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When tracking productivity reduces it

What if every evening, at the end of a long day, you had to email your boss and your boss’s peers/bosses an outline of everything you did that day. When you got in. When and who you called. Who you talked to. Who you left voicemails for. What you talked about. What records you looked up. What records request got denied. When you checked your e-mail. When you sat around waiting for an interview to start because they were running late. When your story fell through and why. When you got pulled in on another story. When you talked to your editor. When you updated this productivity report. When you realized this was a waste of time.

Well, I made the last one up. But the rest of it is what reporters at the South Bend Tribune now have to do, every day. I came across this in a memo posted on Romenesko. (Yeah, I know I said I quit reading. But it’s like a train wreck. You can’t help rubbernecking sometimes.)

This is targeted foremost to all reporters, who would send a daily e-mail the last thing before they leave for the day (or at the latest, the very first thing – 8 a.m. – the next day). These e-mails would go not only to your most immediate editor but to at least five editors, including me. This daily e-mail would lay out specifically what you accomplished that day, what you need to finish or follow up on the next day, and what you plan to do that next day. We mean everything, from the most mundane county council advance to the beginning interview in the most ambitious investigation that may or may not see the light of day (or publication). It also would allow you to bring up any other communication you need to share. From there, yes, your editor will be able to tell how busy you were, but more importantly, he or she will know your accomplishments and your struggles. From that, our morning planning meetings can be even more efficient.

I can understand that given fewer staff members, it’s critical that those left behind are maximizing their time. I get that. Honestly, I could understand the editors of the paper wanting this report kept for a week. It would give them a baseline of productivity. That way they could assess who is doing what, how efficiently, and then maybe reorganize or reassign or whatever to make the best use of time.

A week’s record, actually, could be helpful for the individual employee to see his or her own time dumps as well. I, for one, know I am most efficient at reporting probably from about 9:30-11:30 a.m. and about 1-5 p.m. This is partially because I typically start around 10 a.m., and because I usually file copy for tomorrow beginning around 4 p.m. And I’ve found reaching people at lunch is a crapshoot. So that’s when I try to do administrative things, return e-mails, write briefs, eat lunch, etc. I know that about myself. I plan my day around that. Time management isn’t necessarily my strong point, but I don’t think spending MORE time writing about how I spent every minute of my day will make it better.

It’s not that I have a problem with the editors wanting to communicate with their reporters. It’s that I feel like this is an exercise in wasting their time. It seems to me that having your reporters take a significant amount of time to log and write up everything they did each day and then having five editors read over every one of those reports will negate any efficiency you hoped to gain. In fact, adding more work that doesn’t contribute to a more robust online or print product seems to be a loss of productivity. The opposite of what I take is the intended effect.

My editor doesn’t need to spend an hour every morning reading over every minute of my and other reporters’ previous day. Seriously?! He has better things to worry about. You know how he knows what we’re doing or how we get answers to our questions: We talk. He walks over to our desk or we walk over to his, or we send an iChat or an e-mail. Can you check on this for tomorrow? Is that update ready for online? How much longer on that story? But mostly, he worries about his own job. He helps us but trusts us to do our job. He’s not a baby sitter, and he shouldn’t have to be.

The only upside I could see to the memo is it would keep the staff honest. Maybe I didn’t need to go across the street and get a soda? Maybe I shouldn’t have spent five minutes talking about how much furloughs suck with the copy desk? But if I’m producing enough stories and they are good, why shouldn’t I be able to take a five-minute break?

I’m not against tracking productivity, per se. The editors do track our byline count. They don’t tell us these numbers, or even what our target should be. It varies from reporter to reporter, beat to beat, month to month. When we’re low, we do get notes telling us that. But for the most part, it’s just something we’re semi-aware exists. Not something we’re obsessing about, every minute, of every day. I have my own issues with the counts, but at least it doesn’t waste my time to track it.

Reporters here do keep daily/weekly budgets. It outlines what I’m working on today, what I’m planning to file and when I have specific interviews/meetings/events. This helps my editor know where I’ll be and when to expect my stories. It tells him not only when I’m busy but also when something can bump to another day so I can be pulled in on something else. It seems to be a before the fact planning budget is a lot more helpful than an after the fact accounting of my every task. Some days are just slower than others, and some days look like the ridiculously detailed example report in the memo.

(UPDATE: We interrupt this post to point out a hilarious take on this required memo by William Hartnett: I will now share with you an example of my daily productivity summary so that you may better understand my accomplishments and struggles)

I know my paper is about half the size of South Bend’s, which itself isn’t that big. We have about 10 local reporters under my editor, plus a couple in features and in sports. But if you’re an editor, whether you have 1 or 100 reporters, do you really need to micromanage your staff’s every minute? Is it really the best use of editors’ time to have five of them reading dozens of these memos every morning? Seems to me — and I’m still practically a rookie, I know — they have better things to do, like update the Web site or put out the paper.

2 Responses to “When tracking productivity reduces it”

  1. Kaci Says:

    I agree, this sounds like it would take a lot of time that could otherwise be used tracking down that last source to round out your story. Or… something. At my paper, reporters have to list on their daily time sheets the stories they worked on/finished that day, but that’s it. Just a list of story slugs. And really, I think that’s what’s important.

  2. William M. Hartnett Says:

    I should have noted that was just the summary of a typical daily productivity report. Not included was the minute-by-minute report and all the usual documentation. Video evidence, notarized affidavits, etc.