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.” Continue reading “What NOT to do? The hard part of setting newsroom priorities”

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

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.”

Continue reading “Journalists aren’t superhero content machines”

Journalists aren’t superhero content machines

Journalists need REAL vacations!

From my unplugged vacation in Maui 2011
From my unplugged vacation in Maui 2013

Judith’s website

You’re at the airport waiting for your flight. Everyone is sitting semi-comfortably in the gate area, munching on fast food and staring at smart phones. The agent announces boarding will begin “soon,” and suddenly everyone gets up and forms a line. Your group probably won’t board for half an hour, but you just can’t bring yourself to stay seated, right?

What on earth does this have to do with vacations? Bear with me.

You’re working away in your newsroom. Your editor is on vacation at the beach with her family; she texts you about something she saw on Twitter that she wants you to follow up on. Your fellow reporter is on vacation visiting his grandparents; he forwards you an email press release with his idea for an angle. Two weeks later, you’re on vacation with your significant other. You promised yourself you’d unplug … but you feel like you really should check your work email and maybe Twitter and maybe just a peak at Reddit. After all, your colleagues did when they were on vacation, and just like at the airport, you fear what might happen if you don’t follow their lead.

Handing back part of your paycheck

As I see it, working on vacation is no less crazy than handing back part of your paycheck each month. You earned that vacation time just like you earned your pay – why on earth would you give any of it back?

Continue reading “Journalists need REAL vacations!”

Journalists need REAL vacations!

In Hiring, Public Radio Still Favors its Tribe

Judith’s website

I didn’t follow the usual path to a career in public media. My degree is in International Studies, not journalism; my college internship was with the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, not NPR; my post-graduation fellowship was with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, not the Kroc program. Whenever I tell fellow public radio professionals about my unusual background, I often get a subtle eyebrow raise … and a slight feeling of shame.

The fact is, our industry, like many, has a tendency to favor its own tribe. This is less true than it once was, especially with the advent of digital platforms, but the bias is still there. So when my friend, mentor, and soon-to-be PRNDI Leo C. Lee award honoree Tanya Ott started a Facebook thread today that kicked off a lively conversation about this, it really struck a chord. Or maybe a nerve.

An Unusual Path

My first journalism internship and my first journalism jobs were at Feature Story News (FSN), a broadcast news agency with clients all over the world – radio and TV, public and commercial – most with much larger audiences than your average local public radio station in the US. When I started applying for jobs at those US public radio stations, however, my first observation (and frustration) was how clubby that world was. One interviewer said he needed to talk to a reference who was his “colleague,” meaning someone in public radio. One person referred to me as “very green,” despite my six years of broadcast journalism experience.

When someone finally took a chance and hired me as a reporter at a local public radio station (I think the job had been open a long time and they were desperate!), my second observation was how valuable my non-traditional background was:

  • My studies and my early work in international relations gave me knowledge of and perspective on the world beyond my field and my broadcast area.
  • My work for different types of broadcasters exposed me to a universe of writing and reporting styles, almost all of which are valid.
  • My experience at FSN taught me to work quickly and to write strong leads and tight copy – skills I’ve been surprised to find lacking in many public radio newsrooms. I was shocked when my first pubradio assignment was a 45-second spot … and that’s all I was expected to do all day!

Bias Hard to Overcome

Years later, however, I became a public radio news director, and suddenly, I was the one doing the hiring. Despite my own non-traditional background, I found myself struggling to fight that same urge that drove me so crazy as a job applicant – the urge to favor people who are already “in the club.”

Right or wrong, here are some assumptions we make on the other side of the hiring desk:

  • People in the club speak our language.
    They know what “The Clock” is. They know a “feature” usually means any long-form story, even if it’s a hard news story (which isn’t the case in much of the journalism world, and it still drives me a little bit bonkers).
  • People in the club understand the public radio sensibility.
    They know our focus is on long-form storytelling, and they know something about how to produce those types of stories. They know we’re probably not going to listen to the police scanner or chase breaking news unless it’s really big … and they’re ok with that.
  • People outside the club will need a lot of training.
    There, perhaps, is the rub. And unlike the previous two assumptions, it’s almost always true. Even the best journalist who comes from outside public media will need to be brought up to speed (the same would be true if I went to work for a newspaper or a commercial radio station!). That’s one thing for large organizations with the staffs and budgets to accommodate those training needs, but the reality of most public media organizations is that all training and mentoring falls to the people in positions like the ones I held (news director, managing editor, etc.). They feel stretched as it is, and often, they simply don’t feel they’d have enough time to properly mentor a new employee from outside public media.

