numbers of spots and quick turnaround features you produce should not be the measure of a successful newsroom.”

The point is not whether you agree with his station’s decision. The point is that his station made a decision.

In a world of limited resources, you have to figure out what’s important to you and your organization. Otherwise, the only way to succeed is to do everything, which is, of course, impossible.

You have to decide what success means to you … or you’ll always feel like you’re living in the land of “Meh.”

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What NOT to do? The hard part of setting newsroom priorities

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