September 9, 2011

For the past four months, I shepherded a Dallas Morning News project on the lasting impact that the 9/11 terrorist attacks had on North Texans and the rest of the nation. The eight-day series includes several Page One stories on topics ranging from 10 years of war and the security state, to reader experiences and attitudes in the Muslim community, culminating in a commemorative section on Sept. 11. We’ve also got a blog and photo galleries online, and a section devoted to 9/11 stories on our iPad app.

Beyond acknowledging the feelings of sadness and grief many of us will have on the 11th, I’d like to reflect on lessons learned in overseeing a project involving dozens of journalists across several departments.

Don’t be afraid of getting a lot of ideas from across the newsroom.

As editors, we sometimes feel like we have to come up with the best ideas ourselves. But the longer I’m an editor, the more I want to create a space for journalists to generate their own ideas. Then it’s my job to select the best ideas and help my colleagues make those ideas even better.

To prepare for the 9/11 series, I hosted a brainstorming meeting in mid-May. I invited about 35 journalists from across all departments. I asked them to brainstorm 9/11 ideas in small groups of five or six journalists (this often helps quieter people participate more quickly). I set one guideline: “No idea is a bad idea today.” We brainstormed for a half hour; then each team shared its ideas with the larger group. We kept the session to an hour and came up with about 75 story ideas.

Some of the journalists in the room eventually became involved in the project; many others did not. The point of the meeting wasn’t to assign stories, but to put as many ideas on the table as possible.

Work with a brain trust to select the best ideas.

When you’re launching a project, identify the journalists in your newsroom who are passionate about the subject. Some may have expertise in the subject; others may have fresh ideas on how to approach telling and presenting the stories. Either way, you should add two or three of them to your brain trust.

This brain trust can help you select and refine the best ideas from the batch you got from your brainstorming session. This group can also serve as a sounding board as you move forward, giving you feedback on what’s working in the project and what could work better.

In my case, the newspaper’s A section editor, Metro’s enterprise editor and several photo and design editors were instrumental in shaping the series and the commemorative section. In June, we worked on getting the list of 9/11 ideas down to what we saw as the best 10. Then, in early July, we held our first 9/11 coverage meeting with department heads and started making story and photo assignments.

Think visually and digitally from the beginning.

A project can have much greater impact on readers and viewers when images, graphics, design and Web components are integrated into the process early on. That’s why it’s so important to involve visual and Web journalists in the project from the get-go. They will have a sense of ownership, contribute story ideas and come up with innovative ways to tell these stories.

For the 9/11 series, I made sure that visual and Web journalists took part in the first brainstorming session. They gave me feedback as I narrowed down the story list, and they had a place at the table at our first planning meeting.

The collaboration paid off. Our photo team brainstormed a Web component to a package of reader reflections that our reporters were putting together – using portraits and audio clips to bring the readers’ experiences to life. Our Web team focused on creating a 9/11 blog that is updated a couple of times a day with staff stories, as well as coverage from other news sources. And our design team came up with a memorable collage concept for the cover of our commemorative section.

Communicate early and often.

Whether you’re working with dozens of journalists across several departments and disciplines, or leading a small team of reporters, transparency in planning is crucial. Transparency isn’t always possible, of course, and who would expect good communication in a newsroom?

At any rate, in projects like the 9/11 series, where there are a lot of moving parts, I find that scheduling a weekly update meeting is helpful (it doesn’t have to be more than a half hour).

Our update meetings started in late July, about eight weeks before the series launched. The meetings consisted of story editors; some reporters; our visual, design, Web and iPad editors; and our copy desk leaders. It was important for the copy desk’s senior editors to be involved in the planning, so that they could read early budget lines and get a sense of the project’s scope.

You’ll also want to find a way to give the project team access to the budget of stories and, if possible, the ability to read one another’s story drafts as they develop. This helps avoid significant story overlaps. Our publishing platform, CCI NewsGate, allowed us to do that.

Don’t be a control freak.

Yes, you’re going to have to exert control and make sure the team meets its deadlines and that the editors and reporters are accountable for their work. You’re  the last line of quality control, the one who pays attention to final details as publication nears.

But you should be prepared to adapt your plans when the unexpected happens. For example, a couple of story ideas came up after the project’s story list had been set for awhile. The editor of the paper had asked me to be selective and not overwhelm readers with too many stories. Still, I felt that these new ideas were worth pursuing, so I gave them the green light.

As newsrooms across the country, including the Dallas Morning News, continue to battle staff and budget cuts, it’s becoming more and more important for departments to collaborate. That’s how we differentiate our coverage from that of other organizations.

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Tom Huang is Sunday & Enterprise Editor at The Dallas Morning News and Adjunct Faculty member of The Poynter Institute, where he oversees the school’s…
Tom Huang

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