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Staffing and workflow: A primer

Almost all of the levers we can pull to improve newsroom performance revolve around the daily work of the staff, which is a newsroom's greatest resource.

Today’s newsrooms are increasingly responsible for attracting and retaining digital audiences. This means a focus on being maximally useful and interesting to people so they will return and keep using our products. While we can’t directly measure utility and “interestingness,” we can employ proxy metrics, such as time spent, return visits, article views and newsletter sign-ups to understand how we’re doing with audiences. And when we think about the various levers we can pull to improve performance on these metrics, almost all of them revolve around the daily work of the staff, which is a newsroom’s greatest resource: What should we do? Who should do it? When should we do it? And how should we do it? 

Importantly, this section of Better News assumes you already know the mechanics of how to do things and can simply decide to change your collective habits. If you need to address gaps in ability, refer to the Skill Development topic of Better News. 

Let’s take each of the above questions and tease it out a bit.

What should we do?

Apply audience analytics to beat assignments: Most newsrooms base their beat structures on audience assumptions that are decades old. Digital audience data can help identify areas to focus on and areas where you should draw down resources.

Decide when to create content for specific platforms: Social media, search, newsletters and mobile apps are important audience channels with different purposes. Again, audience analytics can help you understand how much time and effort you should spend on each.

Who should do it?

Move all aspects of standard article creation and publication upstream in the workflow to reporters and line editors. In a legacy workflow, an average article might need work from several specialists (writing, visuals, line editing, copy editing, web production) along the way to publication. While there’s still a need for specialists, efficient digital workflows can’t afford to rely on so many of them for the average article. Enabling a reporter and line editor to manage every aspect of an article’s creation and publication helps streamline and speed digital work.

Ensure print needs aren’t dictating workflow constraints by isolating print functions from the primary publishing workflow. News organizations with print products have long-held editing and production processes that tend to stymie change efforts upstream. Breaking off print decision-making and explicitly freeing reporters and line editors from print responsibilities enables them to focus on doing the best possible work for digital, while dedicated print specialists ensure that work is expertly curated for the print audience.

When should we do it?

Change digital publication deadlines to align with audience habits. Most general news sites see peak audience in the morning to midday hours, while most newsrooms still orient themselves around the late-in-the-day publication schedule dictated by print. Deadlines should move earlier to ensure there’s fresh reporting to meet audience demand.

Adjust workdays and meeting times/formats accordingly. Moving up work schedules and news planning meetings ensures staff is available and focused on the right things early in the day. Changing the time of the morning news meeting is also a good opportunity to adjust the format of the meeting, if necessary, to orient the discussion around the digital audience.

Update print deadlines if it’s helpful. Some newsrooms have taken the additional step of moving up print deadlines, both for production logistics and cost-saving reasons and to bring the print workday more in line with digital.

How should we do it?

Listen better. Ensure journalists are taking every opportunity to listen to the conversation going on in the community around them. (Monitoring social media is just one way to do that.) 

Write people-friendly headlines. It’s worth the extra effort to write headlines that match key search terms, sell your journalism to prospective readers and help them understand what they’ll get if they click.

Employ SEO efforts and audience-centric (not newsroom-centric) tagging. Utilize SEO components such as article URL terms and site topic structure to help users navigate your site. For example, many sites have a “lifestyle” vertical that corresponds to a similar section in print, even though there’s little evidence that digital users understand what kinds of content are grouped there. Instead, it might prove more useful to organize content under specific digital verticals such as “food” and “fashion.”

Adopt digitally aware planning, publishing and communication tools. The right newsroom tools enable journalists to engage audiences in new ways and make efficient use of their time. The wrong ones block the adoption of digital-first workflows and hold news organizations back in their digital evolution. Today’s newsrooms need modern tools for social listening, internal communication, planning, authoring/editing and audience analytics, and those tools must continue to evolve with customer needs.

Consistently inform decisions with analytics. The news organizations enjoying the most success in the digital age tend to be those that have developed a continuous feedback loop with their audiences. Feedback channels could include face-to-face interactions with readers or reporter engagement on social media platforms. But the most important feedback on a minute-to-minute basis comes from digital analytics tools, which show how readers are interacting with our journalism and provide further insights to inform our work.

But it’s not enough to say we’re going to do things differently. Change requires sustained effort and buy-in from all levels of the organization. Those final ingredients for change include: 

Message repetition. Many newsrooms have found success with regular internal newsletters, quick reference cards and online knowledge bases that reinforce the message of change, repeat best practices, share examples of what’s working and — crucially — remind people why it’s important.

On-the-ground champions. Adopting new workflows is hard, and it requires repeated coaching, coaxing and chiding by believers who actively push change from the front lines, with the necessary cover from their bosses.

From-the-top enforcement. Senior leaders must support these kinds of change efforts both by encouraging performance and ensuring newsroom employees they will not tolerate failure to adopt new workflows. 

Permission to stop doing things. Often the hardest part of change is deciding what to stop doing, but it’s necessary to free people up for more important work. Leaders must help their teams identify these opportunities and provide cover and support when they encounter resistance. While there is a cost associated with giving things up, audience analytics can help establish the opportunity cost of continuing business as usual. 

Performance management. Regular, candid and solutions-oriented conversations with employees can help recognize and reward positive performance, as well as correct work that doesn’t meet standards.