A form to help you assign stories
I was pleasantly surprised Friday by the demand for copies of my “Deed of Ownership” form at the National College Media Convention in Chicago. I promised quite a few students I would post it here. For the benefit of those of you who weren’t with us at the “Assigning Stories Like a Pro” session, I’ll repeat a bit of my explanation of the form.
I created the form (with design by then-Georgia Perimeter College student Hilary Coles) with two goals in mind:
1. Get the assigning editor and the reporter literally on the same page about the tasks to be done to develop the story, get photos, etc.
2. Keep them in touch throughout the reporting process.
The idea is that the editor and reporter each have a copy of the form and fill it out as they talk over the assignment. (This can be done by phone if necessary.) A schedule is set for updates from the reporter and a first draft deadline, not just the final deadline for the finished story.
I call the diagram on Page 2 the “Circle of Story.” I know you’re cringing, but sometimes you need a corny term that everyone in the newsroom will understand and remember. (Feel free to invent your own.)
The diagram serves to remind the reporter to frequently assess the tasks still to be done and the time remaining to do them so a reasonable schedule of tasks can be created.
Time management is one of the skills most lacking in newsrooms. And often it’s because journalists don’t even think about it. I have a theory that the smart college students who join student media are used to cranking out class papers at the last minute and getting “A’s.” They assume they can do the same with a news story. But while you can always find another online source for a term paper, in journalism there often is no substitute for a particular person you need to interview. If one or more critical sources prove unavailable when the reporter calls at the last minute, the deadline is blown.
The diagram also emphasizes to the reporter that it’s common for problems to arise. Too often inexperienced reporters flail on their own at problems rather than asking their editor for help and advice. The form assures them that’s part of the process.
The diagram also acknowledges that reporting changes story ideas. What the reporter learns may open more avenues of reporting, creating more tasks. When this happens, the editor needs to realistically assess whether the original deadline can be met. If the deadline can’t be pushed back, the editor may need to bring in other staffers to help.
A point I underlined to the editors at the session: After you emphasize communication to reporters, you must keep your end of the bargain. Even when you’re busy, you must promptly respond to a reporter who comes to you with a problem.
You also must “own” the assignment by monitoring deadlines. If a reporter misses a deadline for a verbal update or draft, you must promptly ask why. Also, you must promptly read submitted drafts and offer feedback. You cannot expect reporters to respect draft deadlines if you let a draft sit unread for days.
Final caveat: No, this problem won’t solve all your deadline problems. But if you use the form at the outset to give clear instructions, at least there will be a clear road map to assess what went wrong when a reporter misses deadline. The two of you can go back over the form and identify where the trouble began. This can be done in a collaborative way: “David, let’s look at the form. Tell me how it went and where you think the story got off track.” Many people who would resent your criticism will happily criticize themselves if you give them a non-threatening opening.
If you want to try the form, of course feel free to adapt it to your workflow. I hope you will let me know how it works out and about any problems or improvements you discover.