Beat the Clock: Keep Your Boss Interested as Your Project Progresses
Editors can be fickle.
Does this come as a surprise? The story that they loved in the planning meeting on Wednesday can be kicked to the curb if a hurricane hits town or a four-star general gets caught with his pants down.
That’s why you have two main jobs while reporting a big project. The first, of course, is to report an undeniably great story. (That’s where the first few installments in the Beat the Clock series come in handy.) The second is to keep your editor excited as you go.
1. Set expectations. When you first start the project, suggest to your editor a timetable that works for you and for the outlet. With the Just One Breath series that the Reporting on Health Collaborative launched in September, we knew that we would be running a story as many weekends as possible through at least November. So we also knew that we would be bumping up against election season.
For that reason, we discussed up front a timetable that spread the stories out and assigned a different set of two reporters (out of six initially) to stories that were staggered. This would allow one set of reporters to submit their piece of the project for editing while another set was just getting their reporting underway. Each set of reporters had regular check-ins with me and the editors at their outlets. And together we set reasonable deadlines for first drafts.
2. Provide peeks at peaks. An understandable tendency is to send an email update to your editor after every interview you complete or document you find. Stop that. Instead, share with your editor only the reporting that advances your story significantly. Try to do this once or twice a week at most. And, even then, keep your updates to a few sentences. Everything else, save for your next one-on-one meeting where you can walk them through what you have accomplished to date and explain what reporting you have left to do.
3. Be visible. Even if editors give you a few free days or weeks to pursue a project, they don’t want you to disappear. For one, there are often other reporters who would like the same kind of free time, and the more it looks like you are suddenly living the good life, the more politically uncomfortable it becomes for your editor.
When my wife and I were first starting out as reporters, we used to joke that certain people in the newsroom seemed to have the "good story beat." It seemed like they had no real topics they were expected to master or deadlines they were expected to meet. They just had to generate a good story every few weeks or so. Needless to say, that also generated a lot of envy in the newsroom. You don’t want to be the topic of a whisper campaign. You want to be a source of inspiration and a pioneer. Show that you can put together an impressive project without letting too many things on your beat slide, and it is guaranteed that your editor will free you and free others to do better, more in-depth reporting.
That way, if you have to write a breaking story or cover a meeting, you can say to your editors, "Remember that note I sent you about my project? I’m making good progress and hoping I can get back to it on Monday."
Have a tip for reporting a big project while keeping your beat on track? Send me a note at askantidote [at] gmail [dot] com or ping me on Twitter @wheisel.
Photo Credit: Mary K. Kneiser via Flickr