Managing a newsroom: A fine balance between consistency and creativity



With a group of young journalists and editors in Cairo, I co-founded Mada Masr in June 2013, a product of crisis and precarity, as I often like to call it.

The time, in Egypt, was laden with political uncertainty, as a strong authoritarian regime was in the process of uprooting another strong authoritarian regime in the midst of an environment of rising violence and a crackdown on freedoms.

The time was, and continues to be, economically challenging as well. The country’s political instability has threatened investment, and the situation is complex concerning media support.

Investment in media tends to be related to influence rather than being purely financial, and at a moment in which media is seeking to speak truth to power, there is a need for a degree of self-dependency.

The quest is tough, worldwide, but there is a lot of learning and experimenting to do.

This is the context in which we constantly operate at Mada Masr, where barriers are always met with learning and discovery, which often take us to uncharted territories, if not solutions.

We took part in the Middle East and North Africa Media Professionals Programme offered by WAN-IFRA in the spirit of learning and discovery. The program is multifaceted and touched upon various aspects of our operation at the editorial, commercial and institutional levels.

As editor, I participated in a two-day conversation with Jane Davenport, the managing editor of the Toronto Star, on newsroom management and organization. The conversation took place at the premises of 7iber, Jordan’s thriving in-depth media outlet, with which we find a lot of affinities.

I discussed with Jane my main challenges as editor and co-founder of Mada Masr, mainly not being able to fit all the different responsibilities that I have into my schedule and how to strike the right balance between daily tasks and long-term strategizing. Ensuring consistent daily content and inspiring creativity, in order to reach wider audiences and challenge attitudes and behaviours, is often a difficult balancing act.

Jane structured her advice on two levels: how to manage consistent workflow on a daily basis, in which Mada produces content that is expected from us in a timely manner and to a high quality, whilst at the same time structuring avenues for creativity within this workflow, and questioning the function of the content in terms of building our audience.

After the training, I went home intending to establish a managing editor’s position and allocate resources for it. Jane explained that, in the more elaborate context of the Toronto Star, a layer of managing and executive editors is key between the chief editor and sub editors and reporters, to ensure better strategy and production flow. While the chief editor is responsible for setting the identity, direction and brand of the newspaper and is only present on major news days, the executive and managing editors organize the administrative and editorial aspects of content production respectively. In an ideal context where both positions exist, the executive editor ensures discipline is respected and deadlines are followed, while the managing editor focuses on particular story developments and implements the vision for the newspaper.

We are currently working on developing a position that incorporates aspects of both the managing editor and executive editor’s profiles, after recruiting a new team member qualified for the role. Our new managing editor has already started intervening in the day-to-day content production and daily news development processes, which has impacted both quality and pace.

I took Jane’s advice regarding the way we run editorial meetings as well. She mentioned the need to quickly identify the objectives behind picking a story to work on, right at the start of the process. She also talked about the need to listen to concerns and obstacles, while staying focused on goals and remaining open to changing plans. She emphasized the need to give feedback and celebrate success.

I have tried to incorporate these elements into the way we run editorial meetings at Mada Masr, which has left us more focused, and ensured better workflow. I also started developing an incentives system, a monthly award program for the best producer in the company, and the prizes are customized to the producer’s interests and skills.

Following Jane’s advise, I have made the publishing and submission schedules public, both online and offline, to add a sense of urgency to deadlines. There is a closer follow-up system now, in which editors are reminded of the publishing dates of particular stories and reporters are reminded of their submission dates.

So, now that the system is more regulated and is starting to bear fruit in terms of consistency and quality production, how do we incorporate a process of creativity and innovation?

This is the area in which I am yet to make more active interventions, but here too, Jane’s advice is instructive. She suggested the creation of consistent mechanisms that cater for innovation, and embedding them into our workflow. For example, she suggested that each reporter is invited on a monthly basis to try producing new content that is markedly different from what they are used to. She also suggested the creation of a desk or a board of editorialists to receive project ideas for innovation from reporters. She then suggested that each reporter dedicates a shift each month to only innovative content. So instead of producing the usual news content, they sit back and look for news that is seldom covered, fun to produce, and will attract new audiences. Jane reminded us to be ok with slower production on these shifts, for the sake of producing new content.

While Jane’s suggestions regarding innovation are the most challenging, they are also key to institutional development and survival. There are many of us producing layer upon layer of content. It is only through a creative process of becoming impromptu artists that our content might permeate new spaces of public consciousness.

- By Lina Attalah

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