Category Archives: Issues & Challenges

Solutions for problems that vex us.

Measuring Productivity of the News Team

There is a natural tension between a manager’s need to maximize newsroom productivity and a staff member’s need for fair and reasonable expectations. This tension can become heated when either party feels a lack of balance or a lack of understanding.

Generally, all employees want to be productive. News Directors should welcome a chance to talk openly about matters of productivity to clearly articulate their expectations. And they should listen to employee concerns to shed light on any obstacles, special circumstances or the need to adjust their expectations.

Going for Productivity Goals

What often results from conversations over productivity levels is the institution of measurable goals. While this can be tricky in the fast-changing world of news, it is not unreasonable to lay down some quantitative benchmarks to guide our work. However, be mindful that such goals need to grow out of a process that carefully considers your given resources and your programming needs. (A process might also consider your company’s labor agreements, HR rules and performance review procedures.)

When stating productivity goals, see that you articulate what is expected both from 1) your overall team, and 2) each individual. Both are necessary. The team goals speak to your station’s overall service delivery aspirations. (i.e., How many newscasts per day do we need?) The individual goals speak to the fair division of labor and the need for customization based on the employee’s role. (i.e., We’d expect more features per month from reporters than anchors.)

Goals are often stated in terms of “minimal levels.” In practice, meeting those minimal levels would result in a continuously sustainable high-quality service.

Agree on What’s Measurable

So, what is measurable when setting goals? In most cases, you’ll count employees and their available hours, and you’ll try to translate that into units of output. For radio newsrooms, the output is generally in stories or newscasts. Perhaps in “air minutes.” You might also point to the accomplishment of particular tasks (for example, # edits per week).

Of course, we’d all agree that some tasks or air-minutes take little time to prepare and others require huge investments of time. And that’s where the goals may struggle to accommodate variances in output quality and worker efficiency. But while situations will certainly vary, across time the law of averages will provide a helpful yardstick.

Sample News Goals

Here’s an example of goal setting for an overall newsroom and its three reporters and two anchors (and one editor/ND). The rationing of hours would provide at least one locally-produced spot for every newscast, and a fresh super-spot and fresh feature for every morning (except Friday). All spots and features include accompanying web posts of text and a photo. It also budgets time for two Monday morning spots.

Departmental Minimum — Per Day

1 Super-Spot for a.m. newscasts (2 plays)
2 Regular-Spots for pm newscasts (2 plays)
+ alternate versions, 1 for a.m., 1 for p.m. newscasts (2 plays)
1 Feature for am c-segment (2 plays) (except Fridays)
2 pm web posts
2 am web posts
6 newscasts in a.m. (live)
6 newscasts in p.m. (live)

Individual Minimum — Per Week

Reporter A:

1 feature + web post (18-24 hrs),
1 Super-Spot + web post (6-8 hrs),
1 Regular-Spot + web post (4-6 hrs),
1 Monday Spot + web post (4 hrs),
Beat Admin (2-4 hrs).

Reporter B:

1 feature + web post (18-24 hrs),
1 Super-Spot + web post (6-8 hrs),
2 Regular-Spots + 2 web posts (4-6 hrs each),
Beat Admin (2-4 hrs).

Reporter C (Saturday Anchor):

6 newscasts (5:00-8:30 Sat),
1 feature + web post (18-24 hrs),
1 Super-Spot + web post (6-8 hrs),
1 Regular-Spot + web post (4-6 hrs),
1 Monday Spot +web post (2-4 hrs),
Beat Admin (2-4 hrs).

AM Anchor/Reporter:

30 newscasts (5:00-9:15 am),
1/2 feature + web post (12 hrs),
1 Super-Spot or Spot + web post (4-8 hrs).

PM Anchor/Reporter:

30 newscasts (3:00-6:45 pm),
1/2 feature + web post (12 hrs),
1 Super-Spot or Spot + web post (4-8 hrs).

ND:

Admin (10-18 hrs),
2 Super-Spots or Spots + web posts (10-18 hrs),
Editing (10-18 hrs).

Notes:

The goals above are moderately aggressive but very doable for an experienced staff.

