by Bruce DeSilva, Associated Press Editor; Author; Writing Coach
A few thoughts:
One is just a gimmick. I think gimmicks (like the guy Step mentioned who wears a bathrobe in the office) are fine as long as they are both fun and make a point.
A few others are simple, practical things anyone can start doing right now.
And then there are a couple of big ideas that I think have to be understood by newsroom managers or else all the gimmicks and small practical steps will be in vain.
A. The gimmick.
A big stuffed gorilla sits on a corner of my desk. He has a very mean face and is wearing red boxing gloves. His name is Alter. That's short for Alter Ego. Don't be fooled by my smiles and gentle bedside manner, I tell the 18 writers and editors who work for me in the AP News/Features Department. Alter is what I'm really like inside. You don't want to do anything -- such as whine or miss a deadline -- that will bring out the gorilla. On those rare occasions when a conversation starts to go the wrong way, usually all I have to do is point to Alter. This helps me through the difficult dance I do every day -- being the writers' friend and collaborator and still, at times, having to turn around and be the boss. When I point to Alter, they know I'm being the boss, but it helps keep those moments light. Which is the way I like it, except for those rare occasions when I have to kick some ass.
B. Some practical things.
- Brainstorming meetings.
Have them, but you'll need a few rules to make them work. Sometimes I schedule them and make attendance mandatory. These meetings always have a topic, announced in advance. It might be something as simple as, "How can we come up with a great story for Mother's Day" or it might be to explore some broader topic in the news, such as, "What can we do that no one else is doing on how DNA evidence is affecting the criminal justice system." Keep the meeting on the subject and never have one without a topic or it will turn into a useless bull session or maybe even a gripe session.More often, the brainstorming sessions are held standing up, in the middle of our newsroom, over some story that is in the news or some issue that is suddenly on our minds.
It is vital to foster an environment in which these discussions happen spontaneously, and anyone in the room feels free to start them.
Whether the meetings happen spontaneously or are scheduled, there is one golden rule. No one is allowed to say something is a bad idea. It kills discussion. And a lot of the best ideas are the ones that may sound stupid at first because they are different. The obligation of everyone in the brainstorming session should be to run with the idea and see where it leads. The prevailing ethic of these meetings should be this thought: If we were to proceed with this idea, what would we do?
- Go for walks outside.
Get out of the office as much as you can, especially if you are a manager and actually have an office. In the office, it is hard for an editor to shed the illusion that he has power, and this can make it difficult for folks to talk freely in front of you. The worst place you can be if you want your staff's best thinking is on your throne behind your desk. It's not that getting out of the office fools anybody. They still understand the power relationships. But when you are outside, walking together, the symbols of editor power are absent and both you and your staffer can be more relaxed. The conversation changes from underling-boss to two folks who care about journalism having a chat. This more than a good way to talk to staff about story ideas or about their work. I think it is THE way to conduct job interviews. I always take job candidates out of the office for a stroll to Cental Park. On these jaunts, the candidate's personality true personality is likely to come out, and since you will be spending more time with your staff than with your spouse, you don't want to hire any assholes. Added benefit: I get to smoke a good cigar when I walk.
- Mentoring as part of the job.
Almost every newspaper has a few privileged writers. They have the best jobs, cover the biggest stories, do the least amount of routine. (Here at AP, the writers in my department are particularly privileged. Their job is to do the great stories. They can go anywhere, write about anything, and take all the time that they need, as long as they produce first-class work.) With such privilege there should also be responsibility. So, I have made mentoring a category -- along with such things as writing quality, productivity, creativity, etc. -- in the annual appraisal form for my writers. There is no formal mentoring program. Rather, I make it clear to my writers that they have a responsibility to share what they know and that they had better find a way to do it. Some of them have taken several inexperienced bureau reporters under their wings. Others make it a point of stopping in at local AP bureaus on their travels and conducting wriitng or reporting workshops. And, oh yeah. No mentoring, no merit raise.
- Where do ideas come from?
Make sure that everyone in the newsroom understands that at least 90 percent of the story ideas must come from writers. Writers who sit around waiting for assignments are not doing their jobs and need to be told as much. Editors who dream up most of the ideas for their staffs and then assign them are an even bigger problem and should be reeducated or fired. It's not that editors can't have ideas. Of course they can. But there is no way they can have anywhere enough good ones to keep a staff busy. I work in an office overlooking Rockefeller Plaza. If I lean out my window, I can see the famous skating rink, but that's all I can see of the world from the place I spend most of my time. If, from here, I already know something is a story, how likely is it to be news? The writers must be the eyes and ears of the newspaper. The best ideas are the ones they come back to the office with and astonish us. Make idea generation the most heavily weighted category in annual evaluations of reporters.
