A new guide aims to help reporters and editors manage projects more effectively within the newsroom. The guide’s author Robin Kwong discusses what he’s hoping to achieve, and how staff can get buy-in on projects they want to kickstart.

Project Management in Newsrooms is published by the Association for Project Management, and aims to help anyone interested in practising project management in a newsroom environment to do so effectively. The author, Robin Kwong, has worked for publications like the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal, with his projects like The Uber Game and the WSJ Six-Week Money Challenge  winning multiple awards.

Kwong – who has two decades of journalism and project management experience working in newsrooms across Asia, Europe and North America – spotted a gap around guides for project management specifically in a newsroom context. “Last year it struck me that there aren’t actually any resources available online that are specifically dedicated to helping reporters and editors become better project managers,” he told us. 

The guide is written with journalists in mind. Kwong describes it as more of an ethos than specific rules and processes about managing projects. “It’s about being clear about what you’re doing, what you’re trying to do, and then teaching you how to work well with other people in order to get that thing done,” he says.

Project management skills for editors

Most editors and journalists will have undertaken projects without necessarily even labelling them formally as such. Whether it’s wanting to explore the possibilities of machine learning, looking to launch on a new platform, or making changes to the website based on audience feedback, these ideas benefit hugely from applying project management principles.

“A lot of reporters and editors inadvertently find themselves in the middle of a project, and then they look around and they’re like, ‘Oh, I guess I’m in charge of this now because no one else really is.’,” Kwong says. “It’s not so much that people make mistakes or don’t follow best practices. It’s just that they’re not equipped for it… they’ve not been told who the team is, what the scope is, what the resources are.”

“There isn’t necessarily a dedicated person just doing projects within the newsroom. That often falls either to editors or to the audience engagement team or folks across the newsroom sprinkled throughout, and there isn’t much structure around it.”

Kwong sees this as an indication of how the industry is evolving and changing, noting that when he started as a reporter, the job was clear and well-structured. He was given assignments, went out, reported and dealt with edits. But now newspapers have video, multimedia, podcasts and more to deal with as well as traditional reporting, so editors now have to have many more skills.

“There aren’t necessarily rigid, best practices or one right way to do it, so there’s a lot of experimentation going on,” he outlined. “There’s a lot of figuring out what works for your organisation, or for this context, or for your audience. Those are the environments that generate a lot of projects, so more and more journalists are getting pulled into these things.”

Challenges newsrooms present for projects

Successfully managing a project isn’t as simple as taking the industry standards and applying them to a newsroom. From Kwong’s experience across multiple publishers, the newsroom itself presents a unique set of challenges that mean a fresh approach is needed to get the most out of projects.

  • The pace of news can constrain the timeline of projects and even the very nature of them. In traditional project management circles like construction and manufacturing, projects can stretch to years if not decades. But the nature of the news business means that the scope, timescale and viability of projects are often at the mercy of real-world events.
  • Resources are a challenge at most publishing businesses, and it is usually editorial teams who are under the most pressure. There may not be any budget, or even a process to request a budget, for an editorial project. In addition, many editorial staff will have a full workload of other daily tasks, so getting buy-in can be difficult.
  • The church-state divide of editorial and business teams adds additional complexity, with no single senior-enough stakeholder that can help secure budget and resources for editorial projects. In most other industries, people who want to start a project need to find a single senior-enough ‘sponsor’ to back the project. But the more horizontal nature of news organisations means that an equivalent person often doesn’t exist, and instead a number of different people need to be brought in and on board with the project.

Tips for getting buy-in

Although large newsrooms present the biggest challenge with managing projects, even the smallest newsroom benefits from getting buy-in from senior managers, colleagues and other key stakeholders. So how do you go about the task of getting people on board?

Here are some tips from the guide on getting to the starting line with two main groups.

Enthuse the core team

These are the people with the skills or resources needed to turn the project idea into a reality. Because these people will be taking on additional work to their ‘day jobs’, it helps if they are enthusiastic about participating and have a good relationship with the project manager. “Think about what motivates and excites the person you’re trying to bring on board, and draw on your own reasons for being enthusiastic about the project in the first place,” Kwong suggests. 

He also advises keeping the core team as small as possible. “Coordination and communication becomes harder exponentially with each additional person involved. It’s also OK to start with a really small core team, and add a key participant later on as the project takes shape.”

Negotiate with the veto-wielders

Because of the matrixed structure of newsrooms, where people and teams report to multiple leaders, projects can easily be killed by a single ‘no’ from any number of people. Kwong recommends thinking ahead of time where the ‘no’s’ might come from – the veto-wielders – and how to negotiate past them. “Veto-wielders may sound like a negative term, but the first step to getting past a potential veto is to understand that you’re both on the same side,” Kwong advises. “They often have legitimate concerns or objections, or access to additional context and information that you don’t… Anticipating, understanding and engaging with those objections at an early stage means that they could provide help and support to address those issues.”

The matrixed nature of newsrooms means that there are also many potential champions of the project who will be enthusiastic advocates of it. “Sell them on your vision for the project and what’s exciting about it – it could be the large potential audience benefits, or the importance of the underlying journalism, or maybe the project does something innovative,” he says.

As Kwong himself points out, no guide on its own is going to solve broader managerial and structural issues that devalue and prevent planning. But delivering successful projects is a powerful way to start advocating for change, and he hopes that this guide will help go a little way towards helping.

You can download Project Management in Newsrooms for free from the Association for Project Management.

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