Becoming a productive team

If we’re going to engage readers, we first have to engage staffs charged with coming up with engaging coverage. To that end is this week’s brainstorming assignment: to post, in the Teamwork category, some specific ideas for ways in which intra-staff communication, workflow and engagement could be improved. Here’s some background on various models that may spark specific ideas:

Keep your eyes on the prize

All news organizations produce what basically can be divided into two types of content — expected and unexpected. Expected coverage involves events, games and announcements and even includes providing a forum for public opinion. It’s important. Consumers expect what you offer to be complete and comprehensive. If they find they cannot easily find every expected item in your product, they won’t rely on it habitually.

Expected content is, however, commodified. Consumers have multiple ways to glean the same information — by watching or attending an event or game, by dropping in on social media accounts, by reading announcements sent to them or by following various social media influencers, who have the added value — or curse, depending on your point of view — of being filtered by algorithm to include only the viewpoints with which they agree. If one or more alternative channels can deliver similar content with at least the same degree of predictable efficiency (more on that when we get to design), consumers will rely on those channels instead.

Aside from design, what ends up setting your product apart are the unexpected things it offers. These can be anything, We’re not talking about topics that appeal to particular demographics, as if you were marketing body wash. The power of enterprising coverage depends primarily on how tangible and real it seems — the oddities focused on; the emotional responses of real people conveyed; the outcries of interest, sympathy or protest created among readers by exploring virgin topics not yet covered elsewhere and therefore not already spun to death by various influencers.

Deconstruction and contextualization techniques discussed in last week’s assignment post may help lead you to these topics. The question then becomes how to ensure that the staff isn’t so overwhelmed with the expected that it cannot produce the unexpected, which ultimately will determine your product’s overall success or failure in terms of attracting a habitual audience once a base of expected content is ensured.

One technique is to refocus all planning on the end product. From the start, everyone involved should know whether any individual assignment is considered to be part of the routine, expected content; part of the enterprising, unexpected content; or something else. The “something else” content is essentially throwaways. Expected content must be done, but should consume no more time or human resources than minimally needed to get it concluded as quickly and efficiently as possible. Other content is what you pull out all stops to obtain.

Triaging potential content from the beginning is vitally important. So is sharing that initial triage assessment with all people involved, including reporters, photographers, graphic artists, copy editors, and page designers along with assignment and senior editors. The triaging needs to be dynamic. Stories may rise or fall in the triage hierarchy as newsgathering proceeds. But getting and keeping everyone on the same page helps ensure that human resources are expended appropriately.

Always envision the finished product

One prominent news consultant urges newsroom staffers to start with the headline and write it even before reporting begins. That’s a bit too structured and can lead to assignments becoming little more than echo chambers filled with confirmation bias. But the general concept does have merit. Constantly thinking what the headline would be at this point in the newsgathering process helps focus efforts as long as everyone understands that the current mock headline might change on the basis of more extensive reportage.

Photos, graphics and other design entry points, which we will discuss a bit later in the semester, absolutely depend on this type of approach, with everyone involved knowing from the start where each project is headed and working, even before all material is gathered, to ensure that what’s needed to tell the story in all forms is being gathered along with material that will appear only in text.

All of this has led most modern, enterprising newsrooms to adopt some sort of team planning for significant and even somewhat routine enterprise projects. Mario Garcia calls his approach W-E-D — writing, editing and design. Buck Ryan calls his the maestro concept. The Maynard Institute simply calls it team journalism. Each has a minor permutation or two, but all share some common traits.

The first is the absolute destruction of the old, assembly line approach to newsroom management. Expecting each desk or staffer to deal only with challenges brought to them as the next step along the way is an idea that was on its way out as early as the 1970s. The old method had an assignment editor send out a reporter, who then turned in his or her work and at that point sought to enlist a photographer or graphic designer. Whatever that group created, often without any internal consultation, would then be dropped on page designers, copy editors and headline writers without their ever having been involved in early phases of the project. The system was grossly inefficient, left staffers feeling anything but empowered and failed to encourage the bubbling up of ideas that would improve the product.