- First person stories.
Encourage them - especially in writers who write in journalese or with stiff, institutional voices. There is something about writing in first-person, about personal experiences, that loosens writers up. It helps them overcome wrong-headed ideas about what journalism writing is supposed to be like and find their own natural voices as writers.
- Movie reviews.
Encourage staffers all over the newspaper to write them -- once again, especially those writers mired in jouralese or institutional writing voices. Reviews, too, can loosen these writers up and help them discover their own voices. One AP writer, for example, has become a much different and much better writer since taking a regular turn reviewing children's movies. (He always takes his kids along for their expert opinions.)
C. Big ideas.
- Beware of the boxes.
Newsroom structures put our staffs, and often our thinking, inside boxes. Usually they have labels such as "sports," "business," "arts & entertainment," etc. The world, however, is not organized that way. We must not let the boxes we are in define how we see the world or how we write our stories. But often we do. Suppose, for example, we learn that a new restaurant near the State House is the new hot place for legislators to have their power lunches. If the business department does the story, it will be a business story. If the politics desk does it, it will be a political story. If the city desk does it, it may be a city life story. It could also be a restaurant review. But what is the BEST story? Meanwhile, some of the very best stories may not get done at all because they don't fall into any of the boxes we have created. We must let the world as it is -- not our organizational strucutres -- define our work. And if you've moved to a team structure, don't make the mistake of thinking you have solved this problem. What you have done is create a different set of boxes.
- Identify your snake rules.
The snake rules are those rules, written and unwritten, that have a lot to do with how the newspaper is written and edited every day. Writers often conform to them without thinking. Copy editors often enforce them. These rules hem the writers in, limit their ability to be creative. These are the rules that say: "You can't do that here" or "We always do it this way." Whenever anyone says that, it should be the job of everyone else to say, "Why?" Often, no one knows why. Perhaps the rule had a reason behind it once, but it is both outdated and lost in time. Perhaps there was never a good reason. Some rules, if you could trace them to their source, would turn out to be the result of someone misunderstanding something the managing editor said 40 years ago. Newspapers never seem to get rid of these rules. Instead we accumulate them, adding more and more with each decade and continually narrowing the playing field within which we can think and play. Identify all your rules, written and unwritten, and throw out the ones that don't make sense anymore (or never did.) If you don't this, most talk about creativity will be a waste of time. (There is a reason they are called "snake rules," but I assume you've heard the story by now.)
- Understand the myth of the newspaper.
Every instution has a defining myth. The United States of America, for example, has a myth embodied in such documents and symbols as the Declaration of Indepenence and the Statue of Liberty. Journalism as a whole has a myth embodied in such ideas as freedom of the press and the public's right to know. All newspapers share this broad myth, but add other elements that are uniquely their own. The main reason newspapers are different from one another isn't talent or resources. It's the myth. The New York Times and the New York Post are fundamentally different because they are not trying to be the same thing. What is the myth of your newspaper? You need to know it intimately because it,above everything else, determines what everyone there does every day. The myth is reinforced daily by what you put on Page One and on section fronts. Those stories, photos and graphics represent the paper's standard of success. A few years ago, the managing editor of a paper I was working for wanted to know why every Page One Sunday story staffers wrote was over three columns long. Why, he asked, didn't we ever get great short stories for Sunday? The answer was right in front of him. Since the paper had not put a great short story on the Sunday front page for years, what writer in his right mind would produce one? No matter what senior editors say they want, writers and editors are going to continue to do the stories that succeed by conforming to the myth of the paper.
So what if you want change? What if you want creative work that is fundamentally different from what you have been getting? It won't happen with any consistency unless you understand the myth of the paper and confront it directly. You've got to be able to say, this is the kind of paper we have been, and you have all been doing a great job producing it. But times are changing and we need to become something different now. Since the staff of a newspaper feels a great sense of ownership, a wise manager involves them in the discussions about changing the myth. And by talking about the myth, it gives you the opportunity to bring about change without blaming anyone for the way things have been done.
- The coaching model of editing.
You all know what it is. But unless it is practiced daily by all of your editors, talk about creativity will be nothing more than talk.