editor on the verge

Online musings from the newsroom and beyond . . . by Yoni Greenbaum

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Postmortems can improve newspapers

January 22nd, 2008 · No Comments

Part of the motivation behind my previous post was that I find, in many newsrooms, training has taken a real hit in recent years and when money is made available, more often then not, it’s used on the reporting, photo or design staffs. Assistant editors, all too often, are expected to just get it and/or figure it out for themselves.

I think the concept of using technology to strengthen the team approach can have real value, but today I want to focus on something that can have just as much, if not more, impact without any tech. In the run and gun life of a newsroom, time for reflection is a rapidly disappearing commodity, even finding time to read one’s own newspaper can be challenging. So it’s really no surprise that postmortems are left for either the morning meeting or the front-page meeting (if at all).

Now it could be that editors are distracted by the word’s etymology (Latin, post mortem, after death), but more then likely it’s that in the crush of ever-increasing added responsibilities, postmortems have become another one of those things editors (at all levels) would like to do, “if they could only find the time”. But I would suggest, I would urge, I would even go as far as to implore you, to find the time.

So what am I really talking about? What do I think a postmortem entails? Who should be included? And, given that time is truly limited, does every story deserve a postmortem?

Well starting in reverse, I agree that this can’t be done with every story, but it should be done with at least all 1A stories and from there, all section front stories. These are your heavy hitters, these are the stories that day in and day out represent your newspaper both online and in-print. And, at many newspapers, these stories are frequently written by the same reporters. As a result, you have a real opportunity to make a lasting impact in how these stories are reported, written and presented.

The idea is not to get a group in a room and select a scapegoat to blame for story or package’s weaknesses; this is supposed to be a learning experience. My suggestion is to limit it to the key players, yourself, the reporter(s), the photographer(s) and, if necessary, the photo editor. I’ve left out designers and copy editors because, in many cases, they come in later in the process. I would not open it up to the newsroom in general and I would not encourage attendance from anyone higher up (although I recognized that at times, that is beyond any of our control). Make sure those who will be attending know about it the day before; I’m not a big fan of rude surprises.

OK, so we’ve identified which stories deserve this treatment and who should be in attendance, now what?

First off, I would suggest that you have the reporter take notes. The reason for this is that a single-page write-up should come out of this experience and it make sense for it to be from the story’s author. This will become a reference document for future stories as well as something to reference during evaluation season.

Secondly, I would start the discussion with what the initial vision was for the story. With that context, talk about what worked, what we would do again in the future and any lessons we can draw (call it the “Supernanny” approach. Show fans, you know what I’m talking about). From there I would move on to those aspects we would want to do differently. What didn’t work and how could we approach those aspects differently.

Before wrapping up the meeting, get the reporter (or if relevant, the photographer) to review what’s worth repeating and what’s worth changing. Thank everyone for coming and giving of their time and remind the reporter to type of the notes distribute them to the participants.

I make it sounds simple, don’t I? Well it’s not, but it is a straightforward approach and, believe it or not, you can do it within 20 minutes. Actually, set a clock and stick to it. You will find the tighter the review, the more focused it will be, the more people will enjoy it and the more they will get out of it.

Not convinced? Try it and then let me know what you think.

Tags: Beat Development · Best Practices · Editors · Leadership · Reporting · Traffic · Training

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