Posted on August 15, 2007
5 steps for teams producing journalism
The editors and other professional journalists on my department’s advisory board tell our faculty — every semester — that they want us to teach students how to work as members of a team. I can tell you from experience, it’s one thing to require students to complete an assignment as a team, and quite another to actually teach them how to be a good team journalist.
I asked a panel of four journalists (at the annual Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication convention) to help us out. Here’s a list based on what they said (and what I’ve learned so far):
- Require brainstorming. Before anything is set in stone (not that it ever really is), organize a brainstorming session with all team members. Here’s a good set of instructions. The key is not to shoot anyone down. Brainstorming is not the time to choose the strategy or make the plan. It is the time to hear lots of original and creative ideas. Consider new approaches. Imagine unique sources.
- Determine the structure of the project before you start work on it. Do not for one minute think the structure will magically suggest itself when all the reporting and asset-gathering is finished. It will not. Good structure is never accidental. Structure is the segments or pieces that together make the whole — as well as the arrangement, or order, of those pieces. How many are there? Give them labels. What does each include?
- Make a big deal about the process of shaping the story and communicating continually. The final product gets way too much emphasis in most team projects. The process (the journey) is just as important as the end (the destination). How are decisions made, and why? Do you choose one path because it is convenient or fast? Is that what’s best? Try to foresee potential snags and trouble spots, and make a Plan B. Does everyone on the team have everyone else’s e-mail address and cell phone number? Schedule and travel plans? Dates for delivery of assets?
- Prepare to make creative changes during the process. “Flexibility,”one journalist said. “Fluid,” someone else said. Discuss in advance how you will communicate back to all group members when something in your sphere of responsibility has changed — because the ripple effect will reach them eventually. If they know immediately, they can be ready. If you delay in letting them know, havoc might result.
- Above all, appoint a leader. This is not to be taken lightly (I had already learned this lesson from my students) — a group with no designated leader will not produce good work. The leader is the ultimate decision-maker for the team. The leader checks in with everyone often to ensure that they are getting what they need and staying in touch with the others. The leader must bring the project in on time. A leader is not a boss or a dictator. A leader doesn’t do others’ work for them but redistributes the work as needed.
All this means that constant communication among team members will be the key. Without cross-checking and keeping tabs on the other team members, each one of you risks allowing your part of the project to become a misshapen piece that will not fit in the end.
“Generally, projects get into trouble because people aren’t asking the right questions at the right time.”
I think it was Tom Kennedy (washingtonpost.com) who said that. The others on the panel were Christina Pino-Marina (also washingtonpost.com), John Jackson (roanoke.com), and Ryan Thornburg (USNews.com). The panel was organized by Leslie-Jean Thornton, of Arizona State.