You would have to subtract from this output if the personnel were required to take on other duties such as fundraising, talk show appearances, sick or holiday time, etc. (Or, rather than subtract from the output, ideally you’d have freelance or other substitutes who would help maintain this output — while also allowing you to build your “back-up bench.”)

When YOU’RE the News Department

The success of the NPR system has brought greater investment in local newsrooms. In turn, the number of one-person public radio news departments has declined. This is a positive trend because adding staff adds capacity and sustainability, and greater depth, quality and consistency.

Still, the one-person newsroom remains a reality in the public radio system. And the individuals who run those shops are to be admired for tackling a tough job despite limited resources.

One-person newsrooms can and do deliver a quality product, but the relentless nature of news — and the need to match NPR quality — prompts the obvious question: How long can one person sustain consistent delivery, with reliable frequency, of in-depth journalism?

Most one-person newsrooms get help. Many get help from other station staffers. Some are heavily dependent on students. Some are heavily dependent on volunteers.

Here are some tips for the lone news director who is expected to provide a credible news service of NPR quality:

  • When it comes to quality, there are no exceptions. You have no less a standard of accuracy, fairness and quality of craft than any other public radio journalist.
  • Get an edit. Yes, even if you don’t have a fellow journalist to turn to, you need to find someone who will listen attentively to your local news before it goes to air. A proxy editor can at least question those things that deserve clarification, attribution, etc.
  • Be resourceful and work smart. Use the speed and efficiency of computers and digital tools. Practice time management. Use a systematic approach. And employ low cost alternatives. One can do a lot with a little — and still compete with the big guys.
  • Harness helpers. Look for partnerships with the local newspaper or television station or nearby sister station. Set up an internship program. Train volunteers. The use of community producers is a good example of tapping local resources to yield content with low labor expenses, just remember that someone has to train and edit them.
  • Maximize your local impact. If you can deliver something daily, that’s great but realistically how much original reporting, writing and production can you do per day? A daily public affairs program may deliver more original and consistent public service than daily newscasts or daily features (because the production is live and the “reporting” is limited to research and guest booking).
  • Live within your means. Your manager is right to expect you to work hard and deliver quality work as efficiently as possible, but that manager has got to recognize the limits implicit in a one-person newsroom situation. And you should too.

What is My Newsroom Culture?

Whether you actively manage the “culture” of your newsroom, it does have one. We encourage you to think about it, talk about it and steer it.

Your newsroom culture may be hard to define in concrete terms because it is the sum of many influences and may fluctuate over time. You can attempt to name it in your vision and mission statements, but it really shows up in your daily doing.

Let’s emphasize several aspects of culture that a News Director can manage.

  1. Constructive Critique. This attribute is all about setting the bar high to drive up the quality of work. It looks to improve individual and team performance. Here are some ways in which you promote this Culture of Constructive Critique:
    • Insist that all news coverage gets an edit
    • Provide daily feedback on the previous day’s work
    • Encourage open dialogue (and don’t squelch respectful arguments) among team members that challenges one another to succeed
    • Schedule group listening sessions where individuals playback their work and discuss strengths and weaknesses
    • Use formal and informal performance reviews to identify areas requiring training or development
  2. Team Trust. Think about the honesty and openness of your newsroom communication. Act in ways that promote healthy interpersonal relations.
    • Set the example by treating all staff with professional respect, loyalty and generosity
    • Find the best way to get issues “on the table” so they don’t fester
    • Flag and reward outward examples of meritorious teamwork – such as going the extra mile, helping without being asked, sharing knowledge, etc
    • Apologize for mistakes and promise to learn and do better
  3. Individual Accountability. We don’t all have to think and act the same way but insofar as we share a mission, we need all individuals to give it their best.
    • Set the example by doing what you say you will do
    • Flag and reward examples of frugality, productivity, creative problem-solving or any other individual effort that gets the job done faster, better or helps stretch limited resources
    • Establish policies that help define minimum levels of productivity (or optimal levels) and hold people accountable for them
    • Delegate responsibilities to give staff members opportunities to step up and lead

You might wish to add cultural dimensions of your own. Perhaps “positivity” is crucial if you sense a negative mood. Or “confidence” is something you want your growing team to exhibit. Others might include “aggressive coverage,” or “in-depth enterprise,” to emphasize journalistic goals.

