January 17, 2005

Atlanta's Focused Training Model

My latest newsletter for Tomorrow's Workforce reports on how the Atlanta Journal-Constitution developed an ambitious training plan that focuses on specific newsroom goals. It is exactly the sort of targeted approach I believe that can transform training from a random series of events that benefit individual journalists into a strategic tool that can improve the quality of journalism throughout the newspaper.

The Journal-Constitution employed a series of working groups whose members reported on their own newsroom to identify training needs and desires, condensed those findings into a report to management and then helped form the dozens of courses and sessions that will be offered this year to AJC staffers.

All the training is built around what paper calls its three "pillars," or core goals for the year: Watchdog reporting; connection to the community; and storytelling in various forms.

There are valuable lessons in the Atlanta model for other newsrooms:

 Management must prioritize. Having 15 or 20 annual goals is no better than having none.
 Collaboration is key. Managers should work with their best, most energetic journalists to connect with the newsroom and identify its needs.
 Training is work. It requires time to develop, time to implement and time to take effect.
 Leaders must be teachers. The largest training sessions in Atlanta are run by the managing and deputy managing editors.
 Over-communicate. Managers must continually define goals in multiple ways; staffers must continually ask for what they need to perform.

Read the column here on the Tomorrow's Workforce site or just click the below link.

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Atlanta’s Three Pillars of Training

By Tim Porter

Imagine an ideal outcome for newsroom training – a firm, ongoing commitment of time, budget, leadership and human resources to professional development that aligns with both the needs of the journalists and the strategies of the enterprise.

In 2005, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s ambitious new staff development program promises to turn that ideal into reality.

The Journal-Constitution used Tomorrow’s Workforce as a launching pad to reinvent an aggressive, but somewhat random training effort into one that would be the envy of most newspapers for its scope, focus and aspiration. This is not about self-congratulation. This is about the good, hard work being done on Marietta Street in downtown Atlanta and the lessons we all can learn from it.

Training is “the way to get a better newsroom and a better newspaper,” Editor Julia Wallace says as she describes her newspaper’s plan, which requires a minimum of 20 hours training during the year for each of the newsroom’s 385 staffers and at least 30 hours for its 100 managers.

The Journal-Constitution placed a high premium on training before it invited Tomorrow’s Workforce into its newsroom in 2004. The paper had a training editor (Sheila Garland), a deputy managing editor writing coach (Shawn McIntosh), a five-figure training budget and thousands of training hours. In 2004, the paper was also into its second year of intensive, off-site two-day seminars for line editors and reporters taught by McIntosh and Managing Editor Hank Klibanoff.

Wallace wanted more. “Ultimately,” she said, “it’s about having good conversations, about how do we move forward, what does forward mean, talking about standards, talking about skill improvement and really working on it.”

Focus, Focus, Focus

If every writer needs an editor, then every training program needs a purpose – and that’s what Tomorrow’s Workforce brought to The Journal-Constitution.

“I think this program has really helped us focus our training,” said Wallace. “We have always been very committed to it. We’ve had a very aggressive training program. What this has done is really elevated it and aligned with our strategic goals more effectively.”

The transition began after Michele McLellan (Tomorrow’s Workforce director), myself and researcher Ranjan Banerji spent three days in the paper’s newsroom, interviewing dozens of staff members and attending news meetings. We also reviewed readership and market research and conducted a survey of the newsroom and a content analysis of the newspaper.

A Focused Training Model The Atlanta Journal-Constitution built its 2005 training program around three “pillars.” Editor Julia Wallace explains: Watchdog reporting: “We believe that is an important responsibility we have. We believe that is an important driver of readership and really want to continue to focus on improving our watchdog journalism.” Community connections: “It ties into our sense that we really need to know our readers and know our market so that we can serve them better. This is particularly true in a big metro like Atlanta where it is pretty different and it’s easy to assume things about the whole market that aren’t necessarily true.” Different story forms: “We need to talk more in depth about what are different ways to tell the story. Sometimes you can tell in a different inverted pyramid. Sometimes you need to do narrative. Sometimes you need to do it as a chart. Sometimes it needs to be five bullets. Sometimes it needs to be a Q&A.”

Later, McLellan returned to Atlanta to meet with a cluster of newsroom leaders, discuss our observations and begin work on a training plan for 2005. Let Wallace pick up the story from there:

“One of the big breakthroughs for us,” she said, “was this great moment where Michele asked all of us to write on a board: What would make this paper better? There were about a dozen of the top leaders in the newsroom there. We all got up and when we got done there was some overlap, but there were like 20, 25 things on the board.

“Michele said, ‘What do you think?’ And we said, ‘Yeah, that’s great, yeah, yeah.’ And she said, ‘Well, you can't do all that.”

“So,” said Wallace, “it forced us into a really good conversation about, OK, what can we do and how do we organize our thoughts around where we’re going and really focus our training to match up. Out of that came these three pillars that our training for this year will be focused on.”

From their initial list of two-dozen or so ideas, the Journal-Constitution’s editors chose three as the pillars of the program: Watchdog reporting; versatility in storytelling and story form; and community connections.

Making it Happen

Training director Garland recruited a committee that would help move those ideas from whiteboard to reality.

Garland, using an e-mail pitch explaining the project, asked for and got some volunteers. Then she “volunteered” some others staff members, rounded up a couple of managers and convened a working group of about a dozen folks she described as having “a lot of energy, some creativity and also a sociability factor within the newsroom.”

