Daily discipline in the digital world

If you don’t publish a print newspaper every day, what must you accomplish every day? Most college papers aren’t daily, so their traditional news-producing structures weren’t built for daily production. But we live now in a digital world with daily demands. Every strong newsroom has digital daily ambitions, but do you have digital daily discipline? Are there daily tasks which must be accomplished with as much certainty as the delivery of a daily newspaper?

I was thinking about those questions last week after an exciting visit with the staff at TNJN, a student-run digital-only news organization in the University of Tennessee’s journalism school. Editor-in-Chief Sarah Waldrip told me she and TNJN’s other editors are looking for ways to ensure timely daily copy. The next day, I came across this:

“The difficult task is to marry relentless discipline with creativity, neither letting discipline inhibit creativity nor letting creativity erode discipline.”

The quote, from “Great By Choice,” by Jim Collins and Morten T. Hansen, is about how businesses thrive amid change and uncertainty. It neatly summarizes the twin goals of daily journalism: we want creative, thoughtful, even investigative stories that take time; and we want a steady stream of news now.

Daily newspaper editors have lived with this tension for many years. And they’ve learned the hard way that you can’t have everything. If all your journalists are working on projects for next month, today’s product is likely to be weak (or, in a digital world, non-existent). If all your journalists are working on multiple daily stories (now including retweet and page view goals), forget about that great time-consuming journalism.

So here are a few thoughts toward creating daily discipline while respecting the balance with longer-term creativity.

WHAT: Determine the essential elements you must deliver to readers every day. Assume it’s your slowest news day. What must be provided to readers? Keep this list as short as possible. Consider simple event reminders and curating (linking, retweeting) news of interest from other sources in addition to your staff’s original reporting. Keep this list achievable. Be prepared to cut it if you get to “WHO” below and find you don’t have enough staff. Don’t put “that would be nice” items on this list.

WHEN: Determine the key times of day for your digital elements. Conventional wisdom has been that news is consumed heavily in morning “drive time” as people get to work and fire up their computers. Mobile devices are probably changing that everywhere. And on campus, students (supposedly) don’t read news when they get to “work” in their first class. We know that click-through rates on links posted in social media are higher in the middle of the day. I suggest you think about how to post fresh content that will show up in Twitter and Facebook feeds by the time students emerge from morning classes and head to lunch.

WHO: Each task needs a responsible person. Here is a recipe for failure: “Everyone be sure to post something to the website.” One of the smartest things I heard at a National College Media Convention was “If everyone is responsible, no one is responsible.” You may not be able to assign a single person to run your digital operation every morning. The job may have to rotate. Or several people may be responsible for various pieces on various days. But there must be a list of exactly who is responsible for exactly what piece of your essential digital plan every day. An important part of this plan is what should happen when someone can’t meet their obligation due to illness, too much homework, etc. Who gets that call, and what does she do about it?

HOW: Spell out for all parties a practical, will-work-every-time system for producing content every day. Again, picture your slowest news day. The folks at TNJN learned I’m a fan of “walking around” stories. Even your most inexperienced reporter can walk around campus and file two or three paragraphs on a blood drive, club signup or even what people thought about last night’s big game. This also can be done as a photo with a decent caption. Large schools may need a daily morning police check. If you set up Google Alerts (my advice here), someone must monitor them. And check local news sources, major national sources and customized services like Huffpost College and USA Today College (both have good Twitter feeds).

Do a reality check. After you finish the plan, consider your safety margin. If your plan will just barely work, it’s too big and runs the risk of interfering with the important enterprise you still need. Start small and be fiercely disciplined about achieving those small requirements. Readers will come to rely on you, and your whole staff will come to see the daily discipline as a fact of life.

Be smart with enterprise. Remember all that creative enterprise can help your daily discipline as well. Faithfully use a news budget. Enterprise stories should be scheduled for maximum impact as part of your daily offerings. Don’t dump three great enterprise stories online today and then have nothing special to offer tomorrow. Is your current practice to publish online the entire content of next week’s print edition on day of publication? Why? Picture a student with a smartphone. Is he really going to read all your enterprise in one sitting? Or would he be more likely to read one good enterprise story each day at lunch? Would it really hurt your print edition if some enterprise stories were posted online before they appeared in print?

Please feel free to use the comments section to talk about your existing daily routines and your ideas.

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About adviserdavid

Student media director, Georgia Southern University

Posted on September 13, 2012, in Digital/social, Leadership. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

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