The multiple platforms and constant deadlines of digital journalism place new demands on editors as you manage your staff and your own time to pursue excellence on all platforms. You need to manage your time well on at least three levels:

  • Managing your work flow well through the day.
  • Developing the skill of coaching in short conversations.
  • Deciding which multimedia tools to use on each story.

The editor’s new work flow

If you just add the growing digital demands to your print workload, as too many editors and newsrooms have done, your day quickly descends into a constant frenzy of juggling to barely (if at all) make deadlines. Adjust your workflow to the new demands by making five key decisions:

  • Set priorities that distinguish the urgent from the important.
  • Try zero-based scheduling that takes both print and digital demands into account.
  • Identify, analyze and adjust your most hectic and slowest periods of the day.
  • Find and reduce duplication of effort.
  • Improve your efficiency.

Set priorities

Decide what’s important. Rare is the editor who doesn’t have more things she could do in a day than time to do them all. Priorities help you seize control of your day. Set priorities from a distance as well as up close. From a distance, set priorities for 2008 and for the coming month. What do you most want to achieve this month? What do you want to achieve in 2008? Up close, set priorities for today and this week? What do you most want to achieve in this work day? What do you want to finish this week? As you carry out the rest of these decisions, keep your short-range and long-range priorities in mind.

Decide what’s not important. A common frustration of editors is that they spend too much time working on chores that are not important. You need to make these decisions in the moment as well as up close and from a distance. From a distance, look at things you constantly do that suck up more time than they are worth. Up close, watch for the time suckers coming up today or this week. In the moment, ask whether this task you’re doing right now even needs to be done and how much time it will take. Some tasks might be important but not important for you to do. Identify work you are doing that can or should be done by a reporter, clerk or other editor.

Let some tasks go. You aren’t really prioritizing unless you decide not to do some things. As you decide what isn’t important, make decisions on what you can assign to someone else, what you can stop doing, what you can outsource to users, what you can do quickly without as close attention to detail.

Confer with your editors. The front-line editor doesn’t have the authority to make all these priority decisions unilaterally, but you can take the initiative. Tell your editor how you plan to set priorities: What are your must-dos, what you plan to drop (and why) and everything in between.

Be clear about trade-offs. Editors can be greedy people. They always want more from their staffs. So don’t tell your editor just what you want to let go, but how you want to spend the time that saves. Your editor might bristle about giving up a chore that seems to have value, but might embrace that because you want to spend more time on front-end coaching of multimedia stories.

Schedule from scratch

Abandon the factory schedule. For years, newspapers operated by necessity on a factory schedule, with deadlines throughout the building set by the production demands of the print product. Digital demands have been squeezed in and piled on top, but few newsrooms and individual editors have started over from scratch to design a new workflow for today’s multiple products. Don’t do anything at any time because you’ve always done it. Identify tasks that are essential for the digital and print products and what are the ideal times to do them and how much flexibility you have in when to do them. As part of the Learning Newsroom project, the San Jose Mercury News decided to move the newsroom’s daily schedule back 90 minutes – start times, meetings, deadlines, etc.

Do what you can. It’s best if you do this at a newsroom-wide level, but if you can’t persuade the top editors to do that (or if some of the changes made newsroom-wide don’t solve your problems), start over yourself and devise a new schedule that fits the newsroom needs but makes some changes that work better for you.

Analyze and adjust your work flow

Study your pace. Many editors’ workdays lurch between periods of relative inactivity and rushes to make deadline or prepare for a news meeting. A morning rush to post fresh news early in the day has added another peak period for some editors. Identify what absolutely has to be done in the heaviest periods. Can you assign earlier deadlines for some reporters who aren’t working daily stories? Can you hold a maestro session that sets early deadlines for sidebars, graphics or interactive elements, pulling some work off deadline and giving it attention that it deserves during a slower period? Going back to those priorities you set, examine whether everything you’re doing in a crunch period measured up as important. Then ask a second question: Is it important that it be done now?