Then it was time for lunch – literally. The members of the training committee took their newsroom colleagues out for working meals to answer the question: If you could have any type of training you want, what would it be?

“It was pretty intense the first couple of months as we discussed what kind of learning atmosphere we wanted at the paper,” said Garland. “…We interviewed more than a couple of dozen staffers from across the newsroom about what we had done in the past, what would inspire them to learn more, what had worked.”

City Hall reporter Ty Tagami, a member of the committee, said the reaction of colleagues surprised him.

“I expected some jaded responses,” he said, “but everybody almost to a person was pretty optimistic. People were eager. They seemed hungry for training. I actually tried to get a few people I thought would grumble, tried to get a cross-section. … Journalists, I think, hide their idealism sometimes, but they can’t wait to bring it out.”

The luncheon conversations produced several themes, some predictable, such as a near universal desire for writing and reporting training. Others were more of a departure from the traditional training tableau:

Reporters and editors: “One of the big ideas that came out,” said Tagami, “… is having training as much as possible that involves both the reporters and the editors. Because a lot of us have been off to Poynter or IRE and then you come back and they want the same old thing. The language isn’t there to communicate even.”

Pragmatic vs. pie: “What they wanted was functional writing and reporting,” said Tagami, “not doing long two-month pieces, but doing your two-day and one-day stories a lot better. If people were going to train them, they wanted trainers who are known for turning around good stories on deadline because that’s what most people do. They didn’t want pie in the sky.”

No journalist left behind: To ensure that, as one committee member put it, the managers “reward workhorses as well as racehorses,” the newsroom wanted structure. “People were having a hard time getting to some of the training we had previously,” Tagami said, “so someone floated the idea of having a mandatory curriculum, like a college-based curriculum, with credit hours, making it mandatory and part of your review so everybody knows you’ve got to go to this and your editor has to give you the time.”

The committee boiled down the ideas then sent them to Wallace and Managing Editor James Mallory, who approved the mandatory curriculum and the joint editor-reporter sessions (and put in the futures file other ideas such as more widespread Spanish-language training and creation of an intra-newspaper, interactive database of staffers’ knowledge that reporters could turn to when in need for information or sources.)

Searching for a Common Newsroom Language

The training committee subdivided with the goal of helping Garland form courses and write a training manual. One group, headed by Tagami, focused on watchdog reporting; another, headed by Gwinnett County reporter Mark Davis took on storytelling, a topic that stirs his journalistic passions.

“I firmly believe,” said Davis, “that stories well-told are what sells newspapers, not focus groups.”

Defining a story that is well told, though, is not easy. A reporter’s sparkling diamond may seem like a clunky bituminous chunk to an editor. Davis was tasked with solving the riddle: What are the standards for good storytelling on which all can agree?

For answers, Davis turned to his own newsroom.

“I think a lot of newspapers make the mistake of thinking all the talent is somewhere else,” he said. “They fail to look within their own ranks to find reporters the rest of the staff can emulate.

“We highlighted a select group of colleagues to interview about how to do different stories: profiles, explanatory stories, etc. We asked a standard set of questions: What do you look for? Is there a telling moment in a story that defines the direction of the story? When have you reported enough? When have you not reported enough? Do you know when the story is done?”

What emerged are what Davis called “some bare minimums to which all people can ascribe” as well as techniques and tip sheets for more sophisticated storytelling, all compiled in a common newsroom language and bound for the training manual.

The Curriculum

The end product of the inquiries of Tagami, Davis and the rest of the committee, and from Garland’s own efforts to “give voices to other folks in the newsroom” – designers, photographers and, of course, the names on the masthead – is a year-long curriculum of about 40 training opportunities. (See the curriculum here.)

The curriculum includes:

“Core classes … we want everyone to get exposure to,” such as how to background an individual, how to background an institution, story and its forms, telling stories visually – “all those kind of things,” said Garland, “that most 21st century newspapers are doing.”

Four half-day sessions devoted to skills, communication and other issues.

Bus tours to key areas in the newspaper’s circulation area led by community leaders.

Readership. “Who are our readers and what do they want?”

Sessions by visiting trainers such as Jacqui Banaszynski, Knight Chair in Editing at the University of Missouri, who was scheduled to do two-days of storytelling training in January.

Journal-Constitution staff members can earn credit to meet their required 20 hours by either attending a workshop or teaching one. They can enroll online through a browser-based catalog.

In all, 485 newsroom employees will participate in a total of at least 10,700 hours of training in 2005, roughly the equivalent of five FTEs.

"The time and focus is the real resource, not the money," Wallace said.

The Future

Later this year, members of the training committee will nominate their own replacements to begin working on the curriculum for 2006. On-line storytelling tops the agenda.

Wallace believes the three pillars – watchdog journalism, story forms and community connection are a strong foundation on which to build.

“I don’t see huge shifts,” she said. “… The pillars may still be intact, but it may be a different approach so that you’d say, yes, let’s focus on watchdog, but let’s really focus in (a particular) area.”

Interestingly, even before anyone in the Journal-Constitution’s newsrooms takes a single class this year, the people involved in putting this program together gleaned insights into communication skills, organizational dynamics, the need for mutual respect, the power of goal-setting and the need for teamwork – characteristics critical to the success of any enterprise.

Garland put it this way: “What I would stress to other newspapers is a team approach to coming up with what you want to learn and aligning your learning strategy with your business goals. It can come from your employees. And, in fact, they’re going to participate on a higher level if they’re involved from the very beginning – and if they can see a difference in the newspaper.”

Posted by Tim Porter at January 17, 2005 09:22 AM