Being responsible for what we don’t know

By Cătălina Albeanu, digital editor at Decât o Revistă (DoR).

There are many things today’s journalists can do: write or record well-documented stories, run social media feeds, produce fantastic multimedia pieces, manage readers’ comments, and increasingly build relationships with their audience that create incredible value for everyone involved.

But the list of things we can’t do — but still have to — is growing longer.

Management, fundraising, marketing, event planning, and a host of other skills are needed in smaller news organizations to keep them alive and give them a chance to thrive. And journalists take on these responsibilities because there’s no one else there.

With no resources to hire externally, tasks either get distributed throughout the existing team, creating “hybrid roles,” or they don’t get done. Most of those in hybrid roles learn as they go along with minimal training, if at all: sometimes from online resources, books, or conversations with people from outside the media industry — and always through trial and error. But for a lot of small media organizations today, there’s no real room for error.

As more media managers reflect on their strengths and weaknesses, a trend spotted at several industry events throughout 2018 — taking stock of the knowledge gaps inside teams — will become more systematic. We’ll be dealing with a heightened sense of self-awareness, related both to the influence our immediate moods have on our colleagues and to our role in the wider media ecosystem. We’ll be putting our predisposition for navel-gazing to good use and hopefully emerge with an action plan.

Finding these weaknesses will be an uncomfortable process, as many newsrooms haven’t built a culture where people feel comfortable sharing doubts about their roles. Traditional newsroom culture dictated that those who couldn’t handle the constant adrenaline and the pace of news production just weren’t cut out for the job. Additionally, non-journalists were rarely involved or consulted until recently, and there was little cross-pollination of best practices between newsrooms and other workplaces. But this is quickly becoming unsustainable, both for the business of news and for the people powering it.

At DoR, we have ambitious plans for 2019, but we know we probably won’t get there in one piece without a more interdisciplinary team or at least some type of “brain trust” to help us along the way. Five of us, including the founding editor, will be doing management training over the next 12 months, and we’re reaching out to experts to help us shape projects in their early stages.

We’ve brought sociologists, community facilitators, and external financial and technology experts into the newsroom to bounce ideas off and, more importantly, get a reality check from outsiders who are a few steps removed from the daily grind and can see the full picture.

In small media organizations, “doing more with less” has always been a reality — but the implications are catching up.

This text was originally published on NiemanLab as part of the Predictions for Journalism 2019.

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