Needed: Recruitment & Training Resources … and an Open Mind

I could make some suggestions here, but for regular readers of this blog, they would sound pretty redundant. They all involve resources (i.e., money and staff) – particularly, more resources for recruitment and hiring (another task that generally falls entirely to the top news person) and for staff training, mentoring, and development.

The bottom line is, you do take a risk when you hire someone from The Outside. Sometimes it pays off in spades (one of the best hosts I’ve ever heard anywhere started his public radio career at my station in Orlando, and he came straight from commercial radio — he wasn’t my hire, but I sure wish I could take credit for him).  On the other hand, sometimes you take that risk, and it bites you right in the butt.

The best advice I can give to pubmedia news managers is to keep an open mind … but always hold out for the right person. Hiring is one of the most important things you will ever do.

In Hiring, Public Radio Still Favors its Tribe

Rethinking Multi-Platform Journalism: Why we don’t all have to be digital experts anymore


It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s … the Multi-Platform Journalist!  She shoots photos and video! She records audio! She Tweets! She Facebooks! She Instagrams! She blogs!

And boy, is she exhausted.

Not to fear – we may be able give Madame Multi-Platform a break. Why? Because digital journalism – at once her ancestor and her offspring – is growing up.

And not a minute too soon, because, as you might’ve noticed, there’s something missing from that frenetic task list up there: Getting the Story.

Bright Shiny Objects … and Panic

In his 2010 book, I’ll Mature When I’m Dead, longtime Miami Herald humor columnist Dave Barry wrote about the newspaper industry’s panic-driven reaction to the rise of digital and social media:

“Newspaper editors are ordering the dwindling number of reporters to spend more and more of their time engaging in non-journalism, non-revenue-producing Internet activities such as Facebooking, making videos, podcasting, blogging, tweeting, fwirping, etc.”

He acknowledges in a footnote that:

“There is actually no such thing as fwirping, but if there were, and if it was something that people were doing on the Internet, editors would order reporters to do it.”

He’s right!  In a panicked rush to remain relevant amid the shifting constellation of digital platforms, news organizations have grasped at every shiny new digital object.  Journalists have been asked to throw stuff against scores of virtual walls to see what sticks.

We don’t all have to be digital experts anymore!

The good news is, some of that stuff was really great.  There are now some shining examples of digital platforms being used to create and present real, meaningful journalism.  Better yet, we’re now to the point where there are experts who know how use digital platforms effectively for journalistic purposes.

Perhaps that means we don’t all have to try to be digital experts anymore! Maybe news organizations will start hiring the real digital experts and take a few of the things off the plate of Madame Multi-Platform.

In fact, I would argue that course of action is imperative and urgent.  Because we need to immediately …

Re-commit to basic reporting

As I see it, the years of panic-driven digital experimentation had another, very disturbing, side effect: a collective loss of focus on basic reporting and real journalism.

By no means did everyone retreat from these core principles, but let’s face it, 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, the context that makes it relevant, the nuances of the arguments surrounding it. It’s hard to find time to dig for facts or track down reluctant sources.

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.

The Pendulum Swings Back?

The new and growing cadre of digital journalism experts gives me hope.

Perhaps – and just hear me out on this – we can start to move beyond the idea that every journalist and every news organization must produce news on every platform.  

I know that’s pretty radical in this age when multi-platform is gospel. Don’t misunderstand me – I’m not advocating a re-silo-ization of the news business. We’re never going back to the days of “I just do radio” (or your medium of choice).

But perhaps we can acknowledge that there are journalists and news outlets that are really good at one platform or another; and perhaps we can try to create a framework in which those people and outlets can survive and thrive by concentrating on their strengths instead of diluting that strength by trying to do it all.

Perhaps at the very least, news organizations will restructure their staffing so the digital experts are digital-ing, and other reporters have enough editorial and resource support to re-commit to their core responsibility: Getting the Story.

Rethinking Multi-Platform Journalism: Why we don’t all have to be digital experts anymore

Why’s a good news director so hard to find?


