Beat the Clock: Put Your Calendar to Work While Reporting Your Project
You picked the right project. Now, how do you juggle your regular duties while working on the bigger story?
I sat down with a guy from a tech startup company once to talk about innovative tools that would work as a resource for journalists. He was looking for something along the lines of Help A Reporter Out. HARO is a great tool. I have used it to find sources on obscure topics and to get quick answers to difficult questions. But the biggest stumbling block for most reporters trying to do a big project isn’t a lack of sources. It’s a lack of planning. That’s why my high-tech recommendation for reporters was this:
Micromanage yourself by keeping everything on your calendar.
Google. Microsoft. Magic Marker.
Whatever works for you, just start planning your work week in 30-minute increments. I have all my work for ReportingonHealth.org on my Google calendar, and I keep everything for my day job on Outlook.
This doesn’t just mean meetings and interviews. This means everything. Set aside time to go to the courthouse, to look up files, to scan the files for posting on your website, to send your editor a note about what you found, and to update your outline. Then make sure your calendar reminds you of these tasks at the appropriate times. I woke up yesterday morning to a calendar alarm telling me to finish this “Beat the Clock” post and send it to my editor.
Blocking things out this way allows you to do three things.
1. Start your day earlier than everyone else. I have never worked in a newsroom that started before 9 and many didn’t truly fill up until closer to 10. If you start working on your project at 8 every morning, you will find that you have at least 90 minutes of uninterrupted time that will prove to be the most productive time of your day.
2. Spread out the largest tasks over several days. One of the biggest mental hurdles for journalists trying to take on a project is the idea that they don’t have weeks – let alone an entire day – to devote to just one story. If you have a good central question and you have picked a story that allows you to count up your findings, then you will know what the biggest tasks are going to be. If you are trying to build a record in Excel, for example, of physicians who have been the subject of malpractice judgments and medical board discipline, add an hour to your calendar every day when you know you’ll be the most productive and the least distracted that says “work on doctor database.” At the end of the week, you may find that you have it nearly completed and it didn’t take you away from your beat for the entire day.
3. Identify your down times, and fill them up. You will start to see the regular gaps in your calendar that often are quickly eaten up by chatting with other reporters or meandering on the internet. Be hard on yourself and ask how much you are really accomplishing every day. Did you do two interviews and write one 500-word story? Is that really a day’s work? What else ate up your time? You know that you are going to have down times. When you put “send daily story on grocery worker strike to editor” on your calendar, don’t write “wait for editor to return story.” Write “interview whistleblower at insurance company.”
And if something does come up on your beat, you don’t just erase your calendar. You move the project tasks to another day. If you force yourself to stick to a schedule, you will find that you advance your work much more quickly and that you have much more to show for yourself at the end of every week.