You’ve made it through one of the most grueling election cycles in recent history! What are you gonna do now?!
You’re relieved it’s over – we all are – but you may feel a bit disoriented too.
After all, you’ve just finished a huge project that’s occupied a great deal of your time, energy, and focus over the past year. No doubt there’s plenty of follow-up coverage to do, but the big push is over. You’re tired, a little burned out, and not quite sure what to do next, right?
If so, here are some tips for fighting those post-election doldrums:
Amid the post-election media hand wringing this week, a post from PRX’s John Barth stood out. He urged journalists to tackle their blind spots when it comes to Middle America – “fly-over country,” as it’s been known; the place that swung the election, as it’s now known. John, who lives in St. Louis, urged journalists to spend more time in the small towns of the Midwest … with this caveat:
Don’t go there to do STORIES. Go there first to listen. Listen for the big stuff and small stuff. Then you’ll see how rural America has been gutted spiritually as have major urban areas. You need to earn their trust back to hear what might, might become stories. Listen.
John put his finger on a potentially existential problem for journalism:
Most journalists don’t have TIME to simply listen.
Despite the swirling criticisms of “the media” these days, there have been several recent examples of high-quality public service journalistic efforts. They provide good opportunities for a closer look at how this important work gets done.
News flash: It’s not cheap. It involves big investments of people, money, and time.
I’ve written plenty about the importance and craft of editing – about how it’s a collaborative process that starts with helping the reporter shape the pitch and plan the story, continues through the reporting process, and doesn’t end until the facts and audio have been checked and the text and photos in the digital piece are in place.
I’ve also written about how editing tends to be undervalued. After all, it happens behind the scenes, and managers rarely understand how time-consuming and labor intensive it can be.
I now have data that sheds light on the time question.
Today was the first time in my adult life that there’s been a huge breaking news event in my backyard (the shooting was less than two miles from my house) and I haven’t had to cover it.
The only thing I’ve ever done in response to tragedy was work – from 9/11 when I was in DC, to the 2004 hurricanes when I was in Florida, to the Aurora theater shooting and deadly fires and floods when I was in Colorado.
Today, I found out what everybody else does in response to tragedy. They sit. They watch. They feel helpless. They watch some more. And then, they come together.
I sat in my house for ten hours today watching and listening to wall-to-wall coverage, taking notes on press briefings and live Tweeting updates. Because even though I don’t work for a news outlet anymore, that’s all I knew to do.
This evening, I had to decide whether to go to a “Swanky Sixties Cocktail Party” that a group of my good friends had been planning for weeks. The hosts asked the group on Facebook whether people thought it was appropriate to go forward with the event. The group collectively decided that, today more than ever, it was important to celebrate life and love and friendship.
I agreed with them.
I realized I wasn’t doing anybody any good watching rolling coverage in my living room, so, while I felt a little weird about it, I donned a cocktail dress and pearls and headed out. But I still wouldn’t agree to be in this great Facebook photo of everyone in their Swanky Sixties attire.
Public media has become obsessed with podcasts in recent months. Many think they may be the silver bullet that will finally bring coveted millenials into the public media fold. Many more feel threatened by the success of podcasts in the commercialworld and fear public media is missing the boat.
I’ll be honest. This conversation is making me nervous. Not because podcasts are bad or because I’m scared of new things, but because the debate and many of the resulting actions seem to be minimizing three core public media values:
Unbiased news, localism, and public service over profit.
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.”Continue reading “What NOT to do? The hard part of setting newsroom priorities”→
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.”
I heard a public radio station’s podcast describe itself that way the other day, and it made me cringe.
That word tapped into something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately – whether the popularity of the podcast style of audio storytelling is blurring the lines between news and entertainment … and whether public radio’s panicked rush towards podcasting will prompt stations to put their scarce resources into entertainment (perhaps dressed up as “infotainment”) rather than news.
Want to know the number one question my clients ask me?
Even in this age of viral podcasts, multi-media series, social media engagement, and impact journalism, the universal newsroom dilemma is the same one that’s been bedeviling news leaders for decades:
What’s the proper balance between depth and daily news, and how do I achieve it?
Just yesterday, I had a conversation with a public radio news director who lamented, “I know everybody wants to spend all their time on beautiful, in-depth features, but we still have a responsibility to provide robust daily news too. We can’t ignore that.”
