Since I posted this one-year anniversary thought, several people have asked me why I wasn’t more aware of what I was missing, including Mindy McAdams, Bill Densmore and Anthony Moor, suggesting that my post was incomplete.
Here are some of the reasons I ended up working on the wrong things too often. (If you’re rushed, skip to the last one):
* Space must be filled. When staffs were larger, this wasn’t as pressing. But now that so many newspapers have half the number of reporters they did five years ago, editors have lowered the bar on what’s “news.” You can — at least I did — get hypnotized by the need to come up with enough good story ideas to fill the paper. As every journalist knows, some days are better than other. And that’s why newspapers publish monthly unemployment number stories and weather stories and small-bore crime stories. You’ve got to fill the white space, and your imagination gets tired.
* As a corollary, I had less time to think. Mathematically, fewer reporters would mean fewer stories. Yet journalists tend to see stories and want to bring them to readers. We’re pesky that way. Consequently, reporters to juggle more stories and report them faster. They are working longer hours, doing more. Time is precious and spending it thinking, or chasing an in-depth investigative article was often tough to come by. When I became an editor I swore I would never comment on reporter productivity. In the last five years, I broke that vow more often that Lindsay Lohan’s been tabloid fodder.
* The beat structure encourages complacency. Beat reporters always have something to do — a meeting to cover, a story to follow, a news release to write. They often deal with the same sources day-in and day-out. We make fun of the inside-the-beltway journalism club — what Jay Rosen calls “the church of the savvy” — but many reporters outside the beltway have a similar membership in their own communities. I know. I was one as a reporter and continued as an editor. (I watched city council meetings on television!) It’s tough to break out.
* The bureaucracy sucks the life out of any good editor. It did me. You want to focus on doing great journalism, but you find yourself sinking into a morass of budgets, meetings, demands from publishers and other departments, technological problems and equipment that doesn’t work. Have you ever tried to tie your shoe when you were running? Too many days, I went home with the sense that I contributed nothing of value to journalism.
But here’s the biggest one: I was deluded. I thought I was doing it right — working on big ideas and compelling stories and listening to readers and planning for the future. And I was. But like the fable — and it’s just a fable — of the boiling frog, I was used to what I was used to. And I was moving at the speed of dial-up when the world was on broadband. Even though I read the smart people, I fell behind and hardly even knew it.
There may be other reasons. Complacency, however, wasn’t one of them. I never felt as if we were in decent shape, that we could rest, that we had reached our destination. Instead, I was like a kid running around with my arms outstretched thinking I was an airplane.
I’m not unique among newsroom managers. Most newsrooms are led by creative, resourceful people. But when you’re running as fast as you can, it is easy to get into a rhythm — runners know this — and forget to pay attention to other things. The best thing editors can do is ask for help — from their staffs, from their publishers and from the public.
I am positive about one thing: Had I organized monthly meetings with the public to hear how we could serve them better, it would have improved our journalism, and I would have been a better steward of their newspaper.
P.S. As I reread this, it sounds like a hand-wringing mea culpa. It’s not intended that way, and were I a cleverer writer, I’d fix that. It’s intended simply to answer the question, “Why did it take you so long to figure out what you were missing?”