The editorial meeting of the future

“In the future, we’ll instead organize the editorial meeting around this all-important question: “What can we help the public understand or do today?” We won’t start with our ideas — we’ll start with the information gaps the public demonstrates they have, and focus our efforts squarely on filling those gaps.”

Newsrooms are up against a life-or-death mix of maladies: public distrust, dialogue breakdown, platform disruption, disinformation and the fact that everyone is getting completely different information. We’re all looking for a cure. But what if the symptoms of all these ills can trace their root causes to inside of our own house? On other words: what if it’s not “them” to blame, it’s us?

So much of this dysfunction starts in the way we run our editorial meetings. So as a starting point, let’s imagine how fixing those critically important meetings can also fix our other underlying illnesses.

Organizing mindset

In today’s editorial meeting, we organize everything around the content production line: the so-called “beasts to feed.” The unit we produce is the story and we focus everything around how to make enough of them fill all of the containers and platforms — online, on-air, on social, on mobile, on watches, and on and on.

In the future, we’ll instead organize the editorial meeting around this all-important question: “What can we help the public understand or do today?” We won’t start with our ideas — we’ll start with the information gaps the public demonstrates they have, and focus our efforts squarely on filling those gaps.

Where story ideas come from

These days when we’re out of personal ideas for stories, we get our inspiration by obsessing over what the competitor across town is reporting, or from whatever’s picking up steam on the Internet, or from the PR professionals and officials whose very job it is to get us to pay attention to them

In the future, what we cover will be shaped directly by our communities. It will be part of our routine to ask the public directly: “what don’t you know about ______ that you’d like us to investigate?” And we’ll come to learn that the public does not ask for pet videos or personal grudge stories when invited to shape coverage. We’ll recognize them as insightful, curious people whose questions result in original, smart, top-performing stories, that end up breaking news and winning prestigious awards.

How we decide what gets covered

Currently, we decide what gets covered by assuming that because we’re professionals we know exactly what to report (good old “editorial judgment”). Never mind the fact that data shows journalists are overwhelmingly one gender, one race, one class and have little in common with many of the people we cover and are aiming to serve.

In the future, we’ll be in constant conversation with the public to learn what information they need. We’ll invite them to send in questions about breaking news, we’ll visit the spaces where communities gather and just observe and listen (even without a notebook!), and convene our own events where they can discover their neighbors and discuss what’s going on and what they’d like to know more about. It will be natural for reporters to pitch stories knowing the name and face of the person who brought this curiosity to light.

How we deploy resources

Nowadays we report at all hours for months on end, keeping our progress hidden so nobody steals our amazing ideas. This is just how we work, and also how we drive ourselves to burnout. But do we have to?

In the editorial meeting of the future, we’ll ask “who outside of the newsroom can help us with the story?” before we even start reporting. When Vermont Public Radio wanted to tackle the issue of falling-down barns across Vermont, they invited their audience to share photos (and addresses!) of barns that were in rough shape. When the Australian Broadcasting Company’s Canberra bureau was investigating which federal politicians own an investment property, members of its audience joined the reporters for a fact-finding workshop to dig through documents. ProPublica also does a consistent, excellent job of involving its audience in the reporting process for many important investigations.

Our sources

Journalists have their go-to experts — people they’ve built relationships with over decades, and yes, they’re smart! But it turns out that many of those cultivated folks are white men. Which means we’re missing every other perspective.

In the future, we’ll start with those living and feeling the concerns and anxieties our reporting addresses. Like how The Texas Tribune delivered information after Hurricane Harvey to those looking for aid. And WBEZ brought together Muslim communities to talk about racial divides within their mosques. The story even ended up spawning a community event designed by the interviewees after the reporting.

How we judge “success”

But how do we know our grueling, often thankless work is actually working? These days we measure by what gets the most clicks, time on site, awards, or scoops our competitors. Our business models still demand it, and so apparently do our egos.

But in the future, we’ll track our progress against this measure: “Did the people we serve accomplish their goals?” (thanks Jeff Jarvis!). And we’ll learn the answers to that by creating more paths to get direct, actionable public feedback to understand if, and how well, we’re hitting the mark.

We’ll start to walk back the obsession with quantitative performance measurements of our work and balance it with better qualitative feedback.

How we judge ourselves

These days we analyze the audience way more than we analyze ourselves.

But in the future we’ll have the technology, ability and motivation to track who in our own editorial meetings speaks the most, gets their ideas approved the most often. We’ll look to the data to make sure we’re not favoring the usual suspects and that we’re giving others a fair shot at representation.

And we’ll also track whether or not the meta story our organizations is telling is accurate. If women make up more than half of the population, but analysis shows our stories feature men’s voices 63 percent of the time, we’ll recognize that we’re actually distorting reality, not reflecting it. Same goes for if the majority of stories we hear about one demographic or neighborhood is predominantly negative. With the help of data analysis applied to ourselves, we’ll become aware of how our power dynamics play out, and how we contribute to stoking fear and warping the public’s sense of the world.

How we will survive

Our success will depend on becoming essential to those we aim to serve. We’ll know it if the public feels invested in our work by contributing their insights, questions and ideas. We’ll know it if they respond when we ask them to subscribe or donate to keep us going.

And we’ll know if we’re headed in the right direction by measuring how well we responded to the public. Did we show respect and appreciation for their contributions, did we answer their questions, did we show up when and where they needed us?

The bad news in all of this: changing our editorial meetings will be hard, because changing habits and culture is hard. The good news is that we, not the platforms, not the Macedonian fake news factories, not public officials, not advertisers, actually have the power and authority to do it.

So will this prediction for a new editorial framework ever come to pass, and if so, when? You tell me.

Jennifer Brandel is CEO of Hearken. Mónica Guzmán is cofounder and editor of The Evergrey.

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