7 tips for a more collaborative newsroom

Whitney Evans | News Director, KSL.com, DDM | @Whitevs7 | November 1, 2016

Editors: note: Whitney was recently named news director of KSL.com. She previously worked as a web editor for DeseretNews.com, a sister brand at Deseret Digital Media.

Whether you’re working on a big project or are in a newsroom that is facing the squeeze of limited resources, you’ve likely faced the need to collaborate.

But how do you get different platforms — radio, TV, legacy print journalism, photographers — to work together cooperatively instead of in silos? What do you do with the tension that exists between trying to get page views by posting engaging content quickly and trying to be certain about facts? What works best?

Here are some lessons I’ve learned from working in a newsroom that combines the work of print, web, radio and television journalists.

Establish relationships

A few weeks back, a manager and I were tasked with a mammoth undertaking of viewing and understanding about seven-and-a-half hours of video footage before running the content on our website. Competing news outlets were aware of the footage as well, so we needed to act quickly.

We soon realized that the task, if taken on by just the two of us, would be too big for us to handle. Luckily for us, we had established positive relationships with enough people in our organization that we convinced more than a dozen of our colleagues to join us on a weekend to watch and summarize videos in a shared Google Doc. Our success, in large part, was due to the existing relationships we had.

Identify priorities

Not every battle is worth fighting and not every project or story is worth resources. Identify the goals and direction for your company and make sure what you produce and pursue falls in line with those goals. For DeseretNews.com this means that early each day and week we identify a handful of stories we think will be heavy-hitters or important to the public interest. We then put our resources into working with the writer and editor to make sure these stories look awesome online and are promoted effectively.

Take away the element of surprise

We have conversations about priorities when the pressure is off. If I have already met with an editor and writer and we have agreed on a solution to a recurring problem, it is easier to hold them to that standard when breaking news hits instead of arguing about who is right in the heat of the moment.

How does it benefit them?

The last thing a writer or reporter working on deadline wants to hear is that he or she has one more thing he or she has to do. Web folk shouldn’t be surprised then if they are met with resistance when asking a writer or reporter to go live on Facebook or send back video from his or her cellphone.

If those same writers and reporters learn that going live on Facebook will build their personal brand and trust with their audience, leading to an expanded audience over time, they may will be more willing to listen.

When someone knows that part of what I’m asking them to do will directly benefit them, they are often more cooperative and collaborative.

It’s not a competition

When I made the switch from a print-focused team to a web-focused team in the same company, I did so, in part, to help the web team strengthen its breaking-news strategy. Initially, I came out with guns blazing, trying to beat out old colleagues in an attempt to get the news online as quickly as possible. I soon learned that this was not effective and refocused on our shared priority of getting accurate news online as quickly as possible. I realized that as long something gets done in the way and time it needs to, it doesn’t matter who performs the task. In a team, when one person succeeds, it should reflect positively on the team as a whole.

Ultimately, every newsroom wants to provide quality content that uplifts and engages their audience. Every successful collaboration leads one step closer to this goal.

Learn from others

One session I attended at recent online news conference focused on the need for collaboration in newsrooms (and for partnerships with other newsrooms, but that is another topic for another time.)

I realized that newsrooms all over were having the same problem I was with collaboration: How do you get people to work together when there are limited resources and competing interests? Further narrowing that down, how do you slim the divide between digital-native millennials and seasoned legacy journalists? How do you get them to work together? One idea we came up with in the conference session was to create strategic partnerships between incoming and established employees.

A digital native may understand better how to craft a punchy listicle or garner more Twitter or Snapchat followers while a reporter with a legacy background will have more experience with vetting sources and building reader trust. If your organization can pair up people who have complementary skill sets, there stands to be a net gain of skills and experience exchanged. Butch Ward, senior faculty and former managing director at the Poynter Institute, suggests identifying the skills of each person in your newsroom to see where they’re adding value and identifying partnerships from there.

Some caveats

Not every project should be a collaboration. There are times when it will be more efficient to work alone. One recent study published in the Harvard Business Review showed that oftentimes the best collaborators in the company get the most requests for help. Unchecked, these employees will begin to feel stretched and may be less effective over time.

“As well-regarded collaborators are overloaded with demands, they may find that no good deed goes unpunished,” study authors say, adding, “Leaders must learn to recognize, promote and efficiently distribute the right kinds of collaborative work, or their teams and top talent will bear the costs of too much demand for too little supply.”

There are times when, despite our best efforts, our collaboration fails. In these instances, the best thing I’ve found to do is remember my main goal or priority, which is to have an overall collaborative culture, and adapt and adjust from there.