Break important work into tasks. Some important jobs seem so big that they would require a few days detached from your regular duties to complete. So they languish too long, frustrating you and failing to serve your audience. Break these jobs into individual tasks, so you can make progress on them even while handling the busy daily flow.

Work on priorities in slow periods. Once you’ve identified your priorities and your slow periods, match them up. Make a point each day to complete a task, or a few tasks, in pursuit of one of these important jobs you have cut down into pieces. You will still need to get detached from time to time so you can complete some huge tasks that could not be broken down. But the progress you make by addressing the job one task at a time will give you momentum that will help you get the time to finish the job.

Reduce duplication

As you examine your work and the work of your staff and peers, look for duplicated effort. Ask whether that duplication remains essential today. Don’t ask simply whether that duplicated effort improves quality (it nearly always does). Ask what else you could be doing with that time and whether that serves your audience better than an incremental increase in quality. Some duplication will remain essential, but as you reduce traditional duplication, you will gain time to improved quality and/or greater production in other areas.

Improve efficiency

Editors can buy more time for themselves and their staffs by seeking ways to work more efficiently. User-generated content, for instance, has allowed us to increase efficiency in matters such as calendars. Could you enlist your audience to do any of the work now done by you and your staff? Are you using Outlook and other computer programs effectively to help manage your contacts and your time? Do you let email suck up too much of your time? Are you sorting or tracking some things by hand that you could handle more efficiently in Excel or another program?

Coaching on the run

A common frustration of editors is that they don’t have time to coach reporters. Long conversations help in coaching and they do take time. But often the most valuable coaching comes in short conversations editors have with reporters every day. Too many conversations with editors are focused solely on the needs of production: What are you going to have? When are you going to have it? How long will it be? When can you file an update for the web? Those are necessary conversations and they often just take a minute or two. In another minute or two, you can work some meaningful coaching into the conversation.

Ask, don’t tell. Hurried editors too often give quick orders and assignments to reporters. You help inexperienced reporters develop (and avoid offending experienced reporters) by asking questions. Instead of assigning a follow-up story, ask the reporter what he thinks would be a good way to follow up. Ask whom the reporter will be interviewing. Ask what the reporter is thinking about for a lead. Ask how you might make the story interactive online. These coaching questions often stimulate reporters’ growth better than coaching advice.

Take time to praise. Daily, specific praise is one of an editor’s most important jobs. Let your reporters, mojos, photographers, artists and producers know how they are serving your audience well. You can deliver helpful praise that tells what you value in less than a minute. Make sure that you do this important job every day. You can make it one of the first things you do during that slow period.

Take time to challenge. Criticism has its place in editing, but challenges are more important. Any time you criticize, be sure that leads up to a challenge. Often the reporter already knows what she did wrong. Delivering a challenge to address that in the next story can take just a few minutes and have more impact than the detailed critique you don’t have time for anyway.

Managing the multimedia workload

Telling stories for multiple platforms involves several choices that are unfamiliar to many editors. You know how long it takes reporters to write particular types of stories and whether a particular story is worth a brief or a takeout, but you are less confident with making the same decisions on multimedia.

For big stories especially, make these decisions in a short discussion (a conference call or series of email exchanges if you can’t all gather together in the newsroom) with the various journalists involved: editors, reporters, mojos, producers, photographers, artists. Consider five questions:

  • What job does this story do for your audience?
  • What are the possible opportunities for multimedia and interactivity on this story?
  • How much time and work would it take to pursue those opportunities?
  • How would those multimedia and interactive elements help this story do its job for your audience?
  • Would these multimedia or interactive elements have value beyond the day they are posted?

After a brief discussion of those questions, decide together whether the benefit for the user is worth the time required to produce. For some stories, this will mean extensive time producing multiple layers of an important, interesting or fun story. For some stories, this will mean just text (or not doing the story). Most stories will fall somewhere in between.

