APME Sounding Board surveys
Sundays are still best days for AP enterprise,
editors are working to keep good people,
diversity still matters, and public-access problems increase
By Alan D. Miller
Two diverse surveys by APME show that there is continued strong interest in using Associated Press long-form stories on Sunday, and that a majority of respondents are finding it increasingly difficult to hold onto their most talented staffers.
In a September APME Sounding Board survey, the vast majority of respondents said they are most likely to use long-form AP features and narratives on Sunday. Saturday was a distant second choice.
When it comes to longer investigative stories, Sunday is still the first choice for more than half of the 23 respondents, and Monday is the second choice.
"On Sunday, we have a section devoted to lengthy wire feature stories, but we need to plan this section in advance, with story ideas proposed by Wednesday and finalized by Thursday,” said one editor.
Another asked AP to consider keeping those stories off the Web for a day to give newspapers an advantage: "It would be helpful to newspapers (for AP) to either make some stories print-only or embargo them until, say, 3 a.m. It's tiresome to have every AP story on websites a full day before they can appear in print.”
All respondents said that advance notice of longer stories is at least helpful, if not essential for planning, and editors would like a minimum of three day’s notice. Some said a week would be best.
"We used to receive email notices in advance of big, enterprise stories,” said one editor. "I haven't seen one of those in a long time. Anything you can do to give us a heads up allows us to plan better — especially for Sunday.”
STAFFING AND MORALE
In a July survey, the APME Sounding Board asked editors about staffing, newsroom morale and public-records-access issues as the economy makes an incremental climb out of the basement.
About 70 percent said that regardless of the economic conditions in their areas, their top-performing staffers are being tempted by jobs elsewhere.
The majority (63 percent) said that they lost staff members in the first half of this year, albeit fewer than five staff members in each case. Another 30 percent said they lost between five and 10 staffers.
"The economy is not picking up here,” wrote one of the 30 editors who responded to the online survey. "Except for one, the people who have left have gone to jobs outside of journalism. We're still having furloughs this summer.”
Those who reported departures indicated that many former staffers went to jobs outside the industry, some in related industries of public relations, advertising, marketing or to teach communication.
Editors are taking their best shots at trying to hold onto their best people. Interestingly, some said money isn’t always the key. One gave a raise to a prized employee and he left anyway.
Across the board, respondents said that the approaches that seem to work best are to show employees they are valued, give them more responsibility and leadership opportunities, give them a bigger voice in the brainstorming and decision-making process, and invest in their training.
"We make sure they have time to do work that's most satisfying to them,” one editor said. "We try to be flexible about their time. But it's still difficult. We’re giving no raises again this year, no retirement contribution by the company, and we have furloughs.”
Some said they buy top staffers coffee and offer words of encouragement.
"They get all the face time, attention and reassurance the managing editor has,” wrote one editor. "They know their security is assured as long as mine is — and that if I feel I need to freshen my resume, I'll tell them.”
APME asked editors how they are trying to keep the staff happy amid difficult times. Here are some of the approaches in their words:
- We consistently recognize good work both formally and informally. We send out monthly newsletters to our entire newspaper staff highlighting newsroom staffers' accomplishments, both at the office and in the community. We have quarterly employee recognition ceremonies where newsroom staffers' achievements are highlighted along with those of other departments. But to me, the most effective tack is a meaningful, substantive comment from an editor when someone does a good story, takes a good photo or does something else well. It doesn't have to take a lot of time, but it has to be done often, and the compliment should include a detail about what, specifically, made the work excellent. Otherwise, the compliment rings hollow.
- At a recent staff retreat, we asked staffers what we could do better — and we're doing it. We are aggressively pursuing new digital initiatives, conducting more and better training and launching in-depth reporting projects. Also, we did not reduce staff and we gave raises.
- We’re being honest about the financial situation, showing verbal support, working with schedules so that everyone gets some time away and that filling in for absences is shared. Our company was able to give raises this year; that helped.
- We're keeping up the volume on our most important enterprise and watchdog work.
- This is our second year without pay raises, so we are doing spot bonuses and making an extra effort to offer verbal and written praise. On a few occasions I've asked the publisher to write a note to a specific individual with praise.
- We have increased opportunities for broader assignments, investigative work and made changes in assignments. We also do parties, lots of cookies, pot lucks and other generally fun events.
We tell people we love them — a lot. We have continued with staff training, moving more of it in-house rather than sending people to conferences, to show we care to invest in them. And we do our best to make the workplace fun. One way is to do little things such as give them ice cream on occasion.
Editors said they are finding it increasingly difficult to maintain a diverse staff amid the economic woes and the tempting opportunities some top staffers see elsewhere. But they are not giving up on diversity. While 74 percent said they are not making extra efforts to retain minority staff members, many clarified their responses by saying that they are working hard to retain all staff members.
"By saying ‘no,’ that doesn’t mean we aren’t working to keep them,” said one editor about minority staff members. "After buyouts and layoffs, we don’t have any bench players. They’re all on the A team, and we’re doing everything we can to keep all of them.”
In another issue related to the economy, APME asked editors if they felt that public officials are taking advantage of our weakened financial situation by denying access to records more frequently knowing that costly legal challenges are less likely these days.
Slightly more than half of respondents said they believe that denials are more frequent, and the majority said it happens an average of once a month.
"The SOBs drag things out for weeks hoping we’ll move on to other things,” wrote an editor. "Agencies take advantage of loop holes in the state’s FOIL and open-meetings laws. It is like playing whack-a-mole with agencies and boards that want to operate behind closed doors.”
About 40 percent said they continue to hire lawyers when needed. About 32 percent said reporters and editors are frequently making legal arguments for access to avoid legal bills. And 16 percent said they write stories about scofflaws to shame them into complying with the law.
Alan D. Miller is managing editor/news at The Columbus Dispatch and chair of the APME Sounding Board committee.