January 24, 2018

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.

A lot has changed at the Florida Times-Union in the seven years since Mary Kelli Palka briefly left her hometown paper and journalism after watching deep layoffs.

But last week felt a bit like the past.

When there are less people and resources and more strain, it makes it tough to do the work you want to do at the level you want to do it, Palka said.

“Unless you rethink how you do it.”

She eventually did. Palka returned at first to launch an investigative team and now is the paper’s editor. That rethinking is a process she’s had to use continuously, including last week when 10 people were laid off from the newsroom.

I was supposed to speak with another newsroom boss this week, but rescheduled when I heard from one of Palka’s reporters about how she was focusing newsroom resources after those layoffs. Our conversation was edited for length and clarity.

I saw a piece from a year ago where you told the community you were focusing on watchdog and in-depth journalism. Is that when you started deciding what the Times-Union would and would not do?

Even before that, four-and-a-half years ago, I looked immediately at what do we do, how are we doing it and how are we focusing our time. At that time we had an overnight cops reporter.

Now I understand that digital is huge. It is a big focus of what we do. We want to be relevant and nobody wants to have a conversation happening around them and they’re not part of it when they have the best information like the Times-Union.  But I had an overnight person who was limited in what he was able to do, so it was a lot of preparing things for digital.

That particular reporter at the time happened to really want to be a military writer. And I needed important, big stories. He ended up doing stories on veterans’ health care, the wait list at our local clinic, really important subjects for a community that has a military population.

So I did give up overnight stuff. I told my bosses, we will miss things. It will happen on occasion that something will happen at three o’clock in the morning and we can’t really jump on it until eight or nine. And honestly, it has not happened at any large level. It was the right decision to make.

Other things that I did:

  • We used to have two reporters on Saturdays. We had a morning person and an evening person. And instead, I made it a day shift. I understood that we weren’t going to catch everything in the morning and we weren’t going to catch everything at night. But we could do the most important stories in that time.

  • I tried to limit the number of smaller briefs we did. And I continue to look at these kinds of things.

What I hear you saying is that you came to terms with the fact that you guys were not going to be the newspaper of record. Is that right?

We weren’t going to be the newspaper of record in the sense that if you don’t see it in the paper, it didn’t happen. We’re going to be the paper of record for the most important things in our community.

Did you hear from people in the community? Did they notice it?

Not a lot. I’m sure we’ve gotten some calls here and there. I think, in all honesty, for the reporters it was difficult in the beginning because they felt this sense of obligation. These are people who care greatly about their community. They didn’t want to feel as if they weren’t covering it.

What I said was, I absolutely agree with you. But let’s cover it in a meaningful way. Everybody embraced that.

But listen, at the end of the day, there’s not as much news. There are not as many individual stories. There are longer ones. There are more in-depth ones. There are more powerful ones. But there may not be as many of the smaller ones. And most people are okay with that.

Last week, 10 people in the newsroom got laid off, and a lot of that was the business desk. I wrote a bit yesterday in this piece on layoffs about that decision and how that changes how you’ll cover business. Tell me about that process. How do you think it will impact the community?

There isn’t a decision that’s related to changes in our industry that has not been difficult. The important business news, no different than the important crime news or government news or school news, we can still cover and we will still cover.

It’s really not being bound so much by the traditions of what needs to go in what section of the print paper, and instead, say what are the most important stories we need to cover today? And not just today, not just being reactionary. It’s being able to look ahead and say, what are the big topics we need to tackle?

We can still do that.

What tips do you have for journalists who are still on the more-with-less hamster wheel and are ready to get off?

For us, what it was was understanding every day’s newspaper, every day’s coverage online can’t be huge. We’re fooling ourselves if we think that. If I can use a wire story instead of asking Ben (Conarck, a cops and prison reporter) to go cover some small thing, then I can allow that reporter more time to do a better story.

I think sometimes we’re afraid and we’re saying, oh but we have to have a number of stories that are of local content. I think readers want really interesting news, sometimes really fun news. And they want great analysis. And they want our commentators to have an opportunity to dive into something. And they want good, investigative, watchdog journalism.

I think readers are okay with a few more wire stories if they understand that’s giving us time to do the most important local stories.

So look for alternatives. How else can you get people that information? I know you’re not the only news organization in town. Do you do much aggregation or sharing of their work?

Very good question. We do some with the local public radio station, WJCT. We do a little more with First Coast News, one of our television stations. They can use our stuff and we can use theirs, and we’ve had a fantastic relationship. That has helped us with online video.

It’s helped us to cover some breaking news, like wrecks. But if there is something significant and we think our readers would be interested, then we would use theirs. And they can use ours.

So being willing to collaborate and share has helped you make more informed choices with what you’re doing. You also worked with ProPublica for an investigation called “Walking While Black.”

Topher (Sanders) used to work here. He is a dear friend of mine and one of the best journalists I think I ever met. Their collaboration was huge … Our friends are all around us. We just need to find them and figure out ways that we can work together.

Do you have any other tips, maybe for editors? 

I try to think long term. It’s really easy to worry a lot about tomorrow, which really makes us fixated on a print product, which, while important because we have subscribers who we very much appreciate, it’s just one part of it. While I want to make sure it’s as great as it can be tomorrow, I want to make sure I constantly have the bigger things.

Are you happy you came back to news, even after last week?

First of all, last week was horrible. I’m beyond sad that something like that continues to happen in this industry. I feel for the people who lost their jobs. I feel for the people in the newsroom who are hurting because of it. And I worry greatly for our community because if not for us writing some of the stories that we’re writing, then we don’t have as strong of a community.

This is, however, the most rewarding job I’ve ever had. It’s amazing. And I’m really, really, really honored to do this in my hometown and to work with the caliber of journalists I’ve been able to work with.

Every day I feel like we’re doing things that make a huge difference in our community. People might not notice it every day, but it is happening, sometimes behind the scenes. It’s important, what we’re doing. And it’s important that we be successful and that journalism figures out a way to get through this.

Thank you, Mary Kelli Palka, for your time this week! Next week we’ll hear from someone who’s not a journalist about stopping things that aren’t working.

In the meantime, considering membership? Do your homework first. It’s time to apply for the Ida B. Wells Fellowship. Open News has scholarships to get you to a journalism conference. And after that Facebook/newsfeed news, Heather Bryant thinks it’s time we take back control.

See you next week!

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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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