Start discussions early. Early in the coverage of every story – often in the initial conversation – you need to discuss these issues with the journalists involved. It was never right for reporters to work alone on their stories, treating photos and graphics as an afterthought and getting the story just right before they let anyone else see it. That offense is compounded and inexcusable in today’s multi-platform newsroom. Multimedia elements and continuous deadlines demand early decisions and extensive coordination. The assigning editor often plays the key role in that planning. You may need to revisit some issues as you learn more about the story, but don’t wait until you know everything to start the discussions.

Start with your audience

Don’t start your considerations with the story, but with the audience. Consider what job this story is doing for the user. Are you informing, amusing, giving useful information? The job that the story does will help you decide how to tell it. Also consider who your audience for the story is. These considerations about potential users will guide some decisions about how to tell the story.

Brainstorm the possibilities

Consider multimedia. At the brainstorming stage, you want to consider the full range of possibilities. Don’t consider just video, but the full range of video possibilities: staff-shot video, user-submitted video, video from police cars or security cameras. Consider photos, slide shows with sound, audio clips, virtual reality, animations, simulations, PowerPoints, source documents. In each case, consider multiple methods of gathering – collecting yourself, gathering multimedia from other sources and seeking user submissions.

Consider interactivity. Discuss how you can turn users into participants by making your story interactive. You can do this on at least four levels:

  • Involve participants in the reporting by using some form of crowd-sourcing.
  • Involve participants in telling the initial story by using wikis, online chats, polls or discussion threads.
  • Help participants personalize the story by using databases, calculators or maps.
  • Engage participants in the continuation of the story, again by online chats, polls or discussion threads.

Consider alternate story forms. Many stories or parts of stories are told most effectively in print or online in forms other than the traditional string of paragraphs. Discuss whether all or part of a story should be told in print and/or online in alternate forms such as a grid, graphic, board game, video game, timeline, list, series of vignettes, quiz, map or some other alternate form. Consider also what accompanying elements might help, such as c hronologies, glossaries, use-it boxes, what’s-next boxes, tables, charts, graphs, statistics, casts of characters, bio boxes, fact boxes, by-the-numbers, comparisons or lists. Many of these alternate story forms can be particularly interactive online.

Discuss the time involved

After you’ve brainstormed and come up with the best possibilities for this story, discuss the time involved in carrying them out. If your staff doesn’t have experience in a particular kind of element, that will take more time. But the benefit of that time is not just this story, but the experience you gain for future stories. As you gain experience, you will know both how much time it will take and whether you can do a quick-hit version for simple stories and a more elaborate effort for the big stories.

Consider the audience again

Once you have considered which tools might best help tell this story and how long it might take to use them, return again to the audience. Don’t use some multimedia or interactive elements just because they would be cool or fun for you. If they will make the story more useful, more informative or more entertaining for the user, they are more likely to be worth your time.

Consider lasting value

You need to put fresh content online all the time to keep your audience coming back again and again. But a major difference between print and online journalism is the lasting value of some online content. If a database would have standalone value online long after the daily story has passed, it’s more likely to be worth the effort than another element that would only have interest for a day or two. If a video or map might become part of the evergreen community content of your site, it’s more likely to be worth the effort.

Determine responsibilities

Multi-platform storytelling may involve more journalists in the gathering process. In your early discussions, decide who should be responsible for gathering each piece of the story – reporter, photographer, videographer, artist, librarian, web producer, database editor, assigning editor, whoever.

Outlook is important

Develop new skills. Always try to be working on a new skill. Our business is changing swiftly and you need to be learning constantly.

Never say no for someone else. Don’t assume that someone can’t do something you haven’t seen them do before. You don’t know who dabbles in other skills privately or yearns to develop new skills. Ask them if they want to try. Don’t assume your bosses won’t go for something you haven’t done before. Ask if you can try it.

Don’t let obstacles become excuses. You will encounter lots of obstacles on the path to multi-platform success. Turn them into the war stories of your success. Don’t let them become excuses for failure.

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August 24, 2010