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Roberts: Editors need to provide reporters with written expectations for content

May 17, 2011

By Alison Dirr

Editors need to create clear and detailed written expectations for every piece of content reporters produce, says Michael Roberts, a newsroom trainer and consultant.

In his three-hour talk, titled “Coaching and Planning Content for Multiple Platforms” at the MPI/APME Newstrain workshop April 29-30 in Madison, Roberts spoke not only about content, but also about how to coordinate a news team.

The goal, he said, is to reach new levels of quality reporting that a newsroom can maintain.

Roberts noted that this is increasingly difficult for editors who must keep up with an ever-changing media landscape. It is no longer about producing just one type of content, but rather a variety of written, audio, video and interactive content.

Editors can meet this challenge by constantly articulating to their staffs both the standards and how to meet them. The goal is to build a team that is self-sufficient by giving people the skills, resources and standards to perform to their highest abilities. Editors must be willing to give feedback as the team moves forward, thereby keeping everyone moving in the same direction.

His rationale for this approach was that most people want to know what is expected of them more than anything else. When editors relay this information clearly, it decreases stress and allows the news team to function efficiently.

Roberts shared an acronym – SMART – to aid editors in communicating their expectations effectively:

Specific: Give concrete directions. Asking someone to “make it sing” does not frame the idea effectively and will not give workers a clear idea of what the editor wants.

Measurable: How will you decide if the goal has been accomplished? Is it through quality, quantity or frequency? Define this in the beginning.

Action-oriented: Give a clear description of how the goal can be accomplished, using active verbs and laying out sequences for how to do it.

Realistic: Make sure people can actually do the work in a sustained way. The standard should be attainable with existing skills, abilities and resources, he said.

Time-dated: State a deadline for when the work must be finished.

Editors can circulate tip sheets to help their staffs understand these expectations, so that reporters begin to make decisions on their own.

These standards help reporters understand which medium to use in each situation. To make these decisions, Roberts said staffs should consider the time they have before publishing, the resources available in equipment and people, and the shelf life of the final product.

In other words, investing time in creating a flash graphic for a one-time article may not be the best use of time while a quick photo slideshow may be more appropriate.

Creating additional content like videos, slideshows and interactive graphics that are suitable for each piece will keep the audience on the website, Roberts said. He referred to this phenomenon as “stickiness” and said providing links to related stories also helps.

Overall, Roberts said, 60 percent of an editor’s job is devoted to articulating standards for their staffs. In this way, they can create a newsroom where writers and reporters are empowered to create high quality content without relying on an editor’s direction for each piece of content they create.

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