Why this Research Matters
My goal: to challenge the way we think about these processes and find what works for some newsrooms, what clearly doesn’t work in others and share my findings in one place.
I think it’s time we start talking about our processes (not just on-boarding and off-boarding) as a news community and think about simple ways to make these processes better. At a time when many newsrooms are laying off reporters and editors, and people are moving from one newsroom to the next, it’s really important for people to have a central repository or database of the documents that people worked on. In the past, some newsrooms had newsroom librarians and they would be the main keepers of documents and would be knowledgeable about the stories that are written over time in the newsroom. Unfortunately, many newsrooms have either gotten rid of these positions or have only one or two people in these roles, so it's even harder to have someone who really knows the ins and outs of the newsroom.
Think back to your first day of your job. Was there some person or program you wished you encountered right away that you learned about later on? Instead of just keeping that knowledge to yourself, write the answer down. If you capture your answer now, it will be easy to share whenever you bring in new reporters or editors.
Some newsrooms do a good job of sharing their documentation on a project-by-project basis, but others just move onto the next big story without bothering to think about reproducibility or the future of their projects. The institutional knowledge one learns on the job does not always get passed along to the next reporter and because of that, they waste time trying to re-learn things that could have easily been shared.
This institutional knowledge loss is a key issue that I've found while doing this research. It's not that people aren't aware of losing knowledge in their newsrooms when a person leaves, but rather because of the quick-moving nature of the news, reporters and editors aren't spending the time to document their stories or make on-boarding and off-boarding a priority. In general, people on data/investigations teams do more documentation, because of the nature of their work (ex: code that is reused by others), but this is not always the case.
People are often just worried about their own work, especially when they’re swamped with filing story after story or graphic after graphic. And they aren’t always thinking about what will happen when someone else has to reproduce their work or look at their notes and try to decipher the abstract meanings behind their column headers or file names. It’s just not a priority. I get it. This is especially true when many of us are dealing with breaking news.
I know that I won’t be able to change all newsroom processes around the world completely overnight. I can’t and won’t say this way or that way is the only correct way of going about these processes because what works in one newsroom may not necessarily work in another.
I also understand that at the end of the day, reinforcement of this needs to come from higher-up editors who can spread new ideas or ask people to start putting a bit more time into documenting their work. And while it may not change the amount of information we report on, whether people realize it or not, these processes impact our daily and long-term reporting cycles.
Take for example: a project on shootings that is tracked over time using a spreadsheet with one reporter who knows the ins and outs of the process. Let’s say one day that he or she leaves the job and doesn’t take the time to document the project. Well, the next person who begins that very same job and who is asked to continue collecting the stats will be left clueless and trying to piece together the project. As a result, important things to keep in mind while reporting on this project (ex: data issues or key people) will be lost and at some point, the project will die because of the time suck that the lack of documentation caused.
If a formalized or any sort of process were in place and if someone were to leave the newsroom voluntarily or not, the newsroom would know what they worked on or didn’t do in their time on the job. They’d also have notes and information on projects or stories that they can begin to work on that the last person didn’t get to.
Many of the respondents to the survey said documentation issues are often a root cause of many of the problems their newsrooms experience on a daily basis. Just as we are documenting every day events and issues that the world is experiencing, we should be doing the same in our jobs. There's no need for us to reinvent the wheel by trying to answer the same questions and address the same issues over and over again. It's especially problematic because newsrooms have systems in place for many things and unfortunately, many of these processes are not documented, but are just things that people know in their heads and often learn on the job. This is not the way we should be working.
Even if just one person on every team in every newsroom wrote down an outline of the questions they have, known issues, and the processes that they are aware of, I'm sure that there would be fewer pointless meetings and repetition of the same scenarios over and over again.
In general, you may notice this guide will focus on documentation for on-boarding and off-boarding processes. In order for these processes to really work, people need to get better at documentation. People can only be properly acquainted with a job if they have thorough documentation and help from their colleagues.
I hope that by the end of this guide, you'll begin to start thinking about implementing some sort of process in your newsroom, even if it's just beginning with a simple Word Doc of the information you’ve learned on the job. And if you end up using this work in your newsroom, I would love to hear about it. See the acknowledgements for my contact information.