Saturday, April 18, 2015

The Importance of a Calendar to Planning News Coveage

It was probably my two-year stint assigning stories for KMSP-TV in the Twin Cities that made me appreciate how vital a simple calendar is to planning the day's news. When I worked for newspapers, we looked ahead a week at a time and got a general idea of what we were going to cover, but in the Channel 9 newsroom, I had to fill a white board with enough assignments each morning to fill our one-hour broadcast each night at 9.

That day-focused mentality came to mind last Wednesday when, in my weekly critique, I wondered why neither the print paper nor the website had stories on April 15 about the income tax deadline or the Associated Students elections, both of which fell on that day.

As a TV assignment editor, I started my morning asking myself: "What are we going to have on the show tonight?" It's a question everyone at The Orion should be asking every morning, too.

Here are a few suggestions for everyone responsible for content in the paper and on the website (which means "everyone who works for the paper").

A Calendar File Drawer or Online Calendar
One drawer in my desk at the station had 31 file folders labeled with numbers 1 to 31. Each represented a day of the month. When I got a call, a news release or some other notification about an event in our coverage area, I would file in the folder for that date the release or a note to myself with the essential details and contact information. 

The last hour of my day, I would take out the file folder for the next day's date and see what I'd put away. I'd also look at my regular, standard calendar to see if the following day was a holiday or had some other special significance (such as tax-filing day or the anniversary of a note-worthy historical event or story) and make phone calls to set up interviews for the following day.

A Daily White Board
Those stories would find their place the next morning on a white board hanging on the wall next to my desk. While a daily runsheet can be kept in Google Sheets or another on-computer application, I think it's essential to have a list of the day's stories posted in a prominent place in the newsroom so everyone knows what's being planned and who's responsible for getting it done and posted or published.

As a TV assignment editor, I filled in a grid that listed columns for shift, story slug, story format and reporter-videographer team. We had only one newscast at the time, so posting a deadline wasn't necessary, but I would add that column in an online newsroom today.

Using a white board is a good idea because news changes quickly in a broadcast newsroom just as it should in a digital-first newsroom. New stories squeeze out less vital old ones and crews are reassigned so the freshest, most important news ends up being covered. Because it was right next to my desk, I could change the line-up and assignments instantly, and the producers who sat across the room could see how their show was going to change in real time.

Share Responsibility With Reporters
The temptation in TV news -- at least in my newsroom, but I know it was true in many others -- was to let the assignment editor or editors set the day's schedule and keep the runsheet fresh. That seemed odd to me because I started my career in newspapers, where reporters ran regular beats and took responsibility for knowing what was happening on them and for letting the editors know what stories they were planning. Story ideas mostly trickled up from reporters, not down from editors.

Reporters who didn't do that were the go-to victims of news editors who came to work with an idea for a story or who got a phone call from a reader with a story idea. That's not always bad -- it's the way breaking news gets covered in practically all newsrooms -- but I learned early on to always be working on at least three solid stories so I didn't have to pick up a stinker and spend my day running down a story I didn't want to report or write.

The editors' jobs in a digital-first newsrooms such as The Orion's are hard enough without the added responsibility of coming up with every story idea. And it should be obvious that people who generally sit in newsrooms to do their jobs are a lot less aware of what's happening in the world than reporters who are running beats, driving around town or walking across campus. In an ideal newsroom, reporters would fill Camayak or another content management system with more than enough story pitches to provide fresh content daily for the website. More, they should be doing that when they come up with the ideas, not once a week when they're under the deadline pressure of a weekly story meeting.

One more suggestion One of the great things about the 21st century is that news organizations can rely on their audiences to provide story ideas. The Orion should be thinking about:
• Setting up one of its phone lines with a message recorder as a tip line and advertise it in the paper, online and on The Orion app inviting readers to contribute ideas or provide news tips.
• Designating a person in the newsroom to be the receiver of story ideas from anyone on the staff, including the cartoonists, the ad staff and the copy desk.
• Using social media to invite audience members to suggest ideas for coverage and crowdsource stories. What would the Cesar Chavez Day coverage have looked like if readers had been invited to tweet, Facebook message or post an Instagram photo with a special tag before, during and after the event?

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