Again, the thing about workplace culture is that it exists in the people who share it. Upper managers may strongly influence it. Long time staffers tend to be keepers of it. The stories we tell are transmitters of it. And sometimes it can takes years to modify it.

As News Director, you will shape it whether you engage the culture or not. We encourage you to tackle it head on.

Balancing Spots and Features

Issue: News departments (always striving with limited resources) continually face a choice between pursuing news in spot form or feature form. How are these choices best reconciled?

PRNDG Perspective: In an ideal world, your newsroom would provide both short stories (the spots) and long stories (the features) — just as NPR does everyday. The short stories fit narrow newscast slots and take advantage of radio’s immediacy. The long stories allow us to put issues in greater context, tell deeper stories and use our medium more fully.

The preponderance of evidence shows us that public radio audiences value the feature form more than the spot form. It is easy to understand why. Public radio audiences are largely defined by their above-average education, which predisposes them to reporting that goes deeper and wider.

This doesn’t mean public radio should forgo newscasts and spot reports. Remember, one historical sign that NPR had shed its “alternative” image in favor of becoming a “primary news provider” was its expansion to a 24-hour newscast service. Local stations aspire to follow suit.

Frankly, on must-cover stories, both spot and feature forms tend to complement one another. Here’s an example:

Your town’s mayor dies unexpectedly. Your first story will come in the form of spot reports. Your next-day story will be a feature that provides perspective on the mayor’s political career, her greatest accomplishments and what impact the death will have. Over another day or so, you follow with spot reports on other reactions, funeral plans, and added detail about the death. Finally, when the time is right, you bring another feature that looks ahead to the municipal challenges facing the next mayor.

Often, then, it is a question of how to use limited resources wisely so that the audience is best served by spot news when spots are necessary, and by feature news when features are necessary.

News directors are wise to see their reporter’s time as a limited, precious resource. This requires a discerning approach to story assigning so that

  • Limited resources are spent only on the most meaningful stories — whether spot or feature;
  • Those stories are clearly defined in terms of their focus, depth and timing.

Other solutions to help balance the seeming competition between spot and feature:

  1. Use the “super spot” — which is a hybrid that provides modest depth on quick-turnaround reports;
  2. Plan the features first — since they require protected time and demand more work, try to lock-in their airdates and clear the path for the reporter;
  3. Avoid open-ended assignments — instead insist on a reasonable deadline using past averages and in consideration of any special challenges involved. A typical spot can take between 2-6 hours. A typical super-spot may take between 4-8 hours. And a typical feature can take between 8-24 hours;
  4. Look at what creates your demand for spots and features — if you are driven to fill a huge daily newscast schedule you are going to assign a lot of spots (and probably rely on wire copy and low-tier stories). You may need to adjust your demands to put quality of news over your quantity of news.
  5. Use features in newscast slots — as long as they are timely and tackle “hard news,” your depth reports won’t sound out-of-place and may be of greater service than hourly summaries.
  6. Avoid dogmatic statements like “we don’t cover fires” — you would certainly cover a conflagration that sweeps through a suburb. The point is to examine each story on its merits and cover it as best serves your audience. Sometimes that is fast without great depth. Sometimes it is reasonably fast with reasonable depth. And sometimes it is slower but thorough.

This “balanced” approach reframes the issue so it is not a question of “spots versus features” but a continuum of best choices per story. Still, the bottom line for local newsrooms is that all on-air work must attain high standards of quality.

Also see How-To’s → Use The Four Tiers of News

The ND’s Role in Programming

News is both content and programming. As such, both news directors and program directors have a say in it. But how do we distinguish where the role of the news director ends and the job of the program director begins?

Program Directors have primary responsibility for programming the radio station. They have authority over the allocation of airtime, format choices and the overall sound of the station.

