New Overtime Rules Inspire Necessary Newsroom Soul-Searching

New overtime rules that go into effect next month are forcing newsrooms to do some much-needed soul-searching.

(I can speak with authority only about my own field, but I know these conversations are going on in many organizations, particularly nonprofits, which also pay relatively low salaries to passionate people who usually aren’t in it for the money.)

There’s been a lot of consternation about this change, from news managers and employees alike. There’s no doubt implementation will be painful at first, but if the next administration doesn’t reverse the new rules, I think they could begin to correct our society’s longstanding and extremely detrimental work-life IMbalance.

Continue reading “New Overtime Rules Inspire Necessary Newsroom Soul-Searching”

New Overtime Rules Inspire Necessary Newsroom Soul-Searching

How long does it take to edit a story? I can tell you. And I have proof.

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.

Continue reading “How long does it take to edit a story? I can tell you. And I have proof.”

How long does it take to edit a story? I can tell you. And I have proof.

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

Whither the News? How podcasts and storytelling are blurring the lines between news and entertainment … and why it matters

Judith’s Website

“Infotainment.”

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.

Continue reading “Whither the News? How podcasts and storytelling are blurring the lines between news and entertainment … and why it matters”

Whither the News? How podcasts and storytelling are blurring the lines between news and entertainment … and why it matters

5 Tips to Tame the Daily Beast: Relief for the Depth vs Daily News Dilemma

My daily beast
My daily beast

Judith’s website

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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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 …

  3. Be picky.

    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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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!

5 Tips to Tame the Daily Beast: Relief for the Depth vs Daily News Dilemma

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

The Mysterious Off-Air Lives of Hosts (Or, The Host/Reporter Dilemma Revisited)

judithsmelser.com

Every now and then, I take a look at my Scribbles and Scruples stats page. As expected, the most popular posts are the most recent, but I’ve noticed this post from almost two and a half years ago getting a lot of attention of late: Host/Reporters: How to Make the Most of Your Reporting Time.

The headline touches on a common dilemma: how can a full-time staff member who spends half to three quarters of her day in a studio use the the rest of her time productively?

A lot of people are interested enough in the issue to dig that old post out of the archives on a fairly regular basis, so I thought I’d do a little update and reopen the discussion.  Here’s a brief sampling of the varied and mysterious off-air lives of hosts. You might find a surprise or two!

The Traditional: Host as Spot Reporter

Many hosts – especially morning hosts – are primarily spot reporters, since it’s difficult to do feature reporting in a timely or consistent way with only a few hours a day to spend. Spots are definitely useful to the newsroom, but spot reporting is hardly fulfilling for many of the hosts I’ve known. Also, it doesn’t do much to serve the public media mission to create content that’s rich with context and depth.

The Challenging: Host as News Director

Several talented journalists, whom I’m fortunate to call friends, are in this position. They get up before the crack of dawn to host Morning Edition and then run a newsroom in the afternoon. I tip my hat – and my coffee cup – to these incredibly hardworking folks … but I don’t recommend this structure as a newsroom design principle. I have played this role on a fill-in basis, and at least in my experience, it’s extraordinarily difficult to be an effective editor and manager while hosting several hours a day – especially when those hours are in the morning. I’m not saying it’s impossible – I’m just saying it’s not the ideal way to go.

The Useful: Host as Interviewer

My suggestion in the original 2012 post was for hosts to do two-ways (aka, short to mid-length interviews). I still believe that’s a very good use of time. When done well, two-ways provide depth, context, and color that go far beyond a spot; logistically, they’re more feasible than features, given the disjointed nature of hosts’ reporting time; and I like the fact that they give hosts more of a presence in their programs, allowing them to be true hosts, in addition to newscasters and continuity announcers.

The Innovative: Host as Digital Producer

At last year’s PRNDI conference, my colleague Mike Marcotte made another interesting suggestion: hosts can be great contributors to their stations’ digital news efforts. Daily news blogs and online news roundups mesh well with the host-as-newscaster role. They also work well with hosts’ disjointed schedules, as many digital posts can be created relatively quickly without too much reliance on source callbacks. Social media can fit that same description.

The Experimental: Host as Programming Aide

Radio program directors are increasingly morphing into content directors.  Their responsibilities now encompass digital and, in some cases, television content, as well as partnerships with content producers outside their own stations.  Some also have duties involving on-air fundraising, community outreach, and the like.  Naturally, it’s hard for them to spend as much time and attention on some of the traditional radio program director tasks as they used to.  In at least one pubmedia organization, the Morning Edition host is starting to fill that gap.  Houston Public Media’s David Pitman tells me he recently took on several new responsibilities, including programming a weekly documentary slot, spotting trends in ratings data, and tracking news stories by topic.

I wrote about David in my 2012 post – he was the morning host at WMFE in Orlando during part of my time as news director there, and we worked hard to hone the Host-as-Interviewer model. He has used those two-way skills in Houston, but he and his colleagues have identified the programming duties as a greater need right now. I think it’s an interesting and creative step, and I look forward to updates on how it’s working.

The All-Too-Common: Host as Jack of All Trades

I threw out a question on a Public Media Journalists’ online group, asking how hosts used their off-air time.  Here are some of the responses:

  • Editing, reporting, mixing, troubleshooting
  • Being the program director and general manager (!) *exclamation point added

What Works for You?

I’m sure this list doesn’t cover the waterfront. No doubt there are many other hats hosts wear when they aren’t keeping us company in the shower or on our commute. If you’re a host or a newsroom manager, share what’s worked well and what hasn’t worked so well, so we can all learn from each other.

The Mysterious Off-Air Lives of Hosts (Or, The Host/Reporter Dilemma Revisited)