For many people, the knee-jerk reaction to shedding work is immediately to find other stuff (more meaningful stuff!) to replace it with.
That’s not really the point of this piece. If there’s one thing you should take away from this, it’s that it’s okay to do less. If your staff is overworked, overwhelmed, burnt out, and now they feel like they finally have a chance to get off the hamster wheel and breathe, that is a huge win. Organizations routinely underestimate the value of not overstretching their staffs, and news organizations (or their owners) are especially guilty of this.
It’s okay to stop doing work that wasn’t contributing to business goals and not replace it with anything. Trust us, your audience won’t suffer.
Organizations routinely underestimate the value of not overstretching their staffs.
But in many cases, once reporters and editors adjust to a lighter workload, they’ll find the energy and drive to seek out more meaningful tasks. Managers: In your conversations with employees about what they want to stop doing, use your judgment to find a good time to ask, “What would you rather be doing?” If an employee is tired and burnt out, it may not be a good time to get her thinking about “what else.”
Let employees themselves drive those conversations. Give them the space and the agency to think about what they could do that would advance your newsroom’s mission and goals.
If and when journalists are ready to reinvest their time in more mission-oriented work, here are some priorities we suggest.
Listen to audiences, and let their input guide your reporting.
“Reporters hardly ever have time to start a new beat by listening, with no agenda other than to understand.” This comment, from Sami Edge, one of API’s 2019-20 community listening fellows, encapsulates a top barrier to audience engagement work. Edge’s reporting project for Idaho Education News, which centered on Latino students and their families, began with “listening events,” which involved meeting the students in small groups and asking them about their education experiences, needs and concerns. From there, they began identifying and pursuing stories. Given the time, journalists could plan more and better ways to engage meaningfully with audiences, finding out what’s important to them and then building stories from there. Maybe it would lead to fewer stories, but those stories would be more relevant to audiences.
Improve source diversity.
In a survey from the Reynolds Journalism Institute, journalists said one of the biggest obstacles to including more diverse voices in their reporting is the crush of deadlines, which makes it difficult to develop a more diverse source network. Relieved of some of their deadlines, journalists could then invest time in finding and building relationships with more diverse sources.
The San Diego Union-Tribune now gives its reporters four hours of uninterrupted time every two weeks for source development, which could involve calling on existing sources or meeting new sources and entering them into the Union-Tribune’s source database.
“We schedule these four-hour sourcing blocks of time into our story planning document, which is a Google sheet we call the Plandoc,” Denise Smith Amos, watchdog and accountability editor at the Union-Tribune, told API. “It’s where we daily list what our reporters are doing.” Reporters are supposed to be “untouchable” during their scheduled source work, Amos added. “It’s new for reporters and editors, but some of my reporters already are embracing it as a time when their editors leave them alone to do an important part of their job.”
Do more solutions reporting.
When the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel decided to kill its Facebook Live show “JS on Politics” because it wasn’t garnering much engagement, managers asked the host, “If you weren’t doing this, what would you want to be doing?” David Haynes is now the editor of the Journal Sentinel’s Ideas Lab, a solutions journalism-focused beat that also replaced the newspaper’s traditional opinion section. Page views and time on page for Ideas Lab stories are both much higher than they had been for opinion articles. “Overall, our traffic was up by a third even though we produced a third as many stories,” Haynes wrote.
Go after grant funding.
Grant funding is — or should be — a critical part of any news organization’s revenue stream. “Journalism funded by philanthropy needs to go hand-in-hand with digital subscriptions to cover the cost of the newsroom,” said Local Media Association CEO Nancy Lane in a recent interview with the Medill Local News Initiative. Newsrooms need to be able to dedicate considerable resources to securing philanthropic funding. Some may be able to justify the cost of hiring a grant writer or a development director. But many will have to take on this work with the staff they already have, and the first step is giving people time to do it. (And the next step is reading this “Getting Grants to Fund Your Journalism” guide from the Raleigh News & Observer.)
Do fewer stories, but spend more time getting those stories in front of people, especially subscribers.
Most news organizations put their work out into the world, and then hope audiences engage with it. That’s no longer enough, not when audiences are flooded with information from a thousand other sources throughout their day.
News organizations must realize that their role is not just to report the news, but to make it as easy as possible for audiences to find the information that is most relevant to them. In an article discussing the finding that nearly half of digital subscribers don’t visit their local news website even once a month, Ed Malthouse, director of Northwestern University’s Medill Spiegel Research Center, said news organizations have to get better about bringing news directly to subscribers. Having strong, well-tailored newsletters and a good recommender system are two ways to help people easily find what’s important to them. And taking a service-journalism approach to every beat, like the Philadelphia Inquirer does, ensures that you’re not just reporting the news — you’re helping people apply it to their lives.
Reporters could also invest more time in connecting with stakeholders in their reporting, perhaps using a similar approach as the San Diego Union-Tribune takes to source development: giving reporters an allotted number of hours per week to reach out to stakeholders. Network mapping is a great way to identify stakeholders (and get their input before you start reporting).
Again and again in our work at API, we find that newsrooms have no shortage of lofty goals and aspirations. Journalists want to do so much for the audiences they’re serving — they are mission-driven people, after all. But they’re also facing a continual shortage of resources, and there is just no getting around that.
So we need to get stricter, more intentional, and more proactive about getting rid of the work that’s not serving newsrooms or audiences. Less is more.