Saturday, August 22, 2015

TV Assignment Desk Good Model for Digital-First Newsroom

Photo by Dionne Anglin from her blog
A lot of college newspapers have struggled to make the transition from an emphasis on their print editions to reporting and writing that gives readers information immediately on the web, sometimes called digital first.

One key, I think, is changing mindsets and attitudes. Reporters and editors need to understand that their audiences are moving away from the print newspaper and onto their phones and desktops. At The Orion, we print 5,000 newspapers a week but get an average of more than 143,000 page views on in that same week (and that average includes summers, when the paper isn't printed at all). Writers' traditional desire to see their byline on the front page needs to be replaced by the thrill of seeing their name in a Google search and seeing their tweets favorited and retweeted.

Just as important, though, is reconfiguring the way assignments are made. The way that happened when I worked as the assignment editor in a TV newsroom (at KMSP-TV in Minneapolis years ago) would make a great model for college newsrooms.

Here are some of the elements of my day back then:
• I kept a file drawer with folders numbered 1-31, one for each day of the month. When I had news releases, news tips or notes from my calendar about anniversaries or holidays, I would drop them into the folder for that date. Before I went home each night, I'd open the file for the next day and see what might be worth consideration for coverage. Often I'd schedule interviews for the next day.
• In the morning, I would go through my list of checks: AP wire, calls to police, the morning papers, etc. Some of those would become assignments for the day.
• As they came in to work, reporters would tell me what they'd found on their beats or stories they'd lined up on their own.
• I'd take all the information I had from all the various sources and, after consulting with the news director and the news show producer, write assignments for reporter-photographer teams on a huge plexiglass board above my desk that was visible to the whole newsroom.
• The plexiglass was important because assignments would change throughout the day, and what one team had been assigned in the morning often changed as news happened. In those instances, I would often have to communicate the change over office-to-news car radios.
• Those changes were possible because I was glued to my desk to take phone calls and listen to the police scanners and monitor the AP wire.
• As crews came in from the field, they would log video tape together, then the reporters would sit down and write their scripts. After checking about what the producers wanted for length, they would edit their story in time for broadcasting that night.

Translation for college newsrooms:
• Have a person who is the equivalent of the TV assignment editor in the newsroom. At The Orion, that's the breaking news editor.
• The day before, start planning the next day's stories.
• That person should do daily checks: email, phone messages, cop calls, snail mail, campus public information office.
• Individual reporters should scheduled to cover the parts of every day. Because of class schedules and other obligations, reporters might have to be responsible for just part of a day, morning until noon, for example, and be available in the newsroom or on their phones.
• Make videographers and photographers part of the breaking coverage team and give them daily assignments, too. Sometimes all the paper/website really needs is a photo and cutline or a 15-second clip to tell a story.
• Have the day's schedule posted so everyone can see it. A plexiglass or white board would be great, but a shared Google doc or even a paper runsheet would suffice.
• When the breaking news editor isn't in the newsroom, give other editors the responsibility for turning phone calls and scanner chatter into immediate assignments. Someone needs to be in the newsroom at least every weekday from 9 to 5.
• Make producing at least one story, photo or video the requirement for each person's shift, even if that only means rewriting a news release with a fresh direct quotation.
• Institute a "photo of the day" assignment so photographers and reporters are competing to provide a photo for a special place near the top of the home page. That's probably the easiest way to have fresh content on the website.
• De-emphasize the 12-inch text story as the Holy Grail for reporters, replacing it with the three-paragraph, hundred word brief that gets expanded to a larger story when warranted. This is also a way to keep the website fresh for readers.
• Stories need to be written and photos and videos posted the same day they're reported, not saved for later in the week.

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