Panic! Daily News!
In my experience, there’s a lot of unnecessary panic that goes along with daily news, especially in public media. I always get this mental picture of journalists running around screaming, with their eyes shut, throwing newscast spots into a huge chasm.
I think this panic often stems from a lack of planning and intentionality. Daily news is the thing we all feel obligated to do, but we don’t feel like it’s part of our higher public media calling. So we do it, but we don’t put any planning or resources into it. Not surprisingly, that doesn’t end well.
Daily is part of the mission
Don’t get me wrong – I’m a big advocate for quality and depth over quantity and frequency, and I agree that in-depth features, impactful investigations, and beautifully produced stories are at the core of public media’s mission. But I also agree with that news director I quoted above.
There are a couple of reasons news organizations, public or otherwise, can’t ignore daily news:
It’s part of your service to the community.
Despite the allure of those bright shiny objects I listed at the beginning of this post, and despite their mythical powers of audience multiplication, if you work for a news organization, your job is still to give people the news.Certainly you can and should find creative, engaging, and even entertaining ways to do that, but sometimes those types of stories take time, and the news, by definition, won’t wait.
You need a consistent presence.
Whether your aim is to produce the next Serial podcast, expose an environmental scandal with a major investigation, or create a beautiful multi-media presentation on a local art exhibit, that project is going to take weeks or months to complete.You can’t stop all production and reporting during that time. You need to maintain a consistent presence so your audience knows you’re still around and that you can be trusted to monitor and report on anything they need to know.
The fact is, most newsrooms acknowledge and even embrace these truths. They want to do depth and daily journalism. But most of them have limited resources and can’t go all-out on all fronts.
The key, as I said before, is to add intentionality and planning into your daily news effort. Believe it or not, by giving daily a little love, you’ll actually give your staff more time for depth projects.
To achieve that intentionality, try these 5 Tips to Tame the Daily Beast:
Do the math.
Radio newscasts are not black holes. They won’t swallow up everything you throw into them. Sometimes they even throw some things back because they just don’t have enough room.I can’t tell you the number of newsrooms I’ve worked with that over-produce for their radio newscasts because they’ve never sat down and figured out how much sound they actually need to make their newscasts engaging and not overly repetitive.My general rule is two pieces of sound per cast, with each piece of sound on a 90-minute rotation. When stations do the math, they usually find they need a lot less tape than they thought.
Websites, on the other hand, can be black holes — but they don’t have to be. Most of my clients don’t aim to have comprehensive breaking news sites. Of course, they do want their sites to be relevant, so they need to have several posts per day.
The exact numbers will be different for each newsroom, but the key is to set those numbers and stick to them. Unless there’s a big breaking story, don’t keep throwing stuff into the daily hole after you’ve met the need.
Get more out of each daily story.
I advise my clients to produce two audio versions of every daily story they cover – usually that’s a wrap and a cut with copy. Most daily stories can also lend themselves to a web post too.I find the magic number for most newsrooms is 3-4 daily stories per day. That doesn’t sound like a lot, does it? The great thing is, that allows you to …
Now that you’re clear on how many daily stories you need – probably less than you thought – you can be more selective and intentional about the stories you choose. Don’t cover a story just because you got a press release about it and it’s easy. Decide on the most important stories of the day, and cover those.
Track your dailies.
Once you’ve decided how many daily stories you need, and you’ve committed to being selective about them, you can be more intentional about assigning, scheduling, and tracking them too.I give my clients and trainees a tracker tool for daily stories. You can make your own. The key is for it to be in a place where everyone in the newsroom can see it, whether physically or online. This will help alleviate the fear that there won’t be enough material, and it will help reduce the urge to overproduce.
Consider a rotating “Reporter of the Day.”
The RoD, as we called it in one of my old newsrooms, can be assigned to any story that needs to be covered and isn’t already assigned. S/he can also fill in any holes that might exist on the spot tracker.Here’s the key – while this system does chain one reporter to daily duty for a day (or a week, if you prefer a longer rotation), it frees everyone else to work on in-depth stories during that period of time.
Most newsrooms that employ these strategies report a lot less panic about daily news and a lot more time available for depth reporting.
Give them a try, and let me know how they work for you!