Insights, tools and research to advance journalism

Effective accountability journalists smartly balance their time on story choices, audience interaction

As reporters are being asked to juggle more tasks with fewer resources, high-impact journalists are skilled at managing their responsibilities through what one reporter called “the art of the calendar.”

They run their days and devise their work methods in a way that’s anticipatory, efficient and flexible. They give unusual consideration to balancing the need to “feed the beast” with their desire to provide audience interaction and more impactful content.

These journalists are much more likely to say (as one reporter phrased it) “screw the beast.” They’ve discovered value in choosing stories that have significant impact, and have learned to balance their duties to audiences with their duties to editors. On a regular basis, they naturally prioritize the work in front of them. Brandon Rittiman, for instance, sees “political junkie stories” as lower priority, ranking behind stories written for “regular people.”

Kera Wanielista noted, “I think I need to do enough ‘boring’ educational policy stuff to make the superintendents and the insiders trust me, but I think that through my reporting, my writing, and how I interact with the kids, I think it’s obvious to all of my sources and my readers that my loyalty lies with the kids.”

(These journalists have) discovered value in choosing stories that have significant impact, and have learned to balance their duties to audiences with their duties to editors.

We heard much discussion of smart planning and a strong tendency to anticipate audience needs. Lee Tolliver videotapes interviews for accuracy in print, as well as for the video platform. Graham Moomaw, a state government reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, writes a web headline before he writes his story, anticipating digital impact. Ricardo Lopez, a politics and government reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, continuously maintains connections with “like-minded people” — not those who necessarily agree with his work but those who believe in transparency and want more attention for their particular issue. They will “become your allies and partners in making things public,” he said.

When Lauren McGaughy feels her story could use a fresh perspective or believes the story could be produced more efficiently with a partner, she seeks out another reporter and has no hesitation about sharing a byline.

Mary Ellen Klas abides by her vow that she’ll “never write the same story again,” finding a new angle or new platform “to advance the body of knowledge” rather than repeat it — a practice that keeps readers interested in ongoing topics.

Even their choice of platforms and story forms is a decision made early in the process, not an afterthought. Clinton Yates suggested writing a music review using only emojis. Lee Tolliver once “interviewed” a striped bass to help explain new statewide fishing regulations and, more recently, “talked” to a shark to help explain recent attacks.

Even their choice of platforms and story forms is a decision made early in the process, not an afterthought.

These reporters also believe that publication of their content is just the start of the workflow. Where social media teams are non-existent or overwhelmed — typical in many newsrooms — these reporters take on that responsibility, distributing their stories on appropriate platforms. “We are our own sales people for our stories and budgeters of our time,” said Brandon Rittiman.

Their social media efforts lead to reading, listening and responding to readers — and that’s where they strive to balance the time they spend communicating with individual readers and viewers against the time they devote to other aspects of their jobs. While these journalists apply considerable time and effort to this task, they agree that weighing the benefits for the often time-consuming interactions is on ongoing struggle.

Why this characteristic is important in accountability journalism: Accountability journalism can be time- and labor-intensive, typically more consuming than daily or breaking stories. Time management skills and adept prioritization of tasks and goals are critical.

Need to Know newsletter

The smart way to start your day

Each morning we scour the web for fresh useful insights in our Need to Know newsletter. Sign up below.

Featured topics

Go deeper on…

Dive deep on everything we produce about these key topics.

Strategy Studies

The best practices for innovation within news organizations

This Strategy Study presents examples and insights about journalism innovation, offering actionable advice and methods to move your journalism and business forward.