News management lessons from a dorm room bureau

April 9, 2018 11:00

Chris's dorm room desk

This post is adapted from an article originally appearing on Chris’s blog.

“When most students come to college, they don’t expect to have a roommate that will run a daily news operation from his or her dorm.  Mine essentially had no choice.”

Today, Chris Hoke works in a fairly standard, if small, newsroom, but his reporting roots start even smaller. Right out of high school, he was hired as a reporter by Iredell Broadcasting, and he headed off to college with “only a Fender P51 microphone (good mic, but just a small handheld) connected to my laptop with an XLR to 1/8th inch audio cable.” Miles away from his newsroom, he set up a campus bureau: his dorm room. He told RTDNA he had to “get creative” to get the facts he needed and fit his being a reporter – and soon News Director – into a busy class schedule and a small, shared dorm room. Here are his lessons for newsroom managers.
Think beyond a traditional framework to do more with less
I was, for the most part, the only journalist covering local news for the station where I worked but was still expected to cover all major stories. This expectation, paired with being located hours from the local market, meant our news operation had to operate outside of a traditional framework. Each piece of information was scrupulously examined and exploited for leads to the next contact or piece of knowledge. Social media, websites, text messages, emails and calls to sources carried an above-average value since a trip to the scene of a story was rarely an option.
Luckily, even the most poorly-funded news operation usually has more than one journalist. Whether you have a team of two or seventy-five, thinking outside of what’s traditionally expected can have real value for your end product (whether on TV, radio or digital). The result will be a higher story count with better information inside of each piece. Here are some specifics to get you started:

  1. Evaluate how general assignment reporters are spending their time in the field. With your station’s brand and its goals in mind, create a plan for determining how long a reporter and/or photographer should remain at a particular scene. Is it worth spending six hours of staff time for information that may or may not be shared at that location? Could that same information be obtained in another way? Sometimes, it’s worth the six hours, other times it’s not.
  2. Practice building relationships. Good journalists and news managers already do this, but it’s worth remembering the value of getting to know the people who will provide you with information. Having these relationships can mean an early tip on a breaking story or the help you need when researching your next piece.
  3. Maximize operational efficiencies. Take some time to observe your newsroom’s operations. Who’s waiting on who to finish his or her work? Is there a particular process that takes an extra ten minutes each day because of a clunky workflow across your computer network? Small amounts of lost time add up fast and cost you content in the end. Find ways to fix these time sucks, even if it means getting help from others in your organization.
Makeshift recording studio

The basics are important
For much of my early career I was learning the trade on my own. I hold the basics of good journalism in high regard since I had to figure them out for myself with no shortage of bad examples.
Remembering the basics of good journalism carries incredible value when it comes to establishing and maintaining organizational credibility and building your audience. Don’t get so caught-up in the operations of finishing your 6:00 newscast that you forget why people are watching in the first place.

Remind your team:

  1. The facts are the facts. Check your personal and organizational opinions at the door.
  2. Perception is not reality (although it is often perceived as such). Make sure that the facts, and not just your perception of them, write the story.
  3. One person’s opinion rarely qualifies as the only basis for a story. Try to go deeper if you think there is something to report.
  4. Accusations are just that, accusations not yet proven to be true. Be careful to only report them for what they are.
  5. The list goes on – remember the basics you learned from the start.

Localism counts
As one of my early news promos written around the time of my freshman year said, “There’s lots of ways to find out what’s happening in Washington. It’s not quite as easy to find out what’s happening just down the street.”
Audiences are thirsting for unique local content. Social media is powerful and full of information, but that information usually falls short of the depth and quality which could be presented on that platform or elsewhere by a professional news organization.
Unique local content allows newsrooms to differentiate themselves from the competition in a particular market. Your competitors understand this fact, so uniqueness, story angle and exclusive insights become especially important.

Your emotions don’t have to ruin your fun or the product
My mother has a keen ability to not get overly-emotional in tough situations. Despite the risk of losing my father to a major health scare, she was incredibly fact-based throughout the ordeal. It helped our family persevere through a difficult time.
Everyone handles emotions differently, and I don’t seek to understand or explain those avenues. But, if you find the ‘tough’ stories taking a toll, you may benefit from an approach similar to that of my mother when she faced the possibility of losing her husband. The facts are the facts. You as a news manager or journalist cannot change the facts. Your job is to report and to provide clarity. Try disconnecting yourself emotionally from the stories as much as possible. Doctors, paramedics and others in similar professions take this approach so they can keep doing their jobs. Depending on how you process tough situations, doing the same may allow you to have greater mental clarity and ultimately have more value to your audience.
Have fun!
I loved my first job and had a lot of fun doing it. There’s an old adage in radio that if the broadcaster is having fun, so are the listeners. If you’re enjoying the process of creating content for audiences, you are more likely to produce better content.
Don’t let go of what attracted you to the industry in the first place. Have fun producing great content for the people you serve and encourage your team to do the same!
Iredell broadcasting has come along way since Chris's college days, adding an FM channel, a TV channel and doubling sales.

Chris Hoke is a media development, management and on-air professional. Chris served as the News Director for Iredell Broadcasting throughout college, reporting from his dorm rooms when studying on campus. Chris was later promoted to Assistant Manager. He has reported on everything from local politics and community stories to national pieces aired on Fox News Radio stations across the United States. During his tenure at Iredell Broadcasting, Chris developed the station’s news program, helped grow its web presence on various sites, created a digital sales platform for the station’s sales team and led the development of its television station in addition to numerous other projects.  He is the author of The Dorm Room Newsroom: Learning & Broadcasting Outside the Lines.