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Archive for the 'Writing' Category

When tracking productivity reduces it

Saturday, January 31st, 2009

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.

There will always be an audience for good stories, I hope…

Thursday, January 1st, 2009

Nearly every news organization does an end-of-year wrap-up highlighting the biggest stories. Sometimes there are themes that ran throughout the year, such as on-going property tax delays here in Lafayette or the presidential elections. Sometimes these are single events, such as disaster-level floods or the J&C’s speller being crowned the national spelling champ.

Those are examples of stories I and other Journal & Courier reporters and photographers told in 2008. But they’re among the hundreds I had a part in and the thousands my peers helped collect and share with our community. They’re the Cliff Notes version of the daily newspaper and Web site that chronicled every day how our community changed last year.

But this week it wasn’t our end-of-year package that reminded me how important what we do is. It was the stories I got to tell and the people who let me into their lives to share a few moments, some of them tragic and some of them magical, with the rest of our community.

I’ve been struggling recently to find a direction professionally. Do I want to be a reporter forever? Do I want to do more online production? Is there a future in either? How can I write multiple stories a day to keep my byline count up but still learn more time-consuming multimedia skills? Which one should be my priority? What should I be doing that I’m not? How can I continue to grow? To have fun? All these and much more weighed on me as I worked too many 12-hour days and long nights in recent months and as I wrote my annual self-review last week.

For two years now (Jan. 15!), I’ve been covering education in Lafayette. I’ve told stories of which I’m really proud. But I’ve also sat through hundreds of school board meetings, most of them old news because I’d written the story ahead. The bonus is, I understand my beat and this community better than I thought possible when I arrived. That makes me able to find and tell deeper stories.

But to be honest, I’m a little sad to no longer be learning to be a reporter. I got an adrenaline rush from the fear of screwing up because that’s how you learn. For the most part, I have my “firsts” out of the way and enough confidence to attack even the stories where I feel uncomfortable. When I don’t know what I’m doing, I have a whole community here and on Twitter to fill me in with tips (and an even bigger army of critics to let me know when my immaturity shows). But I love learning new things, so I’ve been thinking about what I need to attack in 2009 to stay happy and relevant.

I’ve decided to focus on being a better story teller this year, in addition to other things. Part of that has been training myself to recognize the story in the news. This is obvious, of course, but it goes deeper for me.

I’ve always disliked covering fires, accidents, suspicious deaths and similar “breaking news” that is the bread and butter many reporters and photographers live for. It was never for me. Too gory, too unpredictable, too uncomfortable. But this week in particular, I’ve started to appreciate these things not as news so much as a story. Every house that burns holds memories, every accident has a cause and effect, and every death leaves a whole future of possibilities unfulfilled.

On Monday, I wrote about a small family diner gutted by fire. It had just opened in October. I also told the story of a small in-home day care being indirectly hurt by the recent factory layoffs in our community.

Tuesday night I drove to the home of the parents of a 26-year-old who was brutally murdered the day after Christmas. The suspect is one of his best, oldest friends — a man the parents told me was like a son to them. For two hours, in their dining room where photos of their son were plentiful and where his Christmas presents still sat stacked nearby, we talked about his life and legacy.

Wednesday I cut out early after two long days. But not before filing a story that included the voice of a woman who sought me out because she was so frustrated with a new law that will keep her relatives from voting on a tax increase that could cost them thousands of dollars.

Today, I covered a fire that gutted the childhood home of a man whose wife reportedly had just left him on Christmas.

This was a hard week for me, with hard stories to report and write. Maybe it’s the holidays that made all of these stories jump out to me in what would otherwise be briefs about fires and deaths and upcoming elections. Instead of a fire, I found hope dashed. Instead of an election to empower the populace, I found a portion being disenfranchised. Instead of a victim, I found a promising life cut short.

But I also got to share happy moments. Today, for instance, I got to meet the first two babies of 2009 in our county. Their whole lives and their parents lives are ahead of them. But already they’re quasi-famous in our community: Their first, and who knows last, 15 minutes of fame came in their first 15 hours of life.