Our planning assignment from last week ought to have demonstrated the power of getting more people involved earlier. Lots of new and promising angles, which could be told by multiple means in addition to linear narrative text, emerged. In a team approach, it wouldn’t have been a matter of going back to various assignment editors to tell them to get one of their staffers to pursue some of these ideas as an adjunct to someone else’s project. You would have seen staffers taking ownership of their individual approaches to stories and working together with other staffers — without a lot of involvement by editors — in letting that creativity bubble up.

In their simplest form, all ideas involve assigning all personnel who ultimately might deal with any package to work together on that package, starting on Day 1. Each brings ideas on how to proceed, and each is charged with constantly keeping in mind a visualization of what the final product would look like if news-gathering efforts were to end at that moment. This helps keep everyone focused, ensures holes are plugged and reinforces the notion that the final product must actually say something relatively profound and unique that can be quickly summarized and grasped.

Each approach differs in the extent to which editors are involved. Generally, teams are limited to just one editor. Whether that person has power or is merely a facilitator varies. What the team approach is not is a star chamber of editors having a monopoly on ideas and farming them out to others who may not be as invested in the idea. This is an effort to put both authority and responsibility in the hands of lower level staffers and give them an opportunity to grow as journalists and model for others in the organization how cooperation can achieve superior results.

Make sure everyone knows

Triaging potential content from the beginning not only ensures engagement by all people involved, including reporters, photographers, graphic artists, copy editors, and page designers as well as assignment and senior editors. It also helps ensure that every issue has at least one enterprising piece to rely upon. True, stories may rise or fall in the triage hierarchy as news gathering proceeds. But one feature of this system is that it features a “Page 1 enterprise” box for every individual issue. If what was planned falls out of that box, something else from a future box — or a brand new idea — must come in to replace it.

One easy way to begin implementing ideas like these is to post all assignments to a centrally visible whiteboard or shared document and make each and every staffer consult that document or whiteboard to learn what his or her specific tasks might be. Instead of assigning staffers individually, they should have to at least glance through all the assignments for everyone so they can assess how important their individual role is for the next upcoming issue and can spot potential synergies with other staffers’ efforts.

Budget everything for a specific date. Never allow long-term projects to wait until they are finished before budgeting them for a specific date. You can always change the date if needed, but having a specific deadline ensure they won’t drag on unnecessarily, and they can be advanced if there suddenly is a blank spot in the “Page 1 enterprise” box for any upcoming issue.

Think of your role as that of a DJ or someone preparing a mix CD, if anyone still uses such things. You should know what each of the next 20 or more issues will have as their Page 1 enterprise, if all goes according to plan. It won’t, of course, but when that happens you rearrange the 19 other things you had planned so that you aren’t left with the print and online equivalent of dead air when what you had planned for a particular issue falls through.

Having a budget that stretches weeks or months into the future lets you and your staff visualize how things will come together. It’s a basic quality circle approach to supply chain management, and it’s just as useful in the news business as it is in other businesses.

Each approach differs in the extent to which editors are involved. Generally, teams are limited to just one editor. Whether that person has power or is merely a facilitator varies. What the team approach is not is a star chamber of editors having a monopoly on ideas and farming them out to others who may not be as invested in the idea. This is an effort to put both authority and responsibility in the hands of lower level staffers and give them an opportunity to grow as journalists and model for others in the organization how cooperation can achieve superior results.

Don’t discuss things non-productively

Newsrooms love to speculate about stories and story ideas. Too often the best “stories” never materialize at all. They are just talked to death within the newsroom. Endless speculation about where and what a story might be often can be resolved by doing the first 5% of the reporting before even bringing up the idea. Even if that first 5% reveals there’s no story where you thought there was one, the contacts made with sources might yield other ideas with greater likelihood of success.

Avoid putting blind, unresearched ideas on any budget. Avoid burning the entire availability of a staffer on an assignment the premise for which is uncertain or flawed. Do some reportorial sampling of each story before you commit to it, and consider doing this with visual personnel as well as textual personnel. They will quickly identify topics that are tangible enough to photograph or factual enough to chart, and the assessments they make can feed back into the team planning approach to enhance the idea.

Always keep in mind that news doesn’t happen in newsrooms or on Zoom conferences among editors. Making occasional “scratch the surface” assignments to informally see whether what you think is there actually is there can improve efficiency, result in more focused efforts and create additional tips like those a beat reporter might come up with merely by being in contact with sources.

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