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September 24, 2018

Filed under: journalism»professional

The Best of Times

About two months ago, just before sneaking out the back door so that nobody in the newsroom would try to do one of those mortifying "everyone clap for the departing colleague" routines, I sent a good-bye e-mail to the Seattle Times newsroom. It read, in part:

I'm deeply grateful to Kathy Best, who made the Interactives team possible in 2014. Kathy doesn't, I think, get enough credit for our digital operation. She was always the first to downplay her expertise in that sphere, not entirely without reason. Yet it is hard to imagine The Seattle Times taking a risk like that anymore: hiring two expensive troublemakers with incomprehensible, oddball resumes for a brand-new team and letting them run wild over the web site.

It was a gamble, but one with a real vision, and in this case it paid off. I'm proud of what we managed to accomplish in my four years here on the Interactives team. I'm proud of the people that the team trained and sent out as ambassadors to other newsrooms, so that our name rings out across the country. And I'm proud of the tools we built and the stories we told.

When I first really got serious about data journalism, the team to beat (ironically enough, now that I've moved to the Windy City) was the Chicago Tribune. It wasn't just that they did good work, and formalized a lot of the practices that I drew on at the Times. It was also that they made good people: ex-Trib folks are all over this industry now, not to mention a similar impact from the NPR visuals team that formed around many of the same leaders a few years later. I wanted to do something similar in Seattle.

That's why there was no better compliment, to my ears, than when I would talk to colleagues at other newsrooms or organizations and hear things like "you've built a pretty impressive alumni network" or "the interns you've had are really something." There's no doubt we could have always done better, but in only four years we managed to build a reputation as a place that developed diverse, talented journalists. People who were on or affiliated with the team ended up at the LA Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Philadelphia Inquirer, New York Times, and Pro Publica. We punched above our weight.

I never made a secret of what I was trying to do, but I don't think it ever really took hold in the broader organizational culture. That's a shame: turnover was high at the Seattle Times in my last couple of years there, especially after the large batch of buyouts in early 2017. I still believe that a newsroom that sees departures as an essential tool for recruiting and enriching the industry talent pool would see real returns with just a few simple adjustments.

My principles on the team were not revolutionary, but I think they were effective. Here are a few of the lessons I learned:

  • Make sacrifices to reward high performers. Chances are your newsroom is understaffed and overworked, which makes it tempting to leave smart people in positions where they're effective but unchallenged. This is a mistake: if you won't give staff room to grow, they'll leave and go somewhere that will. It's worth taking a hit to efficiency in one place in order to keep good employees in the room. If that means cutting back on some of your grunt work — well, maybe your team shouldn't be doing that anyway.
  • Share with other newsrooms as much as possible. You don't get people excited about working for your paper by writing a great job description when a position opens up. You do it by making your work constantly available and valuable, so that they want to be a part of it before an opening even exists. And the best way to show them how great it is to work for you is to work with them first: share what you've learned, teach at conferences, open-source your libraries. Make them think "if that team is so helpful to me as an outsider..."
  • Spread credit widely and generously. As with the previous point, people want to work in places where they'll not only get to do cool work out in the open, they'll also be recognized for it. Ironically, many journalists from underrepresented backgrounds can be reluctant to self-promote as aggressively as white men, so use your power to raise their profile instead. It's also huge for retention: in budget cut season, newsroom managers often fall back on the old saw that "we're not here for the money." But we would do well to remember that it cuts both ways: if someone isn't working in a newsroom for the money, it needs to be rewarding in other ways, as publicly as possible.
  • Make every project a chance to learn something new. This one is a personal rule for me, but it's also an important part of running a team. A lot of our best work at the Times started as a general experiment with a new technology or storytelling technique, and was then polished up for another project. And it means your team is constantly growing, creating the opportunity for individuals to discover new niches they can claim for their own.
  • Pair experienced people and newcomers, and treat them both like experts. When any intern or junior developer came onto the Interactives team, their first couple of projects would done in tandem with me: we'd walk through the project, set up the data together, talk about our approach, and then code it as a team. It meant taking time out of my schedule, but it gave them valuable experience and meant I had a better feel for where their skills were. Ultimately, the team succeeds as a unit, not as individuals.
  • Be intentional and serious about inclusive hiring and coverage. It is perfectly legal to prioritize hiring people from underrepresented backgrounds, and it cannot be a secondary consideration for a struggling paper in a diverse urban area. Your audience really does notice who is doing the writing, and what they're allowed to write about. One thing that I saw at the Times, particularly in the phenomenal work of the video team, was that inclusive coverage would open up new story leads time and time again, as readers learned that they could trust certain reporters to cover them fairly and respectfully.

In retrospect, all of these practices seem common-sense to me — but based on the evidence, they're not. Or perhaps they are, but they're not prioritized: a newspaper in 2018 has tremendous inertia, and is under substantial pressure from inside and out. Transparent management can be difficult — to actively celebrate the people who leave and give away your hard work to the community is even harder. But it's the difference between being the kind of team that grinds people down, or polishes them to a shine. I hope we were the latter.

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