News Directors have primary responsibility for the editorial content that fills the allocated airtime for news. They exercise journalistic judgment in the gathering, assembly and delivery of news.

In general, it is easy enough for the PD to attend to formatics of news and the ND to focus on the content. In most cases, the News Director will see to it that editorial considerations conform to the format considerations. And the PD will see to it that time is made available for news according to the needs of users.

However, collaboration is often required so that content, presentation, scheduling and audience interests are all woven together.

When there is breaking news, the News Director often may lead the decision-making — especially during a crisis when “breaking news” is of maximum public concern.

See also How-To’s → Establish a Crisis Coverage Plan

In general, the ND and PD work together to see the news is presented in the best interests of the audience.

Making the Case for Training

“If you think training is expensive, try ignorance.” –Tom Peters

Some News Directors encounter resistance when they bring up the need for training in their department. It behooves the ND to find out why. If you give up on training, you give up on your staff, your craft, your station and your audience.

Resistance to training is often budget related. While some forms of training can be expensive, not all training is.

Be clear about your training needs. Conduct an audit if necessary. Knowing your needs is the first step to shopping around for affordable training. Often the cheapest training is that which you provide yourself.

Sometimes, managers can inject a bit too much ego into their arguments against training. They say things like, “we’re doing great in that area,” or “I don’t see any problems there.” Training isn’t necessarily about fixing things, but improving them.

However, sometimes training is about fixing problems — but that doesn’t make it embarrassing or an admission of failure. It makes training critically necessary.

Here are good arguments in favor of training.

  • because we want to make our journalism the best it can be
  • because we want to attract new audiences
  • because we want to grow our staff
  • because we want to keep talented employees
  • because our industry is changing
  • because we have identified a deficit
  • because we can always learn new things

Training is leadership in action. It takes commitment to excellence and investment in that commitment.

When Upper Management Wants to Call the Shots

Good bosses don’t do their employees’ work for them. They state expectations, give employees what’s needed and step back to let employees succeed. That’s the ideal.

The boss of a News Director has a special challenge. The boss will wish to honor professional journalistic norms that insulate the ND from the business and corporate aspects of the organization. At the same time, the boss retains responsibility and authority for the work of the ND and the news team.

If you feel your manager is stepping into your job description, you need to sit down and talk about it. The vast majority of issues in the workplace can be resolved through good communication.

Before we discuss actual management interference, let’s discuss “managing up.”

Borrowing from a longtime management trainer, the late Paul Pohlman of the Poynter Institute, we recommend the following:

Learn your boss’ management style

  • Including communication preferences
  • Including personality and temperament

Know your boss’ priorities

  • Including pressures or challenges
  • Including goals for your area

Ask your boss what you need to know

  • What support he/she needs?
  • What he/she expects from you

Tell your boss what he/she needs to know

  • Your priorities and goals
  • Your pressures and challenges

The goal here is to improve your working relationship in order to improve the quality of your journalism. This is a relationship you want built upon trust and honesty.

As for management interference, let’s be clear about two things:

  1. Your manager has authority over your work and may see it as a matter of responsibility to direct your work in some manner;
  2. News Directors serve their managers well when they protect the editorial integrity and independence of the station.

It would be a serious matter to accuse your boss of interfering in the editorial integrity or independence of your department — after all, it is your boss’s department too. You share a lot of responsibility here so let’s be careful about charges of interference.

If a situation arises in which your boss insists on making editorial decisions, seek clear communication for the reason and rationale. A relationship built upon trust and honesty gives each side the benefit of the doubt. If you agree with the rationale there is no harm done.

If you disagree with the rationale, you need to express your reason and seek a satisfactory reply.

We wouldn’t counsel anyone to disobey his or her boss — unless it was a matter of avoiding an outright illegal act! Rather, if the boss insists on an editorial outcome that is onerous to you, you may be left with few options including reconsidering your employment choice. You should take a situation like that to your human resource department.

Making the Case for Original Reporting

As professional journalists, we know the value of original reporting. We know there is no substitute for having our own evidence upon which to proceed. We know that what we see with our own eyes can be of immense value to the people we serve. We know that when our reporters come back with original documents and first-hand accounts, they can better relay facts directly to listeners. Original reporting allows us to own the story and lead the way.

