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Ann Nichols has a lot of jobs.
She’s managing editor of East Lansing Info, or ELi, a hyperlocal nonprofit that covers East Lansing. She edits nearly everything from ELi’s stable of professional and citizen journalists. She coordinates their coverage and monitors what’s coming. The former lawyer does some writing, particularly about crime and legal issues. And she acts as social media manager.
“That all takes up quite a lot of time,” she said. “This is supposed to be a part-time job, but that’s kind of a joke.”
Pulling back from the non-stop work they see as a public service is something Nichols and ELi founder Alice Dreger are working on this year. But still, saying no is part of the job itself.
With a tiny team, it has to be.
“Daily,” Nichols said. “Just yesterday I said no.”
As newsrooms work to become digital and journalists figure out how to work in always-changing ways, learning what to stop doing is possibly as important as learning what to start doing.
Why? Many newsrooms are one third to one half of the size they once were. No one really works toward set deadlines anymore because there aren’t set deadlines anymore, unless you count “now. Now. NOW!” as a set deadline. And there aren’t pages or air time to fill, just a bottomless pit that we’ve decided needs constant feeding.
We’ve been doing more with less for a while now, and I don’t think it’s editorializing to say it’s not working. With less people and more demands, some things have to give. Over the next few weeks, let’s figure out what those things are and how to do it.
Are you any good at this? What have you said no to in your work? Those meetings stories where nothing happens? Rewrites purely designed at getting clicks? Next week we’ll feature what you’ve said no to and how, so let me know.
But first, here’s Nichols with some tips on how to stop the madness.
What did you say no to yesterday?
Yesterday I said no to a story that would have been fun about this chef who won an award and she’s doing a pop-up, but it’s not in East Lansing and there’s no East Lansing connection. Part of what people have trouble understanding is that when we say hyperlocal, we mean hyperlocal.
Yeah, it takes a lot of discipline to turn something down that you know would be good and you know would bring in eyeballs but doesn’t really adhere to your mission. How have you learned to do that?
Well, for a long time, I made Alice do it. She’s much better at saying no than I am. But it’s really my job. … I just write something saying, this sounds really wonderful and I wish we could cover it, but this could be picked up by another media outlet. And in fact I will tell you who to call at the Lansing State Journal if you want to. But we only cover things that either happen here or involve an East Lansing person.
One of the things larger news organizations have dealt with is newsrooms that are shrinking rapidly, and they’ve had to make choices about things they’re going to let go of covering. Has this happened to you?
All the time.
What are some things you say no to and why?
I can’t say we have a policy. If something is going to require so much time and energy that it’s going to make it impossible for us to cover all the other things we need to cover, because we do a thing called Ask ELi where people write and ask us to investigate things, if it’s so big … there we say no.
There are also kinds of features that we did when we started, because we did everything we could get, that are basically – this so adorable, Marble Elementary School is having a spaghetti dinner … We just can’t. Although because of our model, when people ask us, we say you can write it yourself and we will publish it and we will edit you and make it look good. But we don’t have the bandwidth to do it.
We’re not shrinking. We’re just always really small.
What advice do you have for other journalists, editors and newsrooms who have too much going on and haven’t yet mastered the art of no?
I am the most conflict-laden person in the history of time, but I think the reason I can say no with confidence and kindness on a regular basis is that our mission is so well defined and we talk about it all the time.
We have a lunch meeting once a week where we take the temperature of what are we getting 50 calls about and does that mean we should try to do it? If we can’t, does that mean we really owe our readers a story that says we know you’re interested in this but this is not something we can do, but if you’d like to, here’s how?
Knowing our parameters, which are very different than I think anyone else you’ll talk to — no bias, no editorial sentiment and hyperlocal — we’re very clear on what fits and what doesn’t fit, and when there’s a gray area, we have the tools to talk it out and say, meh, that’s not a thing we’re going to spend time with.
I hear three ingredients there. One is strong leadership that sets the direction. Two is a strong mission that’s communicated regularly. And three is this kind of creative flexibility that lets you invite your audience in to help with the process. Does that sound right?
When do you say yes? What’s worth it? Do you have a similar set of guidelines?
There are a set of givens that we always, always cover, and then I would say part of why we say yes to something that is unusual is that it’s going to bring readers in… We fund-raise because we’re a non-profit, and the more different kinds of people we can get reading, the more potential that the bigger the donor base is.
So we don’t usually cover Michigan State University stuff, it’s like having a whole other city in the middle of our city, and they have a vast and spendy PR department and they don’t mostly need us. But sometimes something really fascinating happens over there.
Like there was a professor in the English department teaching a Harry Potter course that was no fluff, it was really serious, and that was fascinating and it was a great story and it got lots of eyeballs, which is part of what we want.
So it has to be special or super, super important. We got a tip a couple of years ago about a health hazard situation involving city employees, and it was really a big story and we broke it.
That was unusual because we’re tiny, but we did.
* * *
Okay, now it’s your turn. If you’re any good at this, tell us why and how. We’ll meet back here next week and keep sharpening this practice of denial.
In the meantime, you still have time to apply for a Nieman fellowship and a Knight-Wallace fellowship. The Center for Cooperative Media has a database of collaborative work. Last month, I metioned that Bklyner asked readers to help it stay open. They did. And Poynter's News University has a Webinar on how to untangle messy copy.
Now send me your strategies for no (please say yes,) and I’ll see you next week!