This whole soliloquy isn’t about me. It’s about what we journalists do and why it’s important.

Every day, we take the raw material that is the news and we craft the story. Not only of the lives we meander into, the snapshots of our towns that we capture on film or in narrative, but also the story of a community. We keep the record of who lived and died, and more important who cared and why. We find the story in the board resolutions and the impact of the budget’s bottom line. There might not be an audience in local news for the lottery numbers or the latest out of Baghdad. But I have faith, and the stories I’ve told this week alone have reminded me, that there will always be readers and listeners and people who care about these lives, their triumphs and tragedies. There will always be an audience for good stories.

Maybe I am naive. Probably. I’m still a cub reporter who doesn’t know if newspapers will even survive to make a veteran out of me. But I believe what we do is important. So, while Rome may be burning around me, I’m going to do the one thing I have the power to do to help douse or hold off the flames. They may be in pictures or audio slide shows online or through graphics or written words printed on dead wood, but I’m going to find and tell good stories about and relevant to the people in my community. If we’re not doing that, what’s the point anyway?

QOTD: Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing

Friday, July 4th, 2008

“Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.”
— Ben Franklin

Webby five-word speeches; NYTimes: No longer a newspaper site

Thursday, June 12th, 2008

Take a look at some of the funny and interesting five-word speeches by this year’s Webby Award winners.

Let’s start with these ones related to media:

Guides/Ratings/Reviews ConsumerReports.org – :
“It pays not to advertise.”

News BBC News – :
“Every click is really appreciated.”

News NYTimes.com – Webby:
“No longer a newspaper site.”

Newspaper NYTimes.com – :
“Elliot Spitzer, we thank you.”

Best Home/Welcome Page National Geographic – :
“The people get the picture.”

Services MOO – :
“Who said print was dead?”

Education FactCheckED.org – :
“Where truthiness goes to die.”

Branded Content Year Zero – :
“Tell stories on the web.”

Broadband ABC.com Full Episode Player – :
“TV? Online? Never happen, kid.”

Integrated Campaigns A Fuller Spectrum of News | msnbc.com – Webby:
“Uh, fuller isn’t actually a word.”

Best Writing Onion News Network – Webby/People’s Voice:
“together, we’ll make reading obsolete.”

Documentary: Individual Episode Coney Island: An uncertain Future – Webby/People’s Voice:
“the revolution will be webcast.”

Documentary: Series NFB Filmaker in Residence – Webby:
“the internet is a documentary.”

News & Politics: Series Hometown Baghdad – Webby:
“real news helps overcome ignorance.”

News Mobile NYTimes – Webby:
“Please help us monetize this.”

News CNN Mobile – :
“We1? Cnna3 “anywhere, anyplace, anytime”.”

Other interesting/fun ones (disclaimer, I’ve never even heard of many of these winners):

Celebrity/Fan Best Week Ever – :
“Who let the blogs out?”

Social/Networking Flock The Social Web Browser – Webby:
“No shit! We beat Facebook?”

Weird I Can Has Cheezburger? – :
“Mah inglish skillz, lolcats b0rkedem.”

Best Use of Photography PENTAX Photo Gallery – :
“Blog your photos — save trees.”

Best Use of Typography Veer – Type City – Webby:
“Thanks, in 72-point Helvetica.”

Youth Nick.com – :
“Sponge Bob is our sugar daddy.”

Retail Ikea Mattress – :
“We enjoy sleeping with you.”

Associations SkillsOne – Webby:
“Guys like girls with skills.”

Cultural Institutions Design for the Other 90% – Webby:
“Design is changing the world.”

Politics FactCheck.org – :
“No, Obama is not a Muslim.”

Banner Singles Lightbulb – :
“We’re hiring. Send us resumes.”

Webby Person of the Year Michel Gondry – Special Achievement:
“Keyboards are full of germs”

Comedy: Long Form or Series You Suck at Photoshop – People’s Voice:
“we’re auctioning word 5.”

Mobile Marketplace & Services Chase SMS Banking – Webby:
“**** corporate design, hire me.”

Hey, remember that post from yesterday? NYTimes says it’s not a newspaper site. ;) I think that’s my favorite. I also appreciated their tongue-in-cheek thanks to the former governor who no doubt drove a lot of traffic their way, as well as their not so subtle “Please help us monetize this.”

Summing something up in five words makes Twitter’s 140-character limit seem mighty generous. Think of it like a Web headline (our breaking news headlines are supposed to be five to six words, and actually Twitter has much improved my writing of these).

Semi-related: my previous post on summing up journalism in six words.

(Found via USAToday’s Technology Live blog)

QOTD: Write to be understood, speak to be heard, read to grow

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2008

“Write to be understood, speak to be heard, read to grow.”
Lawrence Clark Powell

QOTD: The most original authors …

Monday, May 26th, 2008

“The most original authors are not so because they advance what is new, but because they put what they have to say as if it had never been said before.”
— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Poynter’s pointers on managing intern/reporter blogs

Monday, May 5th, 2008

There’s a quick read about how to handle intern or reporters blogs at Poynter’s Every Day Ethics column from Thursday.

The cliff notes version of the entry is this: have a policy, make it known and don’t make it “no blogs.”

As a proponent of journalists blogging and a member of a newsroom with a pretty loose policy (which I think has a lot to do with my editors’ comfort with the technology: the publisher, executive editor & managing editor all blog themselves for the Web site), I think all the suggestions about the policies in the column are reasonable:

  • Write one. Maybe start a blog about policies. But do it now. It’s way too late to claim that blogging is just too new of a phenomenon to merit a policy.

  • Reconsider your policy if it states: No personal blogs. Telling a 20-year-old he can’t blog is like telling a 50-year-old she can’t write a holiday letter. You won’t win that one.
  • Consider what you’re comfortable having employees discuss in public:
    • Nothing about the newsroom at all? That might be unrealistic.
    • Nothing about stories in development? That seems fair.
    • Nothing that puts the company in a negative light? Sure, you’ve got a right to require that, but you might define negative carefully.
    • Nothing about sources? Good idea. Journalists who say things about their sources that they wouldn’t put into their stories are treading in dangerous territory.
    • Nothing embarrassing or negative about your colleagues.
  • I counsel journalists who keep personal blogs to employ a no-surprises rule. Always let your boss know if you have a blog. Ask for guidelines, if they don’t exist. Never say anything in the blog that you wouldn’t say out loud, to the primary stakeholders.
  • I agree most with the items I underlined in those suggestions.

    The first made me laugh, but it’s true. Don’t say I can’t do it, but do set guidelines for me to follow. If you don’t set guidelines, don’t blame me if down the road you’re upset.

    But by the same token, the ultimate responsibility is NOT on the editors to foresee every instance that could need guidance. They have better more important things to do than micro-manage their employees personal time. So if you want to blog, you need to be reasonable and responsible. Never, never, never post anything you wouldn’t feel comfortable defending. Assume Google will archive it. Assume it will be the top hit someone (like your boss or your sources) sees when they Google you down the road. Would you be comfortable standing behind it? If not, don’t say it. If you’re not sure, wait a day. You can’t always take it back.

    When they first heard I had a blog, some of the other reporters and editors told me a story about a group of former interns who had kept blogs that they thought no one read. They were honest, uninhibited. Turns out, the whole newsroom was reading. Assume this will be the case. Think about your reasons for wanting to hide it. Then, think about my last paragraph and find a way to reconcile those differences.

    That goes along with the “ask for guidelines” approach. Although I’d already started the blog when I started my job, I wasn’t sure what if any policy my paper had. I approached the editor about it. Later on, when someone in corporate came across the blog and included a reference in a corporate media strategy blog, she wasn’t caught off-guard by the existence or content of this site. She thought it was cool I got the mention. If she didn’t know about the site, I don’t think she’d have been so happy for me.

    The tagline version of my point is this: As with most things in life, blog responsibly.