Why newsrooms need project managers

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Robin Kwong is Special Projects Editor at the Financial Times where he runs newsroom experiments and helps coordinate large-scale coverage. 

Newsrooms like the Financial Times, where I work, are complex systems organized along very specialized lines. We have experts in writing headlines, laying out a page, reporting, and editing.

This organizational structure reflects the fact that the print newspaper is a mature medium with clearly defined rules and best practices. We have specialists rather than generalists. A reporter simply didn’t need to know how to lay out a print page.

This structure served us well for a long time. It gave us speed and scale. But in part because of its success, it has conditioned us to work in specialist silos, and to react to new situations by layering on new silos.

So we now have specialists in design, programming, video production, and audience engagement. For many newsrooms, including ours, the struggle so far has been to add and legitimize people with these digital skills.

But the next big bottleneck will be management. We have thought too little about how the new silos would fit in, and change, the entire system. We have been too naive in thinking that simply putting the pieces in place would be enough at a time when pretty much everything in our industry is changing radically.

This is where project management comes in: When the old templates no longer apply in a digital environment; when nearly every endeavor is an experiment; and when the things we once took for granted have now become difficult.

(How many reporters know the name of their print site’s manager? How many have begged for someone to tweet out their story from the official account?)

In short, newsrooms need project managers because the old systems no longer work and we have yet to find new templates. It needs them because at some point it is not about how many of your journalists know how to code, but how well your teams of reporters and developers work together.

Fortunately, newsrooms are not alone nor the first to face these issues: startup culture and design thinking arise whenever an industry is in flux. Some project managers even now sit in newsrooms — but most of them will be building products or tools, not helping to produce specific pieces of journalism.

It’s time to change that. We live in chaotic times, and we need people who can help tame chaos, crush entropy, and free our journalists, designers and coders to do what they do best.

 

Robin Kwong is Special Projects Editor at the Financial Times where he runs newsroom experiments and helps coordinate large-scale coverage.