I’ve been asked that question so many times lately – mainly in conversations with frustrated general managers, program directors, and content chiefs – that I decided it was time to give it some serious thought.

The past few years have seen a proliferation of news director openings in the public media world, partly as a result of job churn as the recession faded and the “shelter in place” mentality began to lift.  But many of these jobs are taking an inordinate amount of time to fill – not months, but years in some cases.

I see several factors conspiring to make this situation so intractable. Many of them will require long term investments to address.

1) Rising standards for news leaders

Gone are the days when public media was content with providing “alternative” news. We now aspire to be the primary news source for our audience, on whatever platform that audience happens to consume media. NPR has led the way in this shift, but an increasing number of local stations are following suit, especially as digital developments intensify the need for station-created content, which usually manifests itself as news content.

This shift calls for more sophisticated news managers. To be a good news director in today’s public media environment, you still have to be a great journalist, but frankly, that’s not enough anymore.

  • You have to be a great editor.
  • You have to have know how to effectively produce and direct news for multiple platforms.
  • You have to be a great organizer, of people and of content – a great planner who can keep lots of balls in the air and stay ahead of the news cycle.
  • You have to be a great manager, who can motivate people, delegate when appropriate, deal gracefully with difficult employees, and give meaningful feedback on a regular basis.
  • You have to have a working knowledge of the law as it applies to journalism, media, and employment.
  • You have to know how to prepare and manage a budget.

Mid-career news directors, raise your hands if you had all those skills when you took your first job in news management. I sure didn’t!

Most of us probably stumbled into leadership positions because the news directors at our stations moved away. Luckily, we were able to learn on the job.

Today’s newsrooms, however, face urgent demands that didn’t exist ten or even five years ago. Today’s hiring managers know they need news directors who already have these skills and can hit the ground running. Problem is, those people are few and far between – at least in public media.  Here’s why:

2) No “farm team” for editors and news leaders

Most public newsrooms are relatively small, with staff rosters that look something like this:

  • news director
  • two hosts
  • one or two reporters
  • digital staffer (if you’re lucky)

Note the absence of positions like this:

  • editor
  • assistant news director

These positions do exist at larger stations, of course, but the vast majority of public media organizations don’t fall into that category.  That means there are relatively few opportunities for journalists to move into junior-level management or editorial positions, where they can be mentored and get on-the-job training and experience without the high stakes that go along with being the top gal or guy in the newsroom.

3) Lack of news management training

Poynter offers some fantastic training in news management, but until recently, at least to my knowledge, there has been little to no training specifically addressing the needs of current and aspiring public media news managers. That’s despite the fact that public media organizations and independents have done an admirable job over the years of building training programs and workshops for programmers, reporters, producers, and hosts.


Investment is the only solution (Yes, I mean money.)

In June, PRNDI offered its first-ever News Manager Training and Certification program. Full disclosure: I co-led that workshop alongside Mike Marcotte – and to say it was a busy two days would be an understatement. We took our capacity group of 20 news directors through all the skills I listed earlier, plus a few more.

That training was a great start, but we can’t stop there. The public media system needs to make a real, long-term commitment to invest in building editorial and managerial capacity.  I see two ways to do this:

1) Be open to hiring mid-level editors and managers 

As newsrooms grow – and thankfully, many of them are growing as the economy rebounds – they tend to add beat reporters, talk show hosts, bloggers, etc. Rarely do stations choose to add an editor or an assistant news director. This preference for content creators over managers is well founded – the last thing a newsroom needs is too many chiefs! But we must remember to add editorial and managerial capacity to keep up with the growth.

Not only will this start to build the editorial/managerial “farm team” I spoke of earlier; it will also keep news directors from becoming overburdened, burning out, and leaving their jobs.

2) Provide more training, coaching, and mentoring opportunities for news managers

I hope the PRNDI News Manager Training is the beginning of a major mindset shift in the public media news world. We need to understand that our news leaders have a heck of a hard job and that they need and deserve ongoing support and training.

This is especially important now, while the pool of fully-trained news managers is extremely small and stations are having to hire people who simply don’t have all the skills they need to “hit the ground running.” My plea to station managers is this:

Please don’t hire these people and then set them up to fail. Give them training and coaching in the skills they’re lacking.