Unfortunately, we are awash in second-hand news. Every time we cite a secondary news source, we show lack of direct ownership. Every time we rely upon a wire service story, we don’t lead — we follow. Whenever we build upon outside sourcing, we are gambling whether the foundation is solid.

All this is to say that stations who purport to be in the business of journalism had better put a premium on original reporting. To be derivative is to risk uselessness. Why should an audience come to you if you offer what they could get elsewhere?

Here are three keys to walking the walk at your local station:

  1. Put Original Journalism in your Mission Statement. Let it be clear to all stakeholders that your station recognizes the importance of committing to the journalistic calling.
  2. Invest in Editorial Staff, Training and Infrastructure. Spend what’s necessary to deliver high quality, original reporting in at least one niche that you can own. Even the smallest station can focus its editorial attention somewhere important. Minimally, it takes someone to report and someone to edit.
  3. March to Your Own Beat. Go for what is necessary for your community. Aim tough questions at people who are accountable. Carry out journalism that has impact. This requires courage, independence and relentless editorial leadership.

Managers outside the newsroom may not have thought very deeply on the importance of original reporting. The News Director might need to foster that conversation.

Note: This doesn’t take issue with networking and partnership as an approach to coverage. Shared ownership is better than no ownership. Nor does this suggest that we abandon our wire services and newspapers: only that we minimize duplicate coverage.

High Aspirations and Low Resources

All newsrooms have limits to their resources. There are only so many journalists, only so many dollars, only so many hours, etc. In this relative way, we all begin at the same place. We all need more resources because we all see so much more to be done.

The idea then is to operate on two levels: one that absolutely makes the most effective use of existing resources, and the other that aims toward growth. The growth that follows commitment and success.

The two levels can co-exist in positivity, provided there is not a huge gap between them. By performing optimally given current resources, the ND can better argue for — and better guarantee — greater service with greater resources.

Setting current and future expectations is a continuing process that cycles through the following phases. Each is instrumental to the evolutionary cycle of your newsroom:

  • Vision & Mission — Allow high aspirations in principle. Set out the vision of public service broadcasting. Connect the dots between what you come to work to do… and why it matters.
  • Goals for Department & Staff — Provide the quantitative and qualitative measurements of success. Aim high but identify what it takes to stay within your means. Be so precise that all can see what measurable difference your resources make in your output.
  • Measure & Maximize Efficiency — Work hard. Apply best practices for quality work, satisfied employees, and meaningful public service. Use resources wisely, creatively. Measure against goals.
  • Reap Rewards & Grow Strategically — When the opportunity comes around, celebrate achievements. Cooperate in fundraising to extract your return on investment. Ask for the fiscal support that accrues to excellent service. Reinvest in the people and the product to grow even greater.

It takes time and sometimes a leap of faith to close the gap between high aspirations and low resources. The steps above go better with a confident attitude. And remember that news is about credibility and spine and respect before it is about ratings and dollars.

News Directors need time and support to lead (or participate) in this process. The more deliberate, documented and shared it becomes, the more the entire team propels it.

While one can only squeeze so much quality (and quantity) from a given set of resources, the ND is in a position to make the most of those, and from there, to explain the need for more. After all, which aspirations would you rather reach for? High or low?

Funding the Newsroom

What should be the News Director’s role in helping to raise money for news purposes?

News Directors and those involved in news owe their first obligation to the public. After all, they promise to serve the public good and keep the trust. However, our journalism is only manifest via an economic process. In public radio, we may sidestep the excesses of our commercial counterparts, but we’re not immune from the influence of money.

Funding for public radio is fraught with challenges for journalists:

  • Government dollars help fuel our operations, opening us to political pressure;
  • Underwriting dollars comprise a significant revenue stream, yet allow the perception that underwriters may get special favor;
  • Gifts and grants help make content possible, but may come with some direct or indirect expectations or restrictions.

Only listeners’ dollars seem to be most free of potential conflict, and most News Directors willingly oblige the need to go on air to solicit direct listener support.

