A nine-year-old, interviewing me for his school newspaper, recently asked me an interesting question. How do you decide what stories go into a newspaper?
It was a basic but critical question and one that gets to the heart of what news organizations like The Information deal with every day. He was asking me how we plan and prioritize.
Of course, there has been a big shift since the days of print, when space was constrained by column-inches. While the digital world is infinite, the attention of readers is not—prioritization is no less important in this new paradigm. If anything, technology makes editorial planning and prioritization even harder.
Some days, running a news startup feels like one endless effort in prioritization.
The digital democratization of content means that publications like The Information are competing with more news sources than ever before. And as a publication devoted to covering technology and its effect on business, the universe of potential topics is vast.
So too are the networks of our staff of 12 amazing reporters, many of whom have more than a decade of experience covering tech. But our subscription business model is based on a firm belief in quality over quantity; covering numerous topics in a shallow way isn’t an option. So how do we draw the line?
For us, editorial planning flows from the bottom up. When a reporter has an idea, he or she puts it into Asana. Then twice a week, our team convenes to discuss the stories on the agenda. Since we literally have hundreds of potential story ideas in our system, we rely on regular in-person conversation to make sure we are focused on the right things and stay flexible. Priorities often shift quickly.
Our managing editor, Martin Peers, and I try to encourage reporters to prioritize articles based on a few principles:
Competition is easy to understand. If it’s a hot story, like Snapchat preparing for an IPO or Zenefits’ CEO looking for his replacement, time is of the essence, and we have to go fast. Often, these stories can come together in hours or less, well before our weekly meetings. But we still always take the time to get the facts and to notify the company to allow them to respond.
Similarly, a story that may take months but we know that others are chasing, like the evolving strategy of Google’s self-driving car project, has to take priority over other projects.
Given readers’ insatiable appetite for all sorts of tech news, including gossip, it would be easy to have little “scooplets” all day long. But our subscribers demand more of us and so we force ourselves to focus on the stories that are important.
This is a big category, and there is no hard and fast rule about what is “important.” Often stories about bigger companies that have a huge impact on people’s business are more important than stories about small companies no one has heard of; but not always. As a publication, we pride ourselves on ferreting out interesting small companies, too and making the case for why our broader subscriber base should care. It often comes down to reporters’ own judgments.
If you can’t nail something right away, it’s important to move on while continuing to look for a new way in.
Every few months, our reporters discuss the big themes on their beats that they want to stay ahead of. Those are the stories that we have to keep our eye on, even when easier, distracting stories pop up. Without this focus, our team would never produce deep dives like this recent piece about Magic Leap. Those kinds of stories require months of sustained reporting and typically encounter major roadblocks. Without a commitment to prioritizing the important over the easy, they would never happen.
Not to say that the difficulty of an article isn’t a factor, but one of the toughest things a reporter (and her editor) has to do is assess the chance of getting a particular story at a particular time—and decide to move on if things aren’t progressing.
We very rarely kill a story entirely. But if you can’t nail something right away, it’s important to move on while continuing to look for a new way in. If you don’t, you’re simply going to miss too many other important and competitive stories that you are probably equally as excited about. Prioritization is as much about what not to do as it is about what to do.
Behind all these prioritization strategies is a big dependence on the reporter, who is much closer to what’s competitive, important, and feasible than his or her editors. Hence, a lot of trust goes into our team.
That allows editors, like myself, to focus on longer-term editorial plans and priorities. I tend to set those based on a combination of data about our business and gut instinct. After visiting China several times, I decided earlier this year that the market was uncovered and that we, as a startup, could have a big impact. So we are staffing up in China and Hong Kong and writing more about important companies like Tencent and Didi. The same goes for biotech here in Silicon Valley.
Indeed, some days, running a news startup feels like one endless effort in prioritization. Like other small companies, we have to constantly focus our product development on areas we can have an impact. So we are constantly deciding what to do first: revamp our commenting system or redesign our home page? And on top of that, we have to remake our product every day by producing new articles.
Along the way, we’ve learned a few lessons about planning and prioritization that are applicable beyond the newsroom:
- You have to reshuffle priorities constantly. News could break in an instant, changing what’s the most valuable story to our readers.
- You have to adapt. All companies, even those whose roadmaps might not be jostled by external events, should learn to constantly reassess what’s most important since time is a precious resource.
- You have to have contingency plans. In journalism, you don’t know when or if you’ll get the final source you need to nail a big story. You have to be prepared either way. We often have a lot of backups to what we plan to run on a given day. It’s imperative in our industry because you can’t publish without being rock solid; for teams in other industries, it allows you to hold things that aren’t quite ready.
When things get overwhelming, as they sometimes do, I try to remember a mantra an entrepreneur once shared with me: “You can do everything you want to. Just not at the same time.”
Jessica E. Lessin is the founder and CEO of The Information and a veteran tech reporter based in San Francisco.