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Why editors ≆ project managers

Project management is fundamentally about organisation and communication, two skills also found in successful editors. This raises the question of why — and when — there ought to be two distinct roles.

In movies and TV, the two roles are clearly separated into directors and producers. The equivalent of that in newspapers would be to say:

Traditionally, of course, those two sets of responsibilities have been met by same person. I think that is about to change.

When systems hold sway

Three years ago, I orchestrated and edited a five-day series of articles on big data.

In the final tally, the project involved 9 reporters, 18 articles and enough words that we ended up compiling it into an ebook afterwards. But despite its scale, the project never become so complex that I needed a project manager.

I was operating within a system that gave me fixed parameters and constraints. For example, the idea of presenting the series’ main story as a video or an interactive graphic instead of an article? Not even within the realm of possibility. How would you put that on the front page of a newspaper?

It also wasn’t necessary to think about the series in terms of a ‘news product’: What were our high level goals? How would we have measured success? It wasn’t that those questions weren’t important back then. It was that I could safely assume they were being taken care of at the systems level. Philosophical questions like ‘What is a newspaper for?’ had been settled long ago — or so we had thought.

So instead of a skilled person to help deal with complexity on a case-by-case basis, newspapers had moved to a more scalable solution of relying on systems, templates, and culture.

When you can just get on with it

In contrast to that big data series, I made this interactