Monday, May 26, 2008

Digest this - ways to find more time

This month at the Carnival of Journalism, hosted by Ryan Sholin, we're tackling the oft-heard complaint that in this digital age there simply isn't enough time to do all the "extra" things that have been added to simply outputting that 800-word opus by deadline.

(Speaking of deadlines, yes, this was supposed to have been done this weekend. But it became blog, or do the bushes that even Indiana Jones would have had trouble hacking through. The bushes won -- or lost, depending on your view -- and I was tired enough at night that thinking clearly was not an option. so pardon the lateness. Today being a holiday we don't really do here in South Carolina (Memorial Day), I'm in the office with some time to gather my thoughts.)

This issue of where to find the time has come up often as I have consulted with smaller papers. Let's forget, as Will Sullivan aptly notes, that this stuff isn't "extra" anymore -- it's part of surviving and thriving in a digital age. One thing I keep coming back to, as sophomoric as it sounds, is the newsroom budget (or digest, whatever you call it).

Your results may differ, but too many I have seen are simply lifeless laundry lists of too-long summaries with little focus and almost no sense of integration of the various story elements.

I come back to the digest time after time because the wire services (I spent 18 years at AP) have largely perfected the form. No, not the list of stories sent to newsrooms several times each day, but the culture surrounding the document. Simply put, the digest is the raison d'etre for most wire service reporters' existence. Even in these days when the AP is stressing more enterprise, to not be on the digest as a wire service reporter is to be, well, dead.

Things have changed a bit since I left AP in 2001, now that the wire service has gone to continual updates. But even now, the pressure is to make the upcoming update as soon as possible.

For copyright reasons I can't really share with you an AP digest. But if you haven't been in a newsroom and seen one, imagine a tightly focused list of stories where, in two sentences, three max, the story becomes clear. All the related elements (photos, graphics, media, sidebars) are quickly summarized and added as the day progresses. Now, if you are in a newsroom, take a look at your digest. Does it look like something that was just kind of thrown together?Is is bloated, meandering? Can you get a sense of the story flow in less than two minutes? If not, you might want to retool what you are doing.

I said the digest was the raison d'etre for a wire service reporter. Here is what that meant and what it communicated as part of the culture:
-- The focus was on getting on that digest, which normally moved between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. (again, AP has gone to more continual updates, but I don't think that changes things much; even when I was there, we had started a 9:30 a.m. update).
-- That meant digest lines had to be to the desk early in the news cycle. It didn't matter if that news conference was happening at 10:30 a.m. -- hit the phones, find out what was likely to happen, and get a line into the desk (sometimes it actually meant the reporter worked on the story the day before). Update it later, if needed. And if the story were going nationally, the lines had to be in even earlier.
-- That meant you had to focus in on the story quickly, get the relevant background, decide on the basic way to tell the story (were there going to be photos, were you going to have to feed broadcast, etc.). Sure, things changed -- and we updated. But because we had a focus to start with, we could find a new focus quickly. And it meant the reporter had to be thinking about this while covering the story -- if the focus changed, identify and communicate it right away. That also does amazing things for the reporting.
-- It also did away with the bloviated summary. No one had time to write a novella when a couple of sentences would do.
-- And those had to be good sentences. Remember, the AP wasn't publishing itself (again, something that has changed a bit), but had to sell these stories to editors who had limited space. There was no sale if your pitch wasn't crisp.

What was the result (and what are the potential benefits in a traditional newsroom):
-- You find the story focus quickly. You also, just by the nature of things, provide the grist for that first online summary. You could take many of those digest lines and use them as your first shot online. Tighten up the digest in your newsroom and you should find people eventually in the mode of getting the story out more quickly.
-- It's easier to update because, as noted above, once you have focus it's easier to find new focus.
-- Fewer meetings: If everyone knows they have to meet the deadlines for various digest updates, the focus is on getting the work out, not talking it to death. This doesn't mean doing away with all meetings, but it does mean a lot of what had been done in meetings simply can be done on the digest and through one-on-one conversation or IM'ing. (Example: The AP had a morning national meeting just to get a sense of the day. But after that, you didn't "meet" with the national editor. You shot him or her a digest line and had one or more short phone conversations or IMs. If you were doing your job, the line gave the desk all it needed and the story followed that.)
-- By thinking "story" earlier, you also are forced to think about all the ways to tell the story -- not just in print.
-- If you really make the digest the backbone of the day - starting when reporters and editors walk in the door -- and you make it a practice that most updates and communication about it should be online, you might also develop a culture more willing to use some of the free or low-cost online collaboration tools, such as Google Docs. If the result is fewer meetings, you've just freed up some more time.

In many newsrooms, this will require a culture change. Sure, you may be having multiple news meetings/updates throughout the day, but in too many cases the underlying process is still flaccid, at least from what I've seen.

Finally, if you need some set deadlines -- and let's face it, most newsrooms do -- adopt the "Dr Pepper method" - digest updates are due at 10, 2 and 4. Scrap that obligatory 3 or 4 or 5 p.m. news meeting (you should be on a continuous cycle anyhow). If you're the editor or managing editor, tell folks you'll call one sometime after 4 to go over only any rough spots in the digest. If you really must have one, skip the round-robin from each desk going over its laundry list. Keep it to just the rough spots, make your front-page and section-front decisions, and get out. If your digest is really doing the work it should, most of those old-fashioned meetings can be scrapped. (Oh, and have it in the newsroom, not in some tucked-away conference room somewhere.)

The State newspaper in Columbia has another take on it that I like a lot: Each digest line should identify who is likely to be affected by the story and who is likely to care about it. Thinking about your audience is never a bad thing.

The AP has now adopted a 1-2-3 filing method:
1) File a short "alert."
2) File a short story (130 words) that can be used online, in print and on broadcast
3) Fill out the story, if needed, using multiple media. The "if needed" is important. Sometimes once you've done No. 2, you'll see that's all that needs doing.

No. 2 is a bit controversial. It's drawn some criticism from copy editors, for instance, who say the copy is riddled with holes, organization problems, etc. It harks back to earlier in this decade when the holy grail was to find a writing style that would work across media. We've generally come to our senses and realized there is unlikely to be such a thing because each medium has its own strengths and our readers/viewers/users use each one quite differently.

Even AP realizes it has to keep changing its culture. If your newsroom is still stuck on the "there's not enough time" model, your story budget and meeting practices could be a good place to start.

(Also worth your reading is a summary of AP's anthropological study of young news consumers. Two key points: They don't consume news via routine, and they see it as a form of social currency.)

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