How a newsroom leader balances innovation with deadline pressure

Jan 17 2013

Each time we start a new project at the Reese News Lab, I can almost hear the opening ding of a mental boxing match that will ensue until that project is complete:

“In this corner, we have the looming, the feared, the instiller of panic: The Deadline. And in this corner, we have the musing, the scheming, the castle in the air: Innovation.”

As the managing editor at the Reese News Lab, I take my place as referee between those boxers and try to call a fair fight – with time being the prize.

The lab is an incubator for ideas, meant to foster creative thinking. The students who work here are well acquainted with brainstorms and pushing for innovation. Yet developing experimental projects takes time and, in many cases, failure. Both inherently conflict with the deadline, which is so central to the news industry.

Last fall, I found myself wrestling with the desire to hold out for something new and the need to push our staffers for content now.

Stories were typically born from a staffer’s pitch and some iteration of a brainstorm, then deadlines were set and the work began. Especially during the election season, the atmosphere surrounding stories we created for WhichWayNC.com, our political news site, began to take on the familiar franticness of chasing the next deadline and constantly generating new content. Yet sometimes, the tenet of innovation would be lost in the process. There was simply not enough time to fully develop our experiments as well as create stories on a tight deadline.

This type of battle led staffer Matt Hayes to accidentally create PowerPoint, when the push for a deadline KO’ed the need for pre-planning and creative thinking.

While I don’t have the power to grant my staffers more time in the day (wouldn’t that be nifty?), one approach we are taking to give Innovation the opportunity for a fairer fight against his nemesis The Deadline is to give staffers clearer expectations of the upcoming match.

This semester, we have set quantitative story goals as a lab. For example, you’ll soon be reading more in this space, because we’ve set a goal of publishing 30 lab reports by May. As Matt said, planning ahead of time could have kept him from reinventing the wheel and, instead, allow his mind the time to digest and develop his story idea. It is my hope that setting clear goals will better help me enable our staffers to push the boundaries of news, while balancing that with the need of a news organization to publish stories.


One comment on “How a newsroom leader balances innovation with deadline pressure

  1. […] As the director of design and technology, I’m one of two student developers working for Reese News Lab. Working as a developer in a newsroom is a difficult job – code and design standards are constantly changing, and if your organization wants to remain technologically relevant, you have to keep up. In a more traditional news environment, this means learning on the job while also keeping up with the never-ending news cycle. Most of the time, news organizations end up sacrificing innovation and experimentation because they simply don’t have room for their digital folks to learn newer methods. Managing editor Alex Barinka looked at the issue of balancing deadlines and innovation in an earlier lab report. […]

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