January 30, 2018

Most newsrooms, regardless of how old or modern they appear, share one staple –  messy desks.

That, or empty ones.

So it’s been both surprising and fun to watch Leah Friedman transform herself from a local watchdog journalist at the (Raleigh, North Carolina) News & Observer to a professional organizer. (We met years ago at a week-long workshop at Poynter.)

In our final week on how to say no and what to say no to, Friedman has some good ideas on how to get there yourself. And yes, it does include cleaning off your desk.

Our conversation was edited for length and clarity.

Before we start talking about actual strategies for saying no, tell us about how you went from journalism to professional organizing? I’ve visited a lot of newsrooms and those two things are not neighbors.

I was always organized, even as a newspaper reporter. My desk was very clean, and I recycled my newspapers. There weren’t stacks of newspapers ever on my desk

What happened was I was laid off in 2011. I had a couple of jobs in politics, and I realized that that was not my path. So I started seeing a business coach. And she said, “What do you love to do?” And I had been doing this for free for my friends for years.

I didn’t know people would pay me to do it. I started seeing the business coach in April of 2013, and by July, I was an LLC.

I’m guessing you deal with people’s inability to say no on a daily basis. Do you have any thoughts about what’s behind that?

I think people have a fear of making decisions. So instead of deciding whether we’re going to keep this chair or donate it, we’re just going to put it in the attic or we’re going to put it in the garage, where it’s going to sit for 20 years.

I think they’re paralyzed.

Do you see any parallels with that paralysis in newsrooms?

Now that you point that out, yeah, there’s certainly paralysis with making decisions. People are just living out of fear. I could see that in my newsroom. There were all these new mandates every six weeks — we’re going to do video, no, we’re going to do online.

That can drive people insane.

There are people in journalism, and I’m sure you have clients like this, who say no to the wrong things. How do you help your clients figure out the right place for no?

I think a lot of people in journalism and in regular life are addicted to being busy. Therefore we don’t become awake. I did this. In the newsroom, you felt like you have to say yes to every single story that came along because you were so afraid of losing your job.

People would just say yes to terrible shifts, terrible topics.

I see it in my clients' lives, too.

We’ve been talking about how to say no for the past several weeks, and I think the things we’ve identified that help are that you need a clear mission, a clear sense of direction and the ability to prioritize. You mentioned being awake, and I’m wondering if that’s another tool we could use. What do you mean by that?

Now I just live consciously. Before I was living unconsciously. I would go shopping just because I wanted to kill time and buy things I didn’t need. I would say yes to organizations I was not passionate about because I thought you had to. I was not conscious of what I was eating. It all adds up.

This whole consciousness comes with getting unaddicted to busy. I think people are addicted to being busy so they don’t have to sit down and contemplate what’s going on in their lives.

What strategies do you have for helping people create new habits and stopping old ones?

For my clients, I believe you have to get down to ground zero with this stuff. I tell people don’t go to Container Store and buy a bunch of bins. We’re going to get rid of your stuff first, and then we’ll see what you need.

I think that could be applied anywhere. Get down to ground zero, and then see what you need.

How would you imagine a process like that for a journalist, an editor or a newsroom?

I think cleaning your desk — you gotta clean your desk. We always would joke that every newsroom is a fire hazard. To clear your mind, you gotta clear your space. Clean the e-clutter — the emails.

You gotta get out of the newsroom for a few days. I do believe in meditation.

And every night before you go to bed, ask “What do I need to be doing?”

What impact do you see with your clients?

No. 1, it reduces stress. Stuff has an energy to it, and you subconsciously feel that energy and that increases anxiety.

Empty spaces invite opportunity. Opportunities can’t flow in if there isn’t empty space.


I’m moving a stack of books I’ll never read off my desk right now (and maybe donating them to the library.) Thanks for the great ideas!

Next week, we’re starting a month-long focus on one way newsrooms can make money: events.

In the meantime, check out this reader revenue workshop in April. Shan Wang wrote a great piece for Nieman Lab on the future of her hometown newspaper. You still have time to apply to The Abrams Nieman Fellowship for Local Investigative Journalism. And check out this News U webinar on real rules vs. grammar myths. 

See you next week! 

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.

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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