This continues a series on advice for new top editors in Digital First Media newsrooms.
Time is one of an editor’s and a newsroom’s most precious resources. Spend your time wisely to move your newsroom forward and elevate your digital journalism.
The challenges of digital journalism give you – and your staff – lots more things to do without giving you any more time. To succeed, you need to manage your time – and your staff’s time – efficiently or you will certainly be overwhelmed.
To manage your time effectively, a top newsroom editors must:
- Set priorities.
- Decide what to stop doing.
- Decide what to do less of.
- Decide where you can accept a lower standard.
- Identify time-wasters.
- Find opportunities to use technology to work more efficiently.
Few things an editor does are more important than setting priorities. Decide for yourself how you and your staff should spend your time. The priorities you set will shape other time-management decisions.
One important priority our company has decided for editors is reflected in our name: Digital First Media. Growing our digital audience, mastering digital skills and excelling at digital news coverage need to be your top priorities. We haven’t stopped publishing print products yet, but we have embraced the realization that our future is digital, and your daily and long-term decisions must reflect this priority.
In small and large ways, you should decide how to spend more time on digital matters and less on print. I’ll discuss this more as I elaborate on other matters.
Another priority decision that editors must make is deciding the relative importance of immediate, short-term and long-range matters. These aren’t quite as easy as the digital/print decision because one is not clearly more important. In fact, importance will shift quickly as news breaks or as you decide on pursuing short-term or long-range projects.
I started as editor of the Cedar Rapids Gazette on June 10, 2008, with a strong long-range priority of leading a digital-first transition. A historic flood two days later delayed any long-range planning by raising the importance of immediate news coverage and immediate logistical matters (we lost power for about a month, among many other issues). And as soon as the waters receded, the continuing short-term priority of planning coverage of the community’s disaster recovery became most urgent.
Both the immediate and short-term priorities provided opportunities to advance my long-range digital transformation, and we took advantage of those opportunities. But I had to delay plans for training, brainstorming and any lasting changes in staffing or workflow in pursuit of the digital transformation.
How you manage immediate, short-term and long-range priorities varies according to staffing, too. In a larger staff, you might have a breaking news team that handles most daily breaking news effectively, so that immediate priorities don’t demand your attention as often. But disasters and major events will still become immediate priorities.
Generally, I think an editor should focus attention more on making next year’s news report the best it can be than on making today’s news report (or tomorrow’s newspaper) the best it can be.
An editor who feels overwhelmed (or unable to focus beyond today’s news) may be failing to delegate.
One of the best pieces of advice I ever got from Dave Witke, my early leadership role model was: Hire good people, then get out of the way and let them do their jobs.
One of the best ways that you shift priorities from today to next year is to step back and allow your staff to grow. If you have a big enough staff that you have other key editors such as a managing editor, metro editor, news editor, business editor, sports editor or online editor, they should take the lead most days in making today’s news report the best it can be. You want to help them become better editors next year, so sometimes you need to step back and let them learn from their own mistakes and successes, rather than controlling all the key decisions yourself.
If you have other editors on the staff, you don’t have to edit every story. Letting the editors under you grow in their jobs saves you time today, improves your news product next year and lets you focus on longer-range priorities.
One of a top editor’s best time management techniques is simply trusting your staff to do their jobs.
I had excellent editors on my staff in Cedar Rapids, so I hardly ever worked directly with a reporter on a story unless that story supported a long-range goal, such as developing narrative or liveblogging skills.
You’re the top editor and you’re responsible for the entire editorial effort. But you don’t have to manage everything. Set the priorities and the direction for the newsroom. Assign significant duties to other key editors. Provide feedback on how they perform (praise as well as criticism). And let them do their jobs.
Decide what to stop doing
One of management’s favorite clichés when cutting staff is that we have to “do more with less.” You can only do more with less if you are using technology to work more efficiently (more on that shortly). Otherwise, you’re just lying to your staff (or passing on a lie from above) when you tell them to do more with less.
I blogged last year about the importance of newsrooms deciding what to stop doing. Editors need to make the same decisions, and not just about staff cuts, but about how to work differently with the same size staff.
Many of those decisions will be relating to the shift from print priorities to digital: As digital duties take more time and grow in importance, you need to handle print duties more efficiently and/or decide which print duties it’s time to retire or delegate.
Part of how I managed time (and set priorities and delegated) in Cedar Rapids was that I usually missed the late-afternoon meeting where we planned the next day’s front page. We had good journalists who could plan a good front page without my participation, so I generally stopped going, spending that time usually on digital matters.
Decide what to do less of
Some things you can’t stop, but you can spend less time on.
I also decided in Cedar Rapids that I wanted more interactive digital graphics, so I shifted our graphic artist’s workload to be 80 percent digital (it had been about 90 percent or more print). I set the priority and delegated here, letting the copy desk chief decide whether we would use fewer local print graphics or have a page designer spend more time on print graphics and less time on pages or some of both.
Decide where you can accept a lower standard
This is one of the toughest decisions an editor has to make because we want perfection. But perfection is the road to burnout. Pick your spots to pursue perfection (perhaps reflecting your priorities) and get comfortable with (or at least learn to accept) good-enough in areas that are less important.
I gave an example of accepting a lower standard in Friday’s post about photography. The professional photojournalists on your staff will shoot better mug shots, meeting shots and other routine shots accompanying stories than reporters with point-and-shoot cameras will shoot. The photojournalists should be working on high-quality videos, photo galleries and multimedia projects. You accept good-enough mugs and meeting shots because you want to do a better job managing the time of your skilled professional photojournalists.
You may be better than your city editor at editing copy. But you probably chose her for that job (or your predecessor did) because she was pretty good at editing. Accept the standard of one edit (or two, if a copy editor is reading the stories, too) rather than insisting on editing everything yourself. (Of course, you’ll still take a crack at some of the biggest and best stories.)
Liveblogging is a great example of how time management and standards work together. When reporters liveblog or livetweet events or breaking news, your editing standard changes dramatically. You still want clean copy (and should note to reporters when they are getting sloppy). But you’re not going to have the clean copy that you have when the city editor and you both edit a story before sending it to a copy editor. However, you’re going to make better use of the reporter’s time during the event. And clean copy is not the only standard in play here; you’re going to raise your standard of depth and thoroughness.
Assess the things in your routine that waste time and consider how to reduce or eliminate the time you spend on them. I’m a Yankee fan and I used to enjoy bantering at work with a Red Sox fan. Most days, I was satisfied with a quick exchange of barbs. But sometimes, especially if our teams were playing each other, he wanted to analyze the game in excruciating detail. I enjoy that, too, and sometimes indulge in it (see my Hated Yankees blog), but it can turn into a huge time-waster.
I’m not suggesting you cut the sports trash talk (or gardening talk or sharing family photos or whatever your non-work time-wasters might be) entirely from your day. That kind of chatter builds teamwork (a topic of an upcoming post in this series) and camaraderie and makes a newsroom a fun place to work (another upcoming topic).
But you can moderate the time wasted. I learned in my relationship with the Red Sox fan that one baseball exchange per day during the season usually sufficed. And home field in that exchange was a disadvantage. If Boston stopped by my desk, he controlled the length of the conversation (unless I wanted to be a jerk and tell him I’d had enough). So, especially on busy days, I made a point of stopping by his desk first. We’d exchange quick insults and I’d laugh and be on my way, and we never had to break down that night’s pitching matchups.
It’s the same way for an editor who dreads an encounter with a high-maintenance staff member. If you know that someone is going to need to talk about something that happened yesterday, don’t wait for him to come to your office and initiate the discussion. Then you have to either throw him out eventually or wait until he’s made all his points. Drop by his desk with an end point in mind. You may be able to start at the end point or you may need to listen politely to his points briefly and steer to the end point: “Here’s what I’d like you to do” or “Here’s what I’ll do about that.” Then you can walk away with a three-minute conversation at his desk instead of a 15-minute conversation in your office.
Even if the conversation happens in your office, steering to the end point helps speed it along. You’ll probably need to listen a bit more if you didn’t initiate the conversation. But if the person is interested in results, steering to the end point brings a satisfying conclusion for the staff member as well as saving you some time.
If someone truly feels a need to unburden about something complicated (that’s not important enough to merit that much of your time), sometimes it helps to ask her to summarize the issue in a note for you. She’ll spend considerable time on the note, but will probably trim it back (even if the final note seems long) and you’ll be able to read it in far less time than it would take to hear the oral version. Writing can be cathartic to writers, too, so writing a note you asked for may be more helpful and better focused than talking about it.
If you do this, be sure to follow up. Failure to respond to a staff member’s note — especially if you asked for it — can be a crushing disappointment. Your response, whether it’s oral or stopping by the staff member’s desk, can be brief, especially if focused on the solution.
Two caveats here:
- Some matters should be confidential. Don’t drop by a staff member’s desk to discuss something that should be handled in your office.
- Don’t take this to mean that I think discussions with staff members are time-wasters. Conversations with staff members are one of an editor’s most important jobs and important management tools. But your staff wants more time with you than you have. Identify those who would monopolize your time and streamline those conversations.
How can technology save time or increase productivity?
Technology can suck up lots of your time. But it also can help you and your staff save time. As I said earlier, technology has been a great tool in helping journalists and news staffs do more with less. Over the years, pagination, spreadsheets and digital photography have helped news staffs save considerable time.
A great technique to help journalists produce more content in less time today is liveblogging. The old workflow produced a single story from the time a journalist spent sitting at an event taking notes, then starting the task of writing a story. A liveblogging reporter produces more timely and more detailed content during the event and probably can write the story quicker afterward (because writing during the event streamlines that task).
If some staff members from bureaus or remote newsrooms need to travel to the main newsroom for meetings, consider whether you can save their commute time by meeting sometimes by Hangout.
You do need to talk by phone sometimes with staff members in the field or in remote offices. But sometimes a text message or email will save time.
Twitter and Tout are brief social media forms that enable swift use of social media, whether you’re posting, reading or viewing.
Assess your use of technology from time to time. Identify where it’s sucking up too much time and see whether other tools can help you save time, increase productivity or both.
What time-management techniques help you spend more time on what’s important?
Want to contribute a guest post?
If you’re another Digital First editor (or a leader or former leader in another organization) and would like to propose a guest post as part of the series, email me at sbuttry (at) digitalfirstmedia (dot) com and we’ll discuss. Sue Burzynski Bullard provided such a post on organizational tools. Nancy March wrote about balancing work and personal life. Dan Rowinski wrote about mobile opportunities.
I’m not interested in a post of general leadership tips. I’d rather have a post on a particular leadership topic. Feel free to suggest a post that might address a topic I’ve already covered, but from a different perspective. I welcome posts that disagree with my advice. I will invite a few editors I respect to write posts.
Jill Geisler’s What Great Bosses Know about Helping Staff Manage Time
Earlier posts with advice for editors
Here are topics I am planning on covering in this series (the order is tentative). The posts probably will run every few days for the next few weeks. What other topics should I cover?
- Discipline and addressing problems
- Developing new leaders