No simple answer, no quick fix

As you can see, I think the answer to the question we started with  is pretty complex. The reasons stations are having such a hard time finding good news directors are structural, historical, and even psychological. It will take time and, yes, money to remedy the situation. But I think the investment is not only worthwhile, but indeed crucial to the ability of local public media newsrooms to survive and to thrive into the future.

Why’s a good news director so hard to find?

“Media Impact” –> Advocacy Journalism?


Lots of people in our business seem to be talking about “impact” these days. That includes people who think about media trends and, increasingly, people who run media organizations. Everyone wants to have it.  Meetings and forums are popping up to talk about it.

So what is “media impact”?  

That’s exactly what those meetings and forums are trying to nail down, but broadly, it can mean anything from “our reporting got a corrupt politician thrown out of office” to “our audience is more informed and engaged because of our content.”

Also, it has to be measurable and prove-able.  That’s partly because measurable “impact” is keenly important to foundations, i.e., funders, which are increasingly viewed as the key to sustainability in our business.

There’s a lot more about this in Current’s article about a recent media impact forum in DC, sponsored by the Center for Investigative Reporting.  CIR’s own writeup of the event is worth a read too.

Journalistic ethics missing from the conversation?

Both pieces include interesting discussions about how media organizations are beginning to set “impact” goals as part of the planning process for projects and series.  They also delve into the importance of forging community partnerships to amplify the “impact” of media content.

They spend little to no time, however, on the potential implications for ethical journalism or the possibility of a slippery slope towards advocacy or, worse yet, “pay for play” content.

Current’s piece dips its toe into these stormy waters, quoting PRI’s VP of Content Strategy and Development Kathy Merritt, speaking at the CIR event:

Merritt also acknowledged the difficulty of getting journalists to buy into conversations about what they want their reporting to accomplish. “We have to find the sweet spot that’s not advocacy — because I don’t think we want to go there — but it’s something that can still be a powerful change,” she said.

Ethical implications not black and white

If that’s all Kathy said on the matter, I don’t blame her.  This is a complicated issue, and as a journalist I find myself wracked with ambivalence about it.

My recent post on grant-funded reporting addresses the closely related issue of how to make sure funders don’t unduly influence your organization’s journalism.  But this idea of “impact” is not so black and white.

Impact is a worthy goal …

On the one hand, of course journalists want their work to have an impact.

  • We hope the corrupt politician is thrown out of office because we uncovered her dirty dealings.
  • We hope a business that’s harming consumers is punished because we uncovered its negligence.
  • We hope more research dollars are spent on an obscure disease because we brought it into the spotlight.

After all, many of us got into this field when we were young and idealistic, thinking it was our vehicle for changing the world.  And many great journalists do change the world.

… but journalism is about facts, not recommendations

Here’s the thing: the ethics of unbiased journalism require that journalists keep their “impact” goals to themselves.

Our job is simply to report the facts, not recommend solutions.  We leave that to commentators, advocates, and lawmakers.  If we cross that line, we become advocates ourselves, and we may become blinded to the other side of the story.  There is always another side, maybe one we hadn’t even imagined until we started reporting, and it’s our responsibility to tell it, even if we personally disagree with it.

If our media organizations set specific “impact” goals for our journalistic endeavors before we even start reporting, aren’t they – and we – prejudging the outcome of that reporting?

Take the disease example.  Surely, increased investment into a previously unknown disease would be an unimpeachable “impact” goal, right?  But what if we discover during the course of our reporting that the severity of the disease has been exaggerated by people with ties to the pharmaceutical company developing a treatment?  What about the simple concern that investing in this disease will shift resources away from some other worthy cause?

Journalists should be at the table

Don’t get me wrong, I definitely think a lot of good could come from this focus on “media impact” … but only if journalists are at the table from the beginning of this discussion across the media landscape.

Let’s not fall into the silo trap, where media CEOs, development chiefs, and think tankers attend meetings and forums and figure out the perfect paradigm, only to be met with resistance and resentment from their news departments because they haven’t considered the journalist’s perspective and concerns.

Again, journalists do want to have an impact.  And we’re creative people.  If we’re at the table, we can all work together to have and measure that impact without prejudging it and without compromising our ethics, integrity, or credibility.

“Media Impact” –> Advocacy Journalism?