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Home > Publications > Quill > Make a resolution to improve newsrooms


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Friday, February 2, 2007
Make a resolution to improve newsrooms

By Christine Tatum, SPJ President

Being national president of SPJ is one cool gig if for no other reason than the opportunities it affords to see many of the nation’s newsrooms and to meet and correspond with journalists of all backgrounds.

Journalists greet me as an instant confidante. I know what bothers them in the places they work. They mince no words about their disgust with certain industry dynamics and with the poor management and office politics permeating their newsrooms.

Given that a new year is here, now is a great time for all of us to make some changes that improve our newsrooms. These are just a few ideas, and they’re not mine alone (for a more complete list and to add your own thoughts, visit my blog, Freedom of the Prez.

Insist on good technology

There are news organizations of all sizes out there that truly should be ashamed. Reporters at one Wyoming newspaper told me about how the design and production of their online edition is controlled by the paper’s advertising department because the head honchos don’t want to make room in the budget for that work to be handled by journalists. Even in the nation’s largest newsrooms, I often am dismayed by the antiquated and/or poorly designed Web-production tools that severely prohibit talented journalists from working online quickly and innovatively. More of us need to speak up about these failures to newsroom managers, to station owners and to publishers.

It’s also important for journalists to invest in themselves by learning how to use an array of technology to deliver the news. Don’t wait around for an employer to provide such training. If you don’t have the option of taking a college course or putting new skills into practice in your newsroom, consider the Society’s Web site your training ground. See my blog or contact Quill Editor Joe Skeel for ideas about how you could contribute to the site in ways that benefit thousands of journalists and help you become more tech-savvy in the process.

Appreciate differences, strengths

One sign of good leadership is the ability to identify everyone’s potential and to inspire him or her to live up to it. Newsrooms are filled with quirky folks who are easy to write off because they somehow don’t hang with the right crowd or have the right swagger and pedigree. Or they’re easy to dismiss because they’ve been unfairly boxed into one area of specialty or are just “really quiet,” as one TV station manager told me. Many newsrooms could be transformed if journalists actively sought to know more about the professional strengths and interests of their colleagues and those they supervise.

Seek everyone’s input

This is a no-brainer, but it’s amazing how many newsrooms fall down on the job miserably. Show me news managers wringing their hands about how to appeal to younger audiences and growing niche communities, and I’ll likely show you a senior staff that seriously needs to reconsider how it decides what stories to pursue and present.

The chairs in those daily coverage-planning meetings typically are filled by the same people every day — and those people are often white, male and older than 40. Even worse is when the people sitting in those chairs consistently do little more than present story options and leave it to the newsroom’s top one or two mangers to do all the yammering and decision-making. They should consider creating regular rotations for reporters and production staff to weigh in on story selection. They could try a more democratic approach by giving everyone a vote and allowing the majority to decide story selection and placement. They might even invite trusted members of the general public to have a say in some of these discussions.

While I’m at it, I can’t help but note that a lot of news-analysis TV programs would be far more interesting if producers and hosts bothered to solicit input from journalists of a much wider array of ages. And gracious, find folks working outside the Beltway, please.

Build more flexible newsrooms

With today’s technology, there’s no reason for journalists to be tethered to their desks. Newsroom managers have been surprisingly slow to permit staff writers — and even online producers — to work remotely. And then they wonder why resulting stories lack enterprise and energy.

It’s also time for more journalists to contemplate seriously the silos in which they work. While newsies are always likely to have specialties, we need to think of ourselves as gatherers and presenters of information across media. Not as “newspaper,” “radio” and “TV” journalists.

Like it or not, technology is shattering those distinctions, and newsrooms should reorganize accordingly. Journalists either will help develop and embrace exciting changes, or they will play the role of obstructionist and, eventually, find themselves out of a job.


Christine Tatum is an assistant business editor for The Denver Post. Contact her at ctatum@spj.org.

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