An editor at a mid-sized newsroom asked me some questions about digital productivity expectations for reporters:
We are banging our heads against the wall about this: How much content should reporters be required to write each day online? … Some feel they produce way more than others. So how do you even the playing field?
My quick answers:
- Everything any reporter produces should be published first online.
- Content is not all equal. You don’t measure reporters’ productivity or performance by counting widgets or credits.
- Expectations for reporters vary by beat and over time. Reporters should meet the expectations of their jobs.
- Running a newsroom isn’t like parenting. Your expectations for different reporters vary according to beat, experience, skill, news flow and a variety of other factors. You don’t even the playing field and I have little patience with whining about reasonable facts of life.
I’ll elaborate on those points in order:
Everything publishes first online
This is the easiest question to answer for my friend: “How much content should reporters be required to write each day online?” Everything.
I don’t know whether this is the publishing approach of the newsroom in question, but it’s my publishing approach, and I think every traditional print or broadcast newsroom should publish everything first to digital platforms. (Obviously, that’s not even an issue for digital-only publications.)
What you publish first, and where (your news site, a niche site or social media), might vary by the situation: Whether you’re liveblogging, livetweeting, livestreaming or working on a video, story or database that requires extensive preparation and editing.
Content is not equal
I remember two instances in my career — once when I was an editor and once when I was a reporter — when people above me thought it would be productive to judge reporters by counting their bylines. That was foolish then and it’s foolish now.
Units of journalistic content are not equal in their value or in the work required to produce them. I never produced the most stories among my reporting colleagues at the Omaha World-Herald. But I was probably among the leaders in producing page-one stories (I didn’t keep track) and I was certainly among the leaders in producing page-one Sunday stories. Some of my stories took a lot of time and work to produce, but I was doing the types of stories my editors wanted me to. The type and quality of stories was more important to my editors and me than the number.
As I explained to a publisher many years ago, if we held all reporters to the same expectations and measured their performance by counting bylines, reporters in need of bylines would inflate briefs beyond their news value for quick, easy bylines rather than pursuing enterprise stories. And some reporters we wanted to work on enterprise would spend time cranking out marginal daily stories we didn’t need or want.
And this was before reporters were producing digital content, such as video, data visualization, social media posts or interactive stories.
The different video options also require different amounts of time and effort. A reporter covering an event could post several live clips using Periscope or quick clips using Tout. Or a reporter or videographer could spend considerable time shooting and editing a video that tells a single important story. Or a journalist could curate community videos from multiple sources. As with text reporting, each of these types of videos has different value and requires a different time commitment.
The way that journalists cover breaking or unfolding stories also complicates efforts to value journalists’ work by simply counting units. You want frequent updates in covering those stories. Does each update count as a story? Does one story with a dozen or more updates count as a single story? Either way, the practice makes it less meaningful to measure reporters’ performance by counting.
Expectations should vary
Some journalists are not producing enough stories (or substantive enough stories), and it’s entirely fair and helpful to give those journalists expectations including how many stories they should produce in a day or in a week.
But a breaking news reporter, a sports beat reporter, a data journalist, a feature writer, an investigative reporter and a city hall reporter have different jobs and their expectations should vary. An education reporter should have different expectations during the summer than during the school year. The sports beat reporter has different expectations during the season than in the off-season.
In some communities, a city hall reporter can cover a meeting practically every day: city council one day, zoning commission the next, parks board the next, public safety subcommittee the next. A reporter chasing a byline quota may cover them all, regardless of how newsworthy the agendas were. A reporter who’s charged with providing the best coverage of city hall is free to decide when to skip a meeting with a light agenda and spend the time instead digging through the city manager’s travel expenses for an enterprise story.
I suggest that reporters and editors together ask my questions to guide a digital-first reporter to set priorities for each reporter. Production should be part of that discussion, but not the most important part.
Don’t even the playing field
I never wanted to meet the same expectations as other reporters. I wanted to meet the highest expectations and blow other reporters away with my performance.
If I ever made a statement to my editors about doing more or better by any measure than another reporter, I hope the editor knew that was a boast, not a complaint.
I don’t encourage editors to spend much time coddling reporters who complain that they are doing more than someone else. That’s a good thing. If your newsroom hasn’t handed out pay raises for a while, you might feel like your higher production isn’t being rewarded. But exceeding expectations and outperforming peers pays off. Sometimes it pays off in a pay raise, other times in promotions or career opportunities with other newsrooms or employers. It may pay off just by preventing bad news: If your newsroom is cutting staff, your productivity might be a factor in whether you stay or go.
If reporters are complaining about relative, apparent productivity, I wouldn’t be very patient with those complaints. Productivity expectations for reporters should vary, as I’ve explained above. And each reporter (unless you’re a formal mentor for another reporter or a team leader) is responsible for only your own productivity.
Editors need to manage the varying expectations of the reporters who work for them. But they don’t need to worry about achieving equality of production. And they don’t need to listen to or try to satisfy whining about inequality.