Saturday, January 5, 2008

One size fits all

Managing a news room is not an easy task, although with a little common sense it can be a lot simpler than many editors make it.
Early in my career I was the editor of the Michigan State News, a major college daily newspaper. A few years later, I was editor of a chain of mid-Michigan weekly newspapers.
Reporters are by nature somewhat generalists. They are required to do a variety of tasks and cover a variety of stories sometimes with little or no background in the subject or person they are covering.
Some reporters are skilled at gathering information and getting people to talk. Others are more skilled at putting together artful prose and organizing stories. It's the rare combination that is excellent at both.
Where editors often fail is in recognizing over time the best skills of individuals. At the Flint Journal, the top editors are seemingly blind to the overall skill sets of their employees.
In many cases, reporters who would excel at gathering information and producing daily news copy are pushed and dragged into producing long, boring features that take them away from what they do best. And what readers enjoy reading most.
Likewise reporters who are tops at producing good, readable feature copy are pressed into service at covering breaking news.
There will always be some of that at any newspaper, but it should be minimized.
Skilled investigative reporters are in the rotation for the annoyingly boring "Making A Difference" or Sunday feature stories, which inevitably drain time away from actual news coverage.
At one point I even mentioned to the two top editors that it appeared they were constantly trying to pound the round peg into the square hole personnel wise. But like most of the input that I, and other reporters offered, it was completely ignored.
A good manager tries to fit people to their strengths.
Choosing beats is a good example. Last year, a couple reporters requested a change of beat - they do get stale after a while - and even told the editors what beat they might want to cover.
What happened was a gosh awful musical beat arrangement that left many unhappy reporters and others simply scratching their heads. No one got a beat they had requested and many were placed in beats they absolutely didn't want, even when someone else did.
Some blamed it on a power trip by one editor. I think it was simple incompetence.
If a change in beats is needed, a good manager might put up a list of available beats and ask reporters to apply for one that interests them. Better to have someone covering a beat they want than dragging them into a beat for which they have little, or no interest.
Where there was a conflict, then an editor could determine who had the better skills to cover a coveted beat.
But not at the Flint Journal.
In another posting, I'll let you know about the brainiac idea to have daily and weekly reporters for Flint Journal owned publications begin competing with each other despite a lack of manpower in 2007. This was stupid on parade.
During the long slide of the paper, forced beat changes had been carried out several times, but somehow the people running the editorial content of the paper remained untouched in their positions.
To use a sports analogy, the ownership of this company fired or changed the whole team instead of looking at changing the manager. Trust me, a change in managers is sorely needed on this team.
In some cases, especially with the new buyouts, reporters are being piled on with additional beat responsibilities, while the number of main editors remains the same.
Readers may not be aware, but some reporters are covering whole counties and parts of others as part of one beat. It is not possible to cover as many townships, cities and villages as some of the reporters are being asked to cover and do it well.
Heck when I was there I covered all of one county, three townships and five school districts in another. Since I left, my old beat has been added to that of another reporter who was already covering three townships and several school districts.
Any smart editor would know that is an impossible task, one that sets up a person for failure.
But hey, it wouldn't do to have an editor pick up a phone or drive to a meeting and help out instead of hosting another stupid meeting to discuss Sunday story ideas for stories that no one will read.
So when a story in your area does not get covered as you believe it should have, just remember that it might have been your reporters turn to do a "Making a Difference."
The Flint Journal has uniquely skilled reporters, although they are dwindling in numbers, who given proper management could continue to produce a newspaper that would interest and gather readers.
During the time I was an editor I found it much easier - and more productive - to fit people to their interests and skills. It made for enthusiastic and motivated employees.
Good editors turn people loose to find good stories and news, bad ones put the bit in a reporter's mouth and pull back as hard as they can.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Top 10 story list a joke

Every year the Flint Journal posts its top 10 story list based on the votes of its staff combined with its online readership.
This year, the voters picked - ta-da - Lakisha Jones and her fourth place appearance on American Idol as the top story of 2007.
What the Journal didn't bother to tell its readers was the actual vote that led to the Top 10 listings in the paper. They rarely do, partly because they are embarassed at the ridiculously low number of voters who make the picks.
The Journal, in seeking to be credibile, should at least be honest about the number of people who make the story selection for the list.
I'm not privy to the actual vote totals, but I'll wager dollars to doughnuts that less than 15 staff members and less than 40 readers are the source of the Top 10 list. That's out of an editorial staff of 60-80 people and a total subscription base of about 100,000.
Mathematically, I don't think that puny number would even register on a calculator, not without a few zeroes in front of a whole number.
LaKisha Jones was a good local story, but editorial management decided that Jones was the path to journalistic salvation. Seriously - they said the following in meetings - that they believed if we saturated the paper with Jones news, young people would come flocking back to the paper, we would attract advertisers and save the newspaper.
Five months later, they offered a massive buyout to stem the financially bleeding at the paper.
To cover the Jones story, management took a full-time reporter off her beat covering two major suburban communities and told her to find a front page story everyday about LaKisha.
That reporter, Sally York, did yeoman's work in finding different angles everyday so that readers would never be deprived of some tidbit of the Jones story.
More remarkable because, Jones and most of her family were not allowed to talk to the Journal during the show's airing time. So while the Journal became a shill for a popular TV show, not even the show allowed access to the star the paper was shilling.
Meanwhile, York's regular beat went bascially uncovered for months. Don't blame Sally, she was doing what she was told to do and she did it very, very well.
So if you had a story last year that you thought was worth covering and didn't get covered, blame LaKisha. With American Idol starting up again this month, local readers can only hope that whatever divas make the final cut won't be from the Flint area or plan on similar overkill in 2008.
The Jones story should have been covered, but not at the expense of two local communities and significant front page space. Trust me, many reporters at the Journal were very embarassed by the Jones overkill, but were powerless to stop it.

Monday, December 31, 2007

Not all the blame is on editors

My friend Todd has found some sad news out of Ohio and Kentucky to end the old year. Clearly newspapers are the buggy whip industry of this new century.
Two newspapers, the Cincinnati Post and the Kentucky Post, which serve the northern Kentucky and Cincinnati metropolitan area are closing their doors today. At least one of the papers has been in continuous service for 126 years.
While I believe editors could do much to stall or arrest the downward spiral by giving readers the breaking news they really want - and not the cultural crud that a few members of focus group tell them - clearly there are bigger forces at work.
Todd sent along this link, which is sad, but excellent reading for anyone concerned about the future of the home delivered newspaper:

If I don't post again today, may you all have a Happy New Year (editors included!) and may 2008 be a kinder and gentler year for everyone.