Why journalists need to report on how they work

July 6, 2016

Sandhya Kambhampati began her journalism career as a data reporter. Because she and her team often tackled complex projects, they soon learned to take thorough notes in case they had to explain their work to new employees.

But there was a problem. Even though her team left notes, it was difficult for newcomers to decipher the shorthand speak, acronyms and insider-y references made by the team’s more seasoned members.

This bothered her. She tried to make sure her teams understood more than enough to continue on after she left, but it wasn’t always easy for new hires to learn on the job. Other journalists, like her friends at the annual conference hosted by the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting, were wrestling with the same problem.

“A lot of people didn’t know what to do when people left and began,” she said.

And even though there was a near-universal feeling of frustration about this lack of internal processes to pass down knowledge, it took a lot to get people to care about how they could improve.

When Kambhampati became a Knight-Mozilla fellow this year, she wanted to point out that newsrooms of all sizes face this issue. In a survey published as part of her research, she found that 74 of the 82 journalist respondents said there were no formal onboarding, offboarding or documentation policies in their newsrooms — and the remaining eight have processes that were not formalized. In many of those situations, it got to a point where there were one or two gatekeepers who knew everything, and everyone was afraid of the possibility of those people leaving the newsroom.

“If those guidelines aren’t even followed, you might as well not have [them] at all,” she said. “Journalists document the news — we should be documenting the work we do as well.”

She created the survey about onboarding and offboarding processes (or lack thereof) to gather information from anyone else who works in a newsroom and has suggestions of ways to make institutional knowledge more widely known. Here are five recommendations Kambhampati shared from her research so far:

Sharing information you’ve learned will only make your team work better — not make you less valuable

“A lot of people wrote that in [the survey],” Kambhampati said with a laugh. “I’m not going to write down what I know, because the person who comes after me will have the same skills and I won’t be unique anymore.”

That’s not the way journalists should think, she said.

“You [should] share information because it’ll make us better, and seeing how other people work helps us think about things in different ways,” Kambhampati said. “Maybe you’ve always collected information or requested data from a source the same way, and the way you’ve asked for it is not the best way.”

By challenging yourself to listen to other ways of doing work instead of competing internally, the team can grow, she said. And journalists who feel proprietary and protective about sources on their beat can still share certain things that help shed light on the ways they work.

Story reviews give reporters and editors time to reflect on what worked and what didn’t

In code reviews, anyone who uses code in their stories or to build tools reviews the code together, asks questions on the particular approach taken and reflects on how that informed the storytelling. As part of the data reporter community, Kambhampati feels like she’s benefited from collective knowledge and feedback from her peers over the years.

“Data and news apps teams tend to have to document more,” she said. If reporters and editors got together periodically for “story reviews,” they might also benefit from lessons on how a particular story was told and the reporting and editing approaches that led to the end result.

Make edits more widely available

When she was a general assignment reporter years ago, Kambhampati remembers getting useful questions from her copy editors.

“They always have questions or notes in the editing process that made my work better, and I always remembered it after hearing once that something should be capitalized,” she said. “But when you publish that story, all the notes are lost — notes that supply background information you never thought about that could lead to more stories. We’re mostly not wired to have really good organizational skills like that.”

One way to combat that is to share notes where they could be found all together — if many people use Google Docs or Evernote, then making the permissions open to people with the organization’s email address helps. Newsroom wikis that are updated with new processes and central landing pages where all the docs can be found are especially helpful.

Think about how your team is preparing to train new people to work with you

One of the troubling trends in Kambhampati’s research is that many people work with one or two team members who know everything. If that person leaves without training anyone else, it can be a disaster.

“Breaking news trumps newsroom processes in many newsrooms’ minds,” she said. “And while I understand that, I think it’s important to think what you would do when someone new comes in, whether it’s a small or large newsroom. Journalists only have 24 hours in a day, and if we’re spending it redoing the same kinds of work, that’s not efficient.”

Change comes from adaption and support from many people

Writing the documentation might take awhile, but it’s reassuring to compare these notes with the documentation that HR departments compile about things like submitting expense reports, Kambhampati said.

“Think about how useful that is when you need to do it for the first time or the second time months afterwards,” she said. “You would know where to click.” This also applies to journalists who don’t automatically know what their colleagues do.

Many respondents also expressed a fear of their colleagues documenting reluctantly, or not sharing if the documentation processes were compulsory.

“The docs can’t just come from one editor, it has to come from across the newsroom,” Kambhampati said.

If one person is responsible for all the documentation that needs to be created, that becomes the standard. If more people create documentation, more people are likely to read them, and, in turn, update them when they become outdated.

If you work in a newsroom and have suggestions for Kambhampati, take the survey, open until July 31. “I’d love to hear from 100 newsrooms by then, especially more from photographers, videographers, and multimedia producers,” she said.