The rest of the funding streams — government, underwriting, gifts and grants — must be met with special editorial protections. We employ a theoretical “firewall” to keep the business side of things from mingling with or influencing the editorial side.

This firewall should be articulated in clear policy statements that are known to all staff, to funders and to the public. If the policies are breached, there should be serious consequences because the entire lifeblood of the organization depends up the trust therein.

News Directors may be among the few people who can traverse the firewall if and when it helps make the case for funding and does not expose the department to interference or compromise — real or perceived. This is because ND’s are in a position to advocate for the expense of quality news coverage, although PD’s and GM’s should be equally capable.

ND’s should NOT be in the business of recruiting donors nor asking for money directly, but they can and should be willing to be accountable for the work of their department. (For example, we see nothing wrong with a News Director espousing the many good deeds accomplished by funding. But, to preserve editorial independence, that same News Director would not engage in content-specific pre-negotiations with funders other than to insist on editorial freedom to cover the news as the department sees fit.)

Still, one of the greatest challenges remains when to say yes and when to say no to funding sources. Say YES when:

  • The source is helping you meet a need that was identified by you in advance without the lure of funding; and
  • The source supports your statement of editorial independence and integrity; and
  • The source itself is neutral or separate from controversial issues in the news (or is bundled with other sources in such a way that mitigates the possible perception of source-to-coverage linkage)

Say NO to funding when:

  • The source offers funding that distort your editorial priorities; or
  • The source insists on controlling or influencing your editorial process; or
  • The source brings an advocacy position or an involvement in controversial issues.

News Directors may also be put in the position of having to vigorously enforce the firewall should a well-meaning associate from the business side of the station go too far in linking programming considerations with funding considerations, or if management should bring heat on the department for pursuing coverage that alienates a business client or powerful constituency. News Directors should not wait for incidents like these to flare up to address the need for firewall protection. Rather they should seek prophylactic opportunities to discuss policies and assure all key players agree to them.

Added comment from Duncan Lively, a long-time public radio journalist and manager:

We worry a lot about how for-profit funders have the potential to shape news coverage or even programming decisions. I think the bigger issue is insuring that funding from advocacy organizations (land trusts, ocean conservation groups, etc.) not unduly shape our editorial priorities.

It’s a good bet that most pubcasting managers, development officers and news directors would insist on absolute editorial independence if a social conservative “hot button” group (pro-gun, anti-gay, anti-abortion, pro-fundamentalist) donated.

My point is that we need to be agnostic about the worthiness of the donor organization’s mission–something I’m not always sure is the case because our funders are oftentimes our biggest fans.
Such grants should either be unrestricted or they should be declined. The national organizations, by and large, live by this standard — or are at least fiscally secure enough to leave money on the table or give it back if a funder begins to demand “quid pro quo” coverage for funding. I don’t think that’s as likely to be the case at the local level.

Cultivating Excellent Stationwide Relations

News Directors should not confuse the “editorial firewall” with a “psychic barrier” that can isolate the news department from the rest of the station.

Independence is a key ingredient in editorial decision-making, but interdependence is the key to excellent station relations. That takes communication and understanding.

News Directors are wise to build personal-professional relationships with the managers and directors of their institution. They do so not to ingratiate themselves for their particular interests, but because the organization will function better when all the employees are in alignment with their shared mission and priorities.

When the ND is engaged with various managers and departments, the ND is better able to help the station define its journalistic objectives. For example, when an entire station is clear on its devotion to news as a public service, it may need the News Director to help articulate that objective as part of a mission statement or strategic plan.

News Directors have so many tasks associated with just getting the news done well that they are understandably reluctant to take on broader station initiatives. After all, they rightly argue, the on-air product is the key to fulfilling station mission and powering the programming engine. Yet the newsroom leader is too crucial to the station to be confined to the newsroom alone.

When and where possible, the ND is involved in planning or budget setting, or helping other managers understand what the newsroom needs to succeed, or helping build the station’s reputation in the community.

Be accessible. Share your successes with the entire station. You can assert editorial independence while still building positive relations.