5 ways your small newsroom can make big projects manageable

This piece originally appeared in Local Edition, our newsletter following the digital transformation of local news. Want to be part of the conversation? You can sign up here.

The conversation so far

Newsrooms with small staffs and few resources can do ambitious work. This month, we're talking about how to scale big ideas down. Last month, we talked about the subscriber "funnel."

What are some of your favorite pieces of journalism right now? Maybe they're interactives, longform narratives, investigations, stunning photojournalism, immersive podcasts, critical breaking news or revelatory documentaries.

Now, how many of those are from local newsrooms? 

I hope the answer is at least a few. (It is for me.) But if you're a journalist in one of those local newsrooms, particularly the very small ones, I get it if you want to roll your eyes right now. The combination of layoffs and round-the-clock reporting is exhausting. But it is possible to do the cool things you see those bigger newsrooms doing.

Last year at the Online News Association's annual conference, I talked with Sara Baranowski, editor of the Iowa Falls Times-Citizen, about breaking down big ideas.

This week, I'm republishing part of what we wrote about the process back in October. Oh, and we call it the "Weird Al Method."

Here's our conversation from last October:

Hare: The first step for you is finding something that inspires you. This is probably the easiest step. Like Weird Al Yankovic, look for something great that someone else has done and get ready to make it your own. What do you look for?

Baranowski: I look for things that resonate with me. If a story I read, a video I watch or an interactive I use makes me feel or understand something, there’s a good chance it will do the same for my audience. While many of us consume media from the big outlets, don’t forget about the little guys. Local and community journalism is finding new ways — and using the newest tools — to tell stories.

I was inspired to create slideshows after seeing some of the work being done by the LA Times and The New York Times. They were a different experience — not text and photos, not video — that I wanted to give my audience.

Hare: Step two is to boil it down. What is the project you’ve chosen at its essence? A narrative? An audio slideshow? A documentary? Get past the wow of the digital presentation and boil down what it really is. How did you start?

Baranowski: First, I consume it as a member of the audience, then I go back to it as a researcher. Are there clues about how it was made? Is there special software required? New tools? Or can I find a way to do it with the things at my disposal? Sometimes answers to those questions can be found with a quick search of the internet. Other times, it’s beneficial to get in touch with the journalists who created it. Ask them how they did it, and for any advice they can offer that will save you time or frustration.

When I was looking at the slideshows, I considered the photos — what made them work with the slideshow? And the audio — was it a lot of talking, or more natural sound? I also paid attention to the timing of the images with the audio, the transitions and how all of the elements worked together to make me feel the way it made me feel. A journalist friend of mine had made a slideshow, and I asked him a hundred questions about the process until I felt like I could try it myself.

Hare: Step three is to low-key test it out. This means maybe don’t promise your editors something big is coming for a while. Just concentrate on working on it and figuring out what you need to do that.

Baranowski: If the thing you’d like to make requires new software that you don’t have approval to purchase, try starting with a cheap prototype using paper, markers and tape, then use that to ask for better resources. If there’s a free app or website — even if it only offers limited tools — try it. The point is to start working.

At first, it’s going to feel awkward and not-quite-right. It’s okay if it’s rough. The key is to get it out, see what you have, and begin the work of revising it. My first try at a slideshow was awful. I hadn’t realized how many images I would need, or how long a long pause in dialogue felt when there weren’t any natural sounds behind it. The first draft was pretty awful.

Hare: The fourth step is to refine it. How did you do this?

Baranowski: After you’ve made it, make it better. Then make it awesome. It’s okay — even expected — for it to be bad at first. You’re not an expert (yet). As you refine your creation, think about the audience. Ask friends, co-workers or family members to read it, watch it, listen to it, use it and tell you what they think. If there’s something that doesn’t work for them, zero in on it and figure out how to make it better. Maybe they have an idea for an improvement, maybe you need to dig deeper to find the right answer to your quest for a better product.

The point is to get it to a point of being close to what you imagined and what the audience will want. Be prepared for your vision and goal to change as you work through the process of creating your own version of that original inspiration.

There’s almost always a point in every first-time project when I want to give up. I think it’s never going to be as good as I want it to be. I don’t have the ability, the patience, the time. But every time I stick with it, I find my way to an end product of which I can be proud. And I know the next time I try it, it’s going to get easier and better and I’m going to become more comfortable doing it.

Hare: The final step is to make the case, with evidence, for more time, money, and/or resources for more of this kind of work. You’ve probably proven that you can figure out a different way to tell stories, and your audience probably loves it. Bring all of that to the bosses.

Baranowski: When you publish it, explain the project to your audience and tell them what you hope they will get from it. Ask them what they think. Talk to your manager and make a case for time and money to be spent on it. If you have feedback from your audience that would help your argument, use it. And after you have clearance to do it again, try to perfect your process. As with most things, the more you practice, the easier and better it will get.

Since learning the audio slideshow process, I have published 10 more. They aren’t appropriate for every story, but when they are and the subject is willing, I take the time to create one. They’re a different, powerful way for me to tell a story, and they’re creative content that the audience responds to.

Here's a quick review:

via GIPHY

Have you created something you're proud of with few resources? Send me examples and a little about how you did it and I'll share next week.

In the meantime, thanks to everyone who came for my first webinar on "Lessons from Local." You can watch the replay here. We'll meet again next month. Also, I mentioned a lot of small places we've featured here previously in this piece from Editor and Publisher. And add your name to the list of media experts for CJR's database.

See you next week!

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