Beyond the Production Cycle: a new approach to journalism staff structure

Going beyond the production cycle:

How a staff improvement team might just be the change your paper needs

Kenneth Burchfiel

What lies at the center of your journalism class? The answer may seem rather obvious, but, as far as I know, it’s a poor response. If your answer to this question is your paper—that is, your publication matters the most—I believe your class is fundamentally flawed. Don’t take it personally; I’m just the crazy editor from Virginia who wants you to shake up your staff. More on that soon.

What, you might ask, is the problem with having a class that centers around the paper? I think an anecdote might best answer that.

Last year, our school paper—the McLean Highlander—had a pretty ambitious publication schedule. With a 22-person staff, we came out 12 times a year with 16 and 20-page issues. (Some of you journalism giants may scoff at those figures, but when you can practically count your classmates on your fingers and toes, you’ve got a major setback towards producing the paper.) At any rate, if you have a staff on the small side, you know how hard it can be to manage a small paper. It seemed that we spent every waking hour doing things related to the production cycle—barnstorming, making storyboards, conceptualizing our stories, laying out pages, sending the paper and starting all over again. Even so, our paper was pretty good in spite of our size, and few people complained about the workload.

I began to wonder about our publication-centered approach, though. So much time was spent on the paper side of journalism that we often neglected the people side of journalism. Parties were few and far apart. “Staff bonding” was an alien idea to us. I even began to miss the lectures that one of our advisers had done a few years ago. As the co-editor in chief, I had the power to change this newspaper-first mentality, but it seemed to dangerous to change the system.

Perhaps you’ve begun to see the issue with making your issues a top priority. Our paper looked smarter and more creative, but we weren’t getting any smarter or appreciative. As an editor, I was so focused on the quality of the paper that I blinded myself to the condition of the journalism staff—namely, the lack of education, innovation and appreciation that could have enriched the class. For all the advances that the Highlander was making, it seemed as if the staff hadn’t progressed at all.

That’s simply my story, but I’m sure that others have had similar experiences. I feel as if there’s been a shift in high school journalism from the enriching, comprehensive class to an ultra-structured regiment that orbits around the publication process. It’s not a conspiracy. It’s not oppressive. But it is something that our class, and perhaps your class, needs to change.

Now, if we break down journalism to its fundamentals, we realize that the paper isn’t a central element to begin with. It’s merely an output of the staff. Here’s the paradox: when you begin to dedicate all of your time towards producing a great paper, the quality of your publication suffers. If you only walk out of here with one thought in your mind, it’s this: the paper is merely a reflection of the staff. Spend the entire year trying to improve the paper, and you’re simply coloring on the mirror. Spend part of your time improving the people who produce it, though, and your publication improves by leaps and bounds. A quick disclaimer—I don’t suggest that the newspaper is a minor part of your staff. That’s what the class is there for. Nevertheless, no journalism class is complete unless it caters both to the issue and to the students behind it. The problem is that the latter component—namely, you—gets overlooked. There has to be some way for a journalism class to improve both the product and the producers without conflict.

I’m standing before you today because I think—I think that I know just how to do it. My idea may come across as spurious, radical or all-out misinformed, but I behoove you to give it a change. It’s been a year in the making.

The core of my plan for a staff-centered journalism class entails splitting the students into two parts: the production team, by far the larger group, and the non-production team. What do I mean by these terms? Well, it’s business as usual for the production team. They write stories, brainstorm content, manage ads and distribution, lay out the paper and send it off. They’re there to work towards a better paper. What about the non-production staff, then? They’re there to work towards better journalists. They’ll dream up and present journalism lessons to the staff. They’ll plan out parties, bonding opportunities, dinners, guest presentations and other staff activities. They’ll also chart out new courses for the class to take.

This team, composed of people like the “education manager,” “appreciation assistant” and “innovation team member,” won’t spend any time working on the publication. As Lincoln would put it, the work they undertake will be done “by the people, for the people.” These people will be innovators, educators and celebrators at the same time, as dedicated to advancing the staff as their classmates are to advancing the paper.

There need not be permanent job assignments for this non-production team. Your assistant sports editor for one issue might be the staff appreciation manager for the next. By setting up a rotation, students can take an issue off from the regular stress of the production cycle and work to benefit the staff.

You may already have received a sheet with the cryptic title of “Project Vaduz;” if not, I’ll pass it out now. It depicts what the Highlander’s non-production team’s goals are for this year and should round out this presentation more fully. As you read about our “Project Vaduz,” consider undertaking a similar mission for your staff. Helping the journalism staff become more educated, appreciative and innovative is no small task, but it’s a vital one that deserves the same commitment that you give to your paper.

I know how scary it can be to dedicate less time to producing the paper and more time on staff needs. As I said earlier, though, the paper is just a reflection of your staff. You can break your back trying to make every issue a slice of perfection, or you can establish a means for improving your class and get the same results.

This non-production team isn’t a revolutionary idea, nor does it entail a revolution. It’s simply a way to advance your paper by supporting those who make it. If innovation, education and appreciation are words that matter to you, Project Vaduz might just be the way to put those terms in action.

If you have any questions or comments about the production team and non-production team idea, I’d be happy to get in touch with you. My e-mail is Broncostar4444@yahoo.com, but KBurchfiel@gmail.com also works. Thanks for your time, and I hope your convention experience ends on a high note.

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