Breakdown of survey respondents (total of 247 individuals):
Reporters (includes anyone with correspondent, producer, reporter, journalist in their title and includes: investigative, beat reporters, senior reporters): 107
News applications developers/data reporters: 55
Editors (includes copy editors, photo editors and section editors): 45
Social Media: 20
Management (includes managing editors, editors-in-chief, etc.): 6
For the categorization of what is considered a "small" newsroom versus a "large" newsroom, I used the Online News Association Awards categories found here.
They are as follows:
- Small: 50 or fewer employees
- Medium: 51 to 250 employees
- Large: More than 250 employees
Here's a list of some of the newsrooms that responded and their categories:
- KPCC- Southern California
- Center for Public Integrity
- The Marshall Project
- Myanmar Times
- De Correspondent
- The Trace
- India Spend
- St. Paul Pioneer Press
- Tampa Bay Times
- The Palm Beach Post
- Foreign Policy Magazine
- Texas Tribune
- Baltimore Sun
- Berliner Morgenpost
- The Associated Press
- The Huffington Post
- The New York Times
- Financial Times (FT)
- The Wall Street Journal
- USA Today
- Globe and Mail
- The Guardian
- El Mundo
- La Nación
- Al Jazeera
- The Washington Post
- Los Angeles Times
People from large newsrooms mostly filled out the survey. Eighty-five percent of newsrooms that filled out the survey were from large newsrooms. The other ten percent were from medium-sized newsrooms and five percent came from small-sized newsrooms.
In general, the issues were the same across all newsrooms, no matter the size. Those individuals who said there is no process in their newsroom said they would appreciate any kind of policy as it would be a "huge step forward." In terms of off-boarding, 90 percent of the respondents who filled out the survey who don't have a process in place said they didn't think about having a check-out of accounts when someone leaves because it a) never was an issue or b)they didn't think of it.
Eighty-six percent of respondents who filled out the survey said they did not have any on-boarding or off-boarding processes in their newsrooms.
If there are processes in place in newsrooms, they are not widely used. Some individuals said they have a policy of doing documentation for on-boarding and off-boarding, but it's not enforced enough, so people don't care enough to follow through on it. Those that did have processes noted that not everyone in the newsroom documents their work and those that do document their work are often the data/news applications teams. But for those data/news applications teams, the documentation is mostly done on a project-by-project basis and isn't always carried out for the basics of the job and noting down known issues.
Of the 221 newsrooms, only three said they had people actually documenting as they go along. All other newsrooms that have these processes in place said they only document on a project by project basis, so these on-boarding and off-boarding documents get updated once a year.
On data/news applications teams there are often code reviews. While these are more project-by-project, this could be a good way of thinking about creating and editing on-boarding and off-boarding documentation.
Code reviews serve as a good check for the developers working on a project to think through why they wrote a certain line of code or why they ran the scripts in the order they did. In code reviews, one person will look through what the other person wrote and ask questions about the approaches the person used to think about the code for a story or a tool. Similar to code reviews for developers or data folks, there could be story reviews in which an editor goes over with the reporter where they found a source or why they wrote a certain graf the way they did.
Takeaway: Similar to code reviews, have a story review or a project review. This can be in the form of a one-on-one meeting or a larger meeting with the team.
It's also helpful for the reporter to take notes of the edits they get from each editor. So for example, if one particular editor gives the same edits over and over, it might be a smart idea to note these edits down so the next time the editor checks over your story, you don't make the same mistakes. This can improve your writing and also serve as a sort of review to make sure you're thinking through your story structure properly.
For projects, it's helpful to have a project retrospective. Questions you can ask: what the impact of the project was, what went well in the project and what are some outstanding questions for future stories.
An important thing to note: All the people I chatted with happened to be the ones who often do documentation and/or are among the few in their newsrooms that are interested in finding solutions for bad documentation and helping people understand why it's so important to have a good on-boarding and off-boarding. One group I didn't manage to reach is the people who did not know these processes could exist and are not interested in at all.
The key here for getting people to stay motivated and wanting to do documentation or even interested in why having a proper process. A lot of people who didn't have formalized processes in their newsrooms said one of their biggest problems with their newsrooms is the lack of processes for on-boarding, off-boarding and documentation in general. It's the same statement over and over again: there's no time, people don't care about others, people don't want to think about quitting and there's no motivation to do documentation.
Takeaway: There needs to be support from more than one person to make documentation a priority. One person cannot be responsible for all the documentation in a newsroom, even if it's a small newsroom. Find an example(s) of documentation and how it helped to prove the point.
Think back to when you had your HR training and had to go through the expense system or PTO system. In these trainings, HR often takes screenshots of what your screen will look like in each step and circle the buttons that you need to click in order to complete the process. Now, think about how many times in your first few times using the system that you used that guide. This serves as a good example of something you can refer to as why having documentation can be helpful.
Example scenario: A reporter I spoke to at large news organization mentioned a scenario in which she was chatting with FOI officers and public relations people. Create an electronic rolodex, complete with the last time you chatted with the person, notes on the last emails (or the dates of those emails), and any information on the person personally that you noted. These can come in handy for your next request. How? Well, instead of searching through Outlook (which is awful if you can't remember the person's name, date or the subject line), you can look at your file and easily reference the email or files you are searching for. The reporter I spoke to noted that she referenced the FOI officer's dog and as a result, the officer was a lot friendlier and sped up her request. Maybe it wasn't the actual reason her request was fulfilled, but perhaps it can pay off to take some notes on your sources.
There needs to be a push from the hiring managers and the folks at the top to make sure all reporters and editors are documenting their jobs. I understand that this could be difficult since newsrooms are busy with deadlines and this not a priority. But it's really important that the push for documentation comes from the top down. Editors should be understanding and give their reporters time to document their work. This will not only save them time in the future, but also help the newsroom understand what thoughts/process went through each major project.
Each team should have their own process for on-boarding, but having the whole newsroom on board with doing proper documentation will motivate people to actually come through with it. Some respondents said making the documentation mandatory part of the workflow can also cause issues. This can be easily solved if everyone is doing it. Yes, it can be a pain to deal with documentation if you put it off until the end of a project and have to think through what you did to get where you are. This is why you should document from the start, so you'll never have a day where you're just writing documentation that should have been written months earlier. Documenting from the start can also be helpful in showing the progress you've made on a project. It can also be reproduced and used to recreate your work if something goes wrong in one step of the process.
Takeaway: There should be buy-in from higher-up editors who enforce taking some time to actually document work. Leadership in documentation among teams is really important as well.
The main issue is documentation is not a priority for reporters or editors when they are filing stories on a regular basis, so when one person leaves, all the institutional knowledge they have goes out the door with them. In many newsrooms, there are one or two people on any given team that know the ins and outs of the team, but they rarely write down what they know. The reason? It's too tedious and there isn't enough time built into the day to address documentation and worrying about the legacy of the reporting/projects for future team members.
There needs to be multiple people taking part, working together, because then documentation and thinking about these processes will become the standard. If these few people leave the newsroom all at once or soon after one another, all of the institutional knowledge will be lost. This is why it's really important for there to be a few people on each team in the newsroom who are responsible for taking the charge in asking people to document and go through others documents. Each individual should document their own work and then work with the others on the team to think through things they may have missed documenting and need to add in. If more people write documentation and think about these processes, there will be a higher incentive for others to read them, update them and continue to write them.
Takeaway: Listen to how other people work. Keep an open mind about how documentation can help you and your team. Sharing your information will make your team work better.
Another common sore-point for documentation is sharing information that could be considered unique. Some reporters responded in the survey that they did not want to share sources or notes on stories because then the skills they have which they thought were unique won't be so unique any more. While it's understandable that some sources you develop and may not want to share with the rest of the newsroom, it would be helpful to explain how you found certain sources and how you learned what you did to get where you are. Chances are, you heard a tip from another reporter in another newsroom or even in the same newsroom and learned from them. Why not share that in your documentation? Challenge yourself to think about your processes differently. Maybe you're not requesting data in the best way or chatting with a source correctly. If you share your notes, maybe another colleague can help think this through and think of a new way of going about asking a question.
Many of the respondents in the survey mentioned it would be nice if more people actually shared their on-boarding and off-boarding guides for other people to look at. While you can use this guide, it would be great for newsrooms to share their guides so others can learn and improve their processes.
Takeaway: There's not a one-stop fix for bad documentation. It is a continual process and people grow and get better at writing documentation as they are doing it.
Some of the respondents who said they did have on-boarding or off-boarding on their teams said they had issues with bad documentation. People didn't put in full effort or really complete the documentation. This is why iteration is really important. Once you have some documentation written (you can even take the checklist I've provided and make your own), you should ask others to read it and ask questions and comment on it. Then you go back to those comments, answer them and continue writing documentation. Stop using jargon. Make sure you include an explanation of what a term may mean so the next person doesn't have to look up the acronym or jargon that you wrote in the notes.
For more on how to build a culture of documentation, Vox has put together a great guide on this.
Takeaway: Just start writing documentation.
The biggest question people asked in the survey is how you even start documenting when there's so much you can start writing about. Just start with identifying what's critical and what you are repeating over and over. If a task is repetitive, having documentation can help. For example, if you're always explaining how to set up PGP encryption on email to the new person or if you're always explaining how to use the CMS, write that down.
A good way of getting started is by writing down some notes at the end of the week. Then thoroughly document these notes every two weeks on Friday evening. Don't just document things on a project-by-project basis.
Bonus: Bringing new people in and having people leave doesn't have to be a nightmare.
Have a checklist of the documents you need to go through. Think about setting up a wiki or a central place for people to go to read when they start and update before they leave. Think about making an email template to send to new hires. This can be especially helpful when you have a large batch of new hires throughout the newsroom. There's always the HR emails and the note from the newsroom about a new person starting, but it would be nice for the new person not to receive 15 emails on their first day. Just one email with all the links and documents in one place would ideal.
In general, newsrooms have a lot of processes and documentation is not a key priority for some newsrooms. The survey showed that on-boarding and off-boarding is not just an issue in one newsroom in the US or Germany or India, but a global issue. Comparing a "small" newsroom to a "medium" newsroom also doesn't make much sense, since the priorities and missions are different. See chapters four through six for more information for each newsroom. Additionally, here is the Source writeup on the project.
I hope this guide will serve as inspiration for those editors thinking of their goals for 2017 and what they can incorporate into their newsroom workflow. If you do end up using the checklist or incorporating a few things into your newsroom, I'd love to hear from you. My contact information can be found on the acknowledgements page.