December 17, 2002

I’m compiling a list of laments I hear again and again from visual journalists – some of them convinced their newsrooms are unique. Or, more to the point, uniquely screwed up.

“Our editor doesn’t understand visuals,” they’ll say. Really?

“We are a writer’s paper.” What?!

“Our pagination system is really limiting.” You’re kidding!

“We are short-staffed.” How can this be?

“Ours is a conservative market.” If you’re not in San Francisco, you’re in a conservative market.

Or, my personal favorite, “Our newsroom is not good at planning.”

Why is planning so hard in the average newsroom?

Planning meetings lead to great stories

Well, for starters, we are caught up in the daily miracle that is newspaper production. Unlike people in other industries, newsroom staff are at work almost round the clock. We can’t take a week off to take a deep look at what we do and to retool it. So we cling to our old assembly-line habits; they get the paper out, more or less accurately, more or less without libel lawsuits.

Of course, those habits give us too many story packages that communicate poorly to the scanning reader (that is, every reader not confined to bed). Our less-than-great newsroom communication becomes the reader’s less-than-great reading experience. And we have the declining circulation numbers to prove it.

Cross-discipline planning needs to become a standard journalistic skill – on the order of crafting a good lede, reporting a good graphic, or designing a content-driven page. Newsrooms need to practice the 5 Ws and 1H of Planning.

The key to the well-known story planning methods – such as Buck Ryan’s Maestro system and The Poynter Institute’s Writing-Editing-Design process – is an efficient, cross-discipline conversation as early as possible in the production process. It’s a simple, 15-minute talk that includes reporter, line editor, copy editor, designer, photo representative, and graphics person.

How hard can this be?

Pretty hard, judging from the misgivings of designers everywhere, who wind up throwing together pages that are not nearly as innovative/ compelling/clear as they could be because the right visuals didn’t get produced, the story changed, or the focus was unclear to start with.

How do you improve your chances of a good planning conversation? Follow the principles good planners have identified. And keep in mind that the principles are not one-size-fits-all; they must be adapted to your newsroom’s rhythms, values, eccentricities. (And you know you have those.) It takes thought and effort to establish a planning routine. But it’s worth it.

WHO: Who should be involved in the cross-discipline conversation? Keep it to six people or fewer. More than that and you are unlikely to get the kind of creative brainstorming you need to find really interesting solutions. The group should include somebody with the authority to bless the plans. In some newsrooms, this is almost anybody. In others, nothing but a deputy managing editor will do. At any rate, you don’t want some senior manager swooping in and laying waste to all the good plans you’ve made.

It’s best if the original planning conversation includes the photographer, artist, copy editor, and designer who’ll follow the story through the process. But often that’s not possible. So it’s important to have a system for good handoffs – and an ethic that says the executors don’t abandon the plan unless news changes the story or they’re convinced it’s wrong for the reader. And you need to ask the executors to let the original planners know why a new solution was used. Otherwise, you’ll have chaos and distrust.

WHAT: You can’t plan every story collaboratively, of course. And you’ll drive yourself crazy trying. Aim to plan section-front centerpieces, big leads, and certainly projects. That’s generally no more than a dozen stories in each day’s paper. When in doubt, start small. And broadcast and celebrate every success so people can learn from them.

What do the planners need to decide? Four main things:

  1. The focus of the story. If the story can’t be summed up in 20 words or less, it’s not ready to be planned. The more focused the story, the better the headlines and visuals are likely to be. Specific is always more interesting than general. If the story is about artichokes, what about them? What’s new, what’s different? If the reporter can’t say for sure what the point of the story is, suggest that the meeting be postponed.
  2. Why readers will care. If you run a 70-inch story that is not relevant to readers, you’re throwing copy (headlines, visuals, your hard work, etc.) down a hole. Probe story ideas for the bits that will hook readers – will concern them, delight them, captivate them, annoy them, whatever.
  3. What’s the best visual approach? The best story form? Is it a photo package? A graphic? Should the story appear in three parts with three inches of intro text?
  4. What is the working headline? Headlines need to go with visuals, first and foremost. The first connection the reader makes with a story is visual-headline. It’s crucial that the two work together coherently.

Some newsrooms like to decide deadlines and other issues in these planning meetings, too. But don’t get bogged down in logistics. Survival of a planning routine depends on these brainstorming conversations feeling brisk, creative, loose, even fun.

WHY: This is a big one. This is the question nagging at those reporters and editors who always seem too busy to plan. Why should they, they are wondering. Why mess with the way it’s always been done? Why take time away from massaging the words?

You have to convince them that it is in their interest to plan. Turns out, it is. Research on how newspaper readers read is quite clear on the point that more than 90 percent of the time, they start with the biggest visual on a page. And they “read” visuals – graphics, photos, even headlines – at a far higher rate than they read text.

Moreover, it appears that those highly visible elements in newspapers may well be the path to text. If the photo readers see first reflects a key, interesting point of the story, and the headline builds on that point, and then the cutline gives yet another tantalizing bit, readers are more likely to dive into text.

Should we visual journalists care whether readers dive into text? We should. Our livelihoods may depend on it. Readers are more likely to develop an attachment, a loyalty, to a newspaper if they are actually reading text, whether that text appears as narrative, meaty cutlines, or graphic explainers. Text sustains. Text satisfies.

To really engage readers, to draw them into a story about road construction or day care, you need an intriguing visual, a clear, provocative headline, and some secondary display type (drop hed, infobox, whatever) that builds on the first two. And you don’t get those kind of strong, synergistic elements if you start a couple of hours before deadline. It takes planning. To keep newspapers relevant, journalists need to craft every element of a story, not just the text.

WHEN: This is a key point. Planning must be well-timed. When is the right time? Before writing and visual work is done, but after the majority of reporting is completed – say, 60 percent.

If the writing and visual work are done, it’s not planning, it’s budget clarification.

And if little of the reporting is done, it’s not planning, it’s guessing. In their zeal, some designers rope colleagues into planning weeks before the reporter knows what her story on charter schools will say. And unless the planners reconvene, they end up with images and headlines that only vaguely speak to the story .

Another point about time: Keep planning sessions for routine daily or weekend stories to 30 minutes or less. Shoot for 10, be happy with 20 and refuse to go beyond a half-hour. Some newsrooms use timers. Others stand up. Draggy planning sessions are a slow-acting poison. They’ll kill a commitment to good packaging.

WHERE: Where to plan? Wherever. In the AME’s office. Standing in the hallway. Over beers after work. Just do it.

HOW: Some newsrooms use a form to make sure the important stuff is covered. Allow your more non-conformist colleagues to be more informal, if that is more comfortable for them. It’s OK to have different methods for different sections, different people, different stories.

The key is to make sure you see the story through the impatient reader’s eyes and plan accordingly. How can you make the most interesting pieces of the story very conspicuous?

Glitches are common in newsroom planning efforts. Many papers have launched, lapsed, and relaunched. Planning takes commitment and consistent practice.

Look behind the most dazzling, most powerful visual journalism, and you almost always find passionate people who talked early and deeply about a story. If you keep at it, you build rapport, a common language in the newsroom, and – above all – better stories for readers.

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Currently Deputy ME/Visuals for the Star Tribune, I spent several years as a Poynter faculty member focused on innovative story forms, reader-centric journalism and the…
Monica Moses

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