This month’s Carnival of Journalism is topic specific: Finding time in a time-starved newspaper world to do ‘extra’ stuff for the web.
I’m not going to state the obvious philosophical argument that this isn’t ‘extra’ stuff anymore. …That the way our culture consumes information has fundamentally changed and with it print should be considered ‘extra’ since it’s the dying, incredibly labor-intensive medium. …And that reporters thinking a 20-inch print narrative that very few time-starved people will actually read about some random meeting takes a lot of ‘extra’ time to create, when a bulleted breakout succinctly discussing the changes that took place at the meeting and their impact on the community would take less time and better server the community.
…No, we’re not going to discuss that today because we should have evolved and understood that a couple years ago.
Today we’re talking about how to get more with less…
I propose a three-tiered approach to streamline and reorganize the news and information production process.
In order to implement this, there needs to be a slight culture change and everyone needs to understand what that plan is and be on board (later we’ll discuss how to deal with those not on board). There’s a slight change in work flow and communication patterns, but anyone who’s not completely incompetent or fearful of technology should be able to handle it with brief training. (Such as, “On a wiki, click ‘edit’ to edit the content,” etc.) The other ‘hard’ part of this plan is everyone needs to be on board and held accountable for holding up their portion of the plan. I know that’s hard for newsrooms to do sometimes, culture change is hard, but it’s mandatory for our survival. The core of this work flow is to start acting much more like a start up or other nimble technology company and less like a bureaucratic dinosaur.
Get some decent web-based collaboration and information organization/production tools and implement them across your entire organization.
There’s plenty of options in this arena, Base Camp is a favorite among the start-ups. It costs money though.
So for the cheapskates out there, Google offers a lot of tools individually for free — email, calendar, gtalk instant messaging, documents, spreadsheet, presentation and wiki collaboration tools.
The full-functioning wiki application (formerly Jotspot), now called Google Sites, could easily be used to manage story budgets in a newsroom, so that everyone can see what’s going on without having to attend multiple stand up meetings with people in ties reading the same printed budget out loud.
There’s even an enhanced premier edition that only costs $50 per user with plenty of benefits â€“ including 25 GIGABYTES of storage per user. There’s many journalism organizations out there that only allow 30-100 megabytes of email storage space. Corporate journalism IT departments simply have not scaled with the digital age. I’m not even going to start going off about most organization intranets (or lack there of).
If you’re like me, you work on a web team that uses email as it’s primary means of notifying each other about projects, outages, changes, everything that happens in the day’s web production. Corporate run email accounts are like toilet paper â€“ they expire quickly and when you’re out, you’re up shit creek. You’re loosing contacts for stories, updates and information that is critical for your organization’s survival. Universities understand this, why don’t we?
For me personally, an organization allowing me to use Gmail as a work account is worth at least a $4,000 raise. It’s exponentially better than Outlook. AND it saves me time and frustration. Outlook, despite it’s once-every-few-year minor updates, is not a tool for nimble work flow â€“ it does have filters and some search capability, but no where close to the Gmail experience. And it’s definitely not an optimal tool for an organization juggling massive information flowing through it that needs to be organized, collaborated on, edited and republished quickly.
And I know what you’re thinking: Corporate policies and IT concerns will never allow email on a third party system. Well, they can cram it with walnuts. The paper tiger of ‘security’ is false, we’ve all heard people use that before when they just wanted to maintain unfettered, unquestioned control. Microsoft’s product vulerabilities are widely known and have been the target of hackers, spyware, malware and viruses since the dawn of the Internet. Beyond that, Outlook is purely a waste of money, including time (and therefore money) spent dealing with inept software. That time-as-money waste is almost as gross as the mountains of cash spent on the proprietary software that is causing this time suck. It’s a vicious circle.
While we’re evolving our email and project management tools, maybe it’s time to also consider evolving the Office tools and perhaps leaving Microsoft Office applications all together. Open Office is free and easily comparable if you MUST have desktop apps but I’d argue that most of the Google apps are comparable and sometimes better than the desktop competition — especially for collaborative projects. The also offer automatic saving, revision saving and all sorts of other goodies that you’ll find you didn’t know you really wanted, but once they save you time you’ll wish you never lived without them.
Let me re-emphasize: When implementing this new work flow, it’s also important to do some brief training to show members of the newsroom how to optimize their use of the tools. For instance: How many folks in your newsroom know how to use email filters and automated tagging (if they get Gmail)? These can be tremendous time savers and without some basic training, Luddites may not take full advantage to optimize their time. And that’s what all this is about. Share the knowledge. Share the power. Give them back their time and save money for your company.
DOUBLE BONUS FOR BEAN COUNTERS:
Moving email and wiki/intranet tools over to Google for their $50 per user fee could easily pay for itself, as you’ll likely be able to reduce the number of IT staff necessary to maintain your internal network.
Do the math: $50 per user at a 1000-person organization (which is rather large number considering the drastic cuts across the country, this is a very liberal estimate) is $50,000. So basically, for cheaper than one IT staff member’s salary, you can streamline much of that department’s work for an all-around better product, an easier to use product with better support that will benefit your newsroom workflow and save resources and time, as well as save on hardware resources. (More money savings!)
And try to get your IT staff to offer true 24/7 support at the level Google will.
Imagine working simultaneously on a double-byline story with another reporter in another bureau in a Google Doc. Or cleaning up raw data with your CAR specialist at the same time for a big project in Google Spreadsheets. Or finding out that someone in features saw your story in the wiki for story budgeting and knows an awesome source for your big feature coming up this weekend. Or building smart filters and flagging systems into your email so you can focus on working and not deleting Russian spam messages every 15 minutes (seriously, Google’s spam filters, plus their acquisition of industry-leader, Postini, makes them the unprecedented king of the hill in spam protection without a doubt).
Murder Most Meetings
After you’ve implemented project management and collaboration tools it’s time to start using them, and stop wasting time going to budget meetings, acting like your paying attention all the while thinking about what you’re going to do this weekend.
Cutting down on the number of meetings people attend frees up lots of time. It’s 2008, there are dozens of online project management and collaboration tools out there. Why are newsrooms still holding 2-5 half-an-hour-long budget meetings a day?
That’s (half an hour of work) x (6 to 14 people) = 3 to 7 hours of work that could be spent doing something ‘extra’ each time you hold one of these meetings.
A great, quick primer on how to murder meetings is a quick book from a Chicago web-startup, called â€œGetting Real.” Distribute copies and require the entire staff to read it by a certain date. (Assign deadlines to all actions in newsrooms. Most journalists don’t do things without deadlines.) For those of you working for penny-pinching corporations such as $7,546,710-a-year-earning Craig A. Dubow’s, you can keep your overlords’ budgets happy, because it doesn’t cost a thing right here.
Hold a meeting (gasp!) to discuss the book afterwards, workflow changes, figure out if there are any new ideas that could improve on it and what meetings can be cut. Make sure everyone’s on board. Specifically make sure everyone understands the practices in respecting others time and meeting management:
Do you really need a meeting? Meetings usually arise when a concept isn’t clear enough. Instead of resorting to a meeting, try to simplify the concept so you can discuss it quickly via email or im or Campfire. The goal is to avoid meetings. Every minute you avoid spending in a meeting is a minute you can get real work done instead.
It’s nothing personal, we just all need to be awesome, and minimizing distractions helps do that:
Getting in the zone takes time. And that’s why interruption is your enemy. It’s like rem sleep â€” you don’t just go to rem sleep, you go to sleep first and you make your way to rem. Any interruptions force you to start over. rem is where the real sleep magic happens. The alone time zone is where the real development magic happens.
BEFORE YOU FREAK OUT:
Now I’m not saying eliminate *all* meetings. Some are definitely vital and face-to-face time can be priceless, especially when dealing with difficult issues and those that involve emotion. But uninterrupted work time is important also. I’m just suggesting we re-evaluate how efficient we’re being. The formula will be different at many organizations. A good general ‘rule of thumb’ for me is, â€œIf you have to go around the room and have each person say something at the meeting, this could just as easily be done with a collaborative document, where everyone updates what’s new with them and everyone can enter information, read it quickly and get back to work.â€
The entire Getting Real book is absolutely fantastic and while some of the examples apply more to software creation, the vast majority of the book is immensely applicable to media organizations — from staying lean, to building ‘half a product not a half-assed product,’ ‘hiring the right customers,’ creating in an iterative process, etc… It’s just so fantastic, succinct and ideal to how a modern business should run.) There’s also a bunch of resources at the end of this blog entry for more resources and books about GTD (or ‘getting things done’) as well as some examples of how other organizations optimize their internal structures, such as the Mark Hartnett-recommended book,Â The Toyota Way.
Less meeting time = more time to get ‘extra’ online projects done.
Remove a layer of the organization hierarchy, reallocate those resources to do ‘extra’ stuff
With meetings tamed and story budgeting, collaboration and work flow streamlined using shared web tools, in many organizations you can probably start to reallocate full-time positions that used to be tasked with wearing a tie and attending dozens of meetings (We’re talking about middle-management) each day to other projects. Now they can focus on ‘extra’ stuff such as multimedia production, data procuring and presentation, social media efforts, etc. Everyone wins — they don’t feel dead inside anymore and the organization gets more ‘extra’ stuff.
If they resist the change and don’t want to evolve, Mark Hartnett has a solution.
More, higher-value ‘extra’ stuff gets done; Journalism is saved. The Ewoks throw a big party. George Lucas re-edits the footage years later and puts some horrible new song in there.
Related reading you might be interested in, if you read this freaking far (thanks, btw. I gotta start editing tighter):
+ The Four Hour Work Week
+ Living The 80/20 Way: Work Less, Worry Less, Succeed More, Enjoy More
+ The Toyota Way [ Via ]
+ Upgrade Your Life: The Lifehacker Guide to Working Smarter, Faster, Better
+ The 80/20 Principle: The Secret to Success by Achieving More with Less
+ Getting Real
+ Lifehacker blog
+ The HUNDREDS of other “GTD” genre blogs, books and other resources
+ Bunches of more book recommendations on organization change and management