Why Journalists are Terrible at Time Management

Launch Pad: Portland, Oregon

CJR’s “Launch Pad” feature invites new media publishers to blog about their experiences on the news frontier. All of Michael Andersen and Barry Johnson’s columns can be found here.

Barry Johnson: Today’s topic is time management. As Michael can attest, my time-management skills sometimes desert me. Or maybe I don’t apply them consistently enough. Some of that I blame on my newspaper practices, which led me astray almost from the beginning.

When I left The Oregonian last December, I had planned to jump right into working on the idea to start an arts journalism non-profit. Between Christmas and New Year’s, therefore, I did what I think almost any journalist would do. I made phone calls and sent out e-mails to many of the people I wanted to talk to about the project. You have a new story to pursue, you make a lot of calls, right? But then, the first week in January I started hearing back from everybody, and I started scheduling appointments. Lots of appointments, three or four on some days. Pretty soon January was full and February nearly so.

I’m not complaining exactly, because the response showed that people were interested in the idea. But I lost my ability to manage the appointments by doing it the way I did. I had some conversations early in the process that I should have had later, for example. And that led to the necessity for more appointments with the same people. And in the middle of all those appointments I lost the ability to manage my time—sometimes meeting is not the best way to spend an afternoon.

What do you think, Michael? How good a time-management teacher is journalism?

Michael Andersen: Ugh. I’d like to call it the worst, but those of us with poor self-control are probably just drawn to jobs with constant deadlines. Either way, I’m terrible at this and a lot of journalists I know are, too. For those of us trying to make the leap to entrepreneurship, this is a deadly problem.

Barry: Are we too impulsive? Or cognitively deficient?

Michael: Too easily interested? That’s the nice way to put it.

Barry: What has been your most consistent time-mangement question?

Michael: I guess the central question is priority. When should I set aside a long-term task to complete a necessary routine? When should I do ad-sales outreach at the expense of some editorial research?

Sometimes I feel like Harry Houdini, wandering the earth to debunk the various systems that claim to solve my problem. I’ve tried BaseCamp, Astrid, TeuxDeux, 5-goals-for-tomorrow lists, a giant color-coded whiteboard, even a javascript tool my programmer roommate whipped up. I’ve never been able to stick with any for long.

Barry: Are they too linear for the multiple balls you have in the air? Personally, I have legal pads filled with large circles and connected by doodles.

Michael: Does that work for you?

Barry: I think it helps me keep in mind a lot of things at once. I have a central diagram with the seven major areas my project has to address (“editorial content,” “marketing,” “membership,” “sponsorships,” “design,” “administration” and “grants+donations”). Not today, necessarily, but as it evolves. I keep working those circles, jumping to the next one when an opportunity arises. But then that’s where time management comes into play, priority, because sometimes I have more than one opportunity available, where time might be profitably spent, and then I always want to do some journalism.

Michael: For me, identifying small tasks seems to help. Any time I really get cranking on something, I’m likely to become interested in the adjacent tasks and work at maximum productivity for a while. But then I run the risk of staying in the same subject area for too long. (I’ve been splitting my own tasks four ways: “marketing,” “editorial,” “ad/distro/production,” and “accounting/planning.”)

I like your use of a single medium (paper—ah, paper) to store the information. Do you try to convert every small e-mail task onto the print diagram?

Barry: Mostly, I just try to be aware of the larger purpose of what I’m working on at any given moment. Where does it fit? And if I’m staying inside one circle too long, then I try to balance it out, because I have a seemingly endless to-do list in each category. Getting the order right is the trick, and attempting to have meetings and activities that deal with more than one category. I write down almost everything I’m hoping to do each day, including e-mails, especially if they are important ones. If it’s not important enough to write down, then there’s probably something more important I should be doing…

You’re trying to do some good, hard journalism as you attempt to lay the foundation of your non-profit, which presents certain problems, right?

Michael: Yeah. As I mentioned last week, I get caught up in the fun reporter work and procrastinate the other stuff. But I’ve also found that good content gets my calls returned. For two weeks I was trying in vain to get a business meeting with the City of Portland, then last week one of their managers mentioned that he was impressed that I’d scooped BikePortland on a small item. We’re having coffee Thursday. It’s just another argument that balancing the tasks is important.

Barry: Your journalism provides a vivid “proof of concept”! My own Arts Dispatch blog works the same way, just to a lesser extent. Do you have a couple of sure-fire time-management tips you can pass on to our readers?

Michael: For me, routines are everything. I can’t even dream of finishing a boring task—and until I started doing our accounting, I didn’t actually understand the word “boring”—unless it’s something I have to do by a certain time each week. But even then I regularly fail.

One other time-management tactic that also applies to volunteers’ time: The moment I sense enthusiasm, I pounce. Every time I or one of our handful of volunteers expresses a hint of excitement about a task, I now try to get things moving immediately. The community organizers I’ve met say that’s the most important part of mobilization: Making a task available at the moment of engagement. What about you?

Barry: Sometimes lying on the couch is just napping and sometimes it’s the most important thing you do all day, because you get some clarity on your tasks at hand. And I think you’re exactly right about pouncing on enthusiasm—if suddenly you have a hankering to get some figures in columns, seize the moment! That’s especially true when you’re working with other people, I think. And the addition of others to your Army of One presents a whole new level of complexity to Time Management. Maybe we can get to it another time.

Hey, what are you working on this week?

Michael: My monthly print deadline is coming around, so I’m trying to pull together some public records about Portland’s stop-sign locations—our cover story is about the best crosstown bike routes. You?

Barry: I have some meetings with arts organizations that I set up last week, and some administrative details I have to attend to now that there’s some likelihood that this project will actually fly. Also, it’s my mom’s birthday on Friday. (Happy birthday, Mom!) Talk to you next week when we discuss sales and The Pitch.

Michael Andersen publishes Portland Afoot, a ten-minute newsmagazine and wiki about low-car life in Portland, Oregon. He also writes about entrepreneurial local journalism on NiemanLab.org, oldforestnewtrees.com, and Twitter. Barry Johnson has written about the arts since 1978, when he started writing about dance for the now-defunct Seattle Sun. He has edited arts sections at Willamette Week and The Oregonian, and recently finished a twenty-six-year stint at the latter by writing a general arts and culture column. You can find his up-to-the-minute thoughts on the arts at http://artsdispatch.blogspot.com.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Michael Andersen and Barry Johnson are news entrepreneurs in Portland, Oregon. Tags: , , , , ,