Building a creative news environment can be a matter of routine

Newsroom managers have always needed to be good jugglers. When someone asked how I was doing, I often answered:

“I’ve got a lot of balls in the air — and I’m trying not to let too many of them land on my head.”

But listen to managers talk today about their daily challenges, and the juggling metaphor no longer feels sufficient.

Not when they say things like, “I’m just trying to survive.”

With more work, over-stretched resources and frequently changing expectations for themselves and their staffs, managers say their top priority is to get the website updated, get the paper out, get the show on the air.

Just get the work done.

Notice what’s missing from that statement: “Get the work done … well.”

It’s implied, you say? Maybe. But I don’t think so. Too often, managers respond with a polite “you must be dreaming” to the idea of improving the work with more coaching, brainstorming or long-term planning. We know those things would help, many say, but we don’t get time anymore for lunch. When will I get time for coaching?

Instead, they describe turning to whatever strategies or tools or decisions helped them make it through yesterday’s ordeal — and then using those approaches again today… and then tomorrow … and the next day…

They are on a quest for routines.

Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily — if you choose the right routines.

And therein lies the trap. Because repeating the same approaches to your job day after day can be the death of creativity. Too many stories with anecdotal leads become ordinary, boring. Too many interviews with the same sources become predictable and distort reality. Too much negotiating story length and deadline instead of brainstorming better story ideas leads to a preoccupation with production concerns — at the expense of the stories.

At the expense of doing the work well.

On the other hand, the right routines, applied appropriately, can help you survive and pursue excellence. The challenge is to choose routines that enable the pursuit of excellence, not frustrate it.

Said another way, the right routines provide a framework for creativity. They not only protect against every day becoming an unstructured, “reinvent the wheel” experience, they also enable an environment for pursuing new ideas and more ambitious work.

Here’s my challenge to you today: Identify three routines that you could adopt to enhance your staff’s creativity.

Here are three examples:

1. Meetings. Start on time and end on time. Every day. (If you’re not running the meeting, show up on time anyway. And then ask if others could, too.) Meetings that start late and go on forever encourage attendees to view them as burdens instead of opportunities. And stick to the agenda — it will help you end on time. If the meeting is about tomorrow’s morning show, it’s not the time for discussing the company’s new health insurance plan.

Those two practices — honoring start and end times, and sticking to the agenda — are useful routines. They give your meetings structure. Once you have that structure, you can defy routine in the cause of creativity:

  • Deal with mundane issues quickly. They are mundane.
  • Rotate responsibility for running the meeting.
  • Encourage discussions you want more of — the ones that take coverage deeper, beyond the obvious.
  • Assign attendees to share with the group examples of best practices.
  • Be clear about next steps, timelines, and who’s responsible for them.

2. Coaching ideas. Every story starts with an idea. Maybe it’s a tip from a source, maybe it’s a suggestion from a neighbor, maybe it’s a thought that woke you up in the middle of the night. Whatever the idea, pursuing it usually involves a routine.

In too many newsrooms, that routine is heavily weighted toward production concerns. How long will it take to get the story? When can you file to the website? What visual support do you need? How long will it be? Does it need graphics?

These concerns are important. But they seldom guarantee that the story will leave viewers or readers talking afterward. Why not adopt a routine of asking, for starters, three questions about the idea:

  • If this story is totally successful, what might our audience know that they didn’t know before?
  • What questions do you need to get answered?
  • Who do you need to talk with?

Yes, you caught me: the answers to those questions might lead to more questions — and they should. Because done well, this routine can lead to reporting that both you and your reporter are invested in from the start. The rest of the day — including deadline — may well go more smoothly.

3. Access to you. The busier you get, the more difficult your staff finds it to talk with you.  Yes, you have lots of conversations with them about story budget lines, deadlines, web postings, etc. But your busyness discourages the kinds of conversations that staff are referencing when they call their manager a really good listener. Here are two routines that can help you increase the number of those conversations you hold.

  • Stop, at least once, on your way from the newsroom entrance to your desk. This routine gives you options. You can stop at the desk of someone you’ve been meaning to check in on, and spend five minutes there. But once you establish this routine, your staff will feel comfortable stopping you on your way across the room. Maybe the 10 minutes you spend at someone’s desk or at the coffee machine just lets you catch up on how someone’s kids are doing — but they might be spent hatching a great story idea.
  • Schedule one conversation a week on how someone’s job is going. Daily feedback is really important, and the more useful feedback you can give your staff, the better. But routinely checking in with staff to talk about how their job is progressing over time can allow you to realign expectations, shift course, brainstorm new ideas. It also lets you communicate your commitment to the staffer’s success. And if you’re looking for motivational tools, that’s a big one.
  • Linger after meetings. Yes, it’s really important to end meetings on time. It also can be helpful to hang around afterward with someone, or walk back to your desk with a staffer. Maybe you’ll talk about something related to the meeting you just attended. Or maybe it’s something you or the staffer has been hoping to talk about. The important thing is your accessibility — and the fact everyone in the newsroom can see your accessibility.

So go find three routines. And then find three more.

If you pick the right ones, they’ll help you get your work done — and do it well.

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