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.
I reached out to nine people to find out what gets them to a no with their work and how they set their priorities.
Four responded. Three didn’t (I’m not mad, email stinks.) And two emailed a kind, firm no.
In those two cases, both journalists responded swiftly and with a clear explanation. They certainly did not owe me one. But as we talk about how to figure out what to say no to, the nos I got for this edition share a lesson of their own that comes up again and again: Clarity.
No: It’s not on my beat.
It’s not critical to our audience.
It takes me away from bigger things that fit our mission.
And more and more – I don’t have time.
Each of the tips below share that sense of clarity, and it’s something that seems vital right now as many newsrooms are shifting what they do to attract audiences who will pay for and support that work.
Here’s what I heard from the people who said yes:
Consider your time.
“For every opportunity that I say yes to that I don’t want to do, I’m losing out on something that I really want to do,” said Jen A. Miller, a freelancer who writes a running column for The New York Times as well as tips on freelancing for Poynter.
I called her after her latest piece, which included several nos freelancer should use. One factor Miller calculates is what an assignment will cost her (in terms of time) and earn her (in terms of payment). Is it something she's familiar with, or will writing about something brand new take her away from the things she cares about covering? If it does, is that an area she wants to grow in?
How can you do this?
Audit your time. Seriously. How long do you spend tweeting, researching, reporting, writing/filming/recording/photographing/building? I once wrote down every little thing I was doing in the span of one work day. Hey, that helped me say to my editor, this is taking way more of my time than we think it is. Is it worth it? (It wasn’t.)
Then, ask yourself, before beginning a story, task, talk, event or project: What it will take you away from? Ask that same question of your editors – What do you want me not to do?
Consider your audience.
Don’t use the internet as an excuse for doing more, said Veronica Toney, operations editor at The Washington Post. Use it to help you focus and sharpen.
“Local news should stop thinking locally,” she said. “Thanks to the Internet, local news is national and international news. As organizations try to attract more audiences, many think the key is to write more — which is hard when there are fewer people to do the writing. Reporters and editors can get more from the important and interesting stories they’re already writing if they focus headlines on the event and not just the place. This can be as simple as not assuming that all readers are familiar with the location and spelling out state names in headlines because people don’t search by the abbreviations (well, except for D.C.!) and adding the few extra words it takes to explain a neighborhood in an article. These small changes can help reach the goal of growing audiences and ease some of the reporting fatigue.”
Kristen Muller, chief content officer for California’s KPCC, used audience as a gauge, too.
“How do I decide what to stop doing? This is a tough question but ultimately, you need to understand how the work you're doing is connecting to your intended audience(s),” she said.
“That means understanding and using metrics that are meaningful to your organization. What it doesn't mean is using only metrics in deciding what to kill. If stories are underperforming (not being read, shared or skipped), then it's time to change course.”
How can you do this?
Ask for or use tools that show you where your audience is going, how they’re getting there and how long they’re spending with that work. Like Muller said, it’s not the only tool you should use, but it’s a great one in making the case against commodity stories that fall under the “well we’ve always done this” category without falling in the “this is essential” category.
Also, use impact as a measurement. What or who did your work change and impact?
Know your mission.
“What do we decide to say 'no' to?” Muller said. “Our reporters cover specific issue areas: education, social safety net, housing, etc. Within those beats, the reporters are focused on a few key questions at any given time. If a story comes up that doesn't help them answer that question, we avoid it. That helps narrow the reporters' fields of vision. That said, when we have a big story (wildfires, mudslides, etc), it's all hands on deck!”
I asked my colleague Ren LaForme about this, too. He writes about digital tools for Poynter, and he gets LOTS of pitches.
“I've had more people demanding more things of me since I stepped into this digital tools reporter role last year. A lot of them are tech companies trying to pitch me their stuff. I'm talking dozens of pitches an hour during events like CES,” he said. “I think I've gotten pretty good at saying no to even the most pushy pitchers by keeping laser-focused on my mission, which is finding the best tools for journalists. I keep a strict set of mental rules about what I'll cover and what I won't and I haven't diverged from it in months. It has made my job a lot easier.”
How can you do this?
Find or push for a mission statement from your organization. Most have them. Can you clarify one for your desk, team or beat? I spent a day last week at the Seattle Times, and found missions written on white boards across the newsroom.
Ask yourself and your team frequently if what you’re doing is on mission. If not, has the mission changed, or have you fallen back into old habits?
Thanks to everyone who shared ideas this week (and to the people who said no. It was genuinely helpful.) Next week is boss week, and we’re talking with Patti Dennis, VP of news at Tegna.
In the meantime, Digital First Media newsrooms in California are facing brutal cuts.
And speaking of figuring out what matters, there’s still time to apply for this online group seminar from Poynter’s News University on Investigative Journalism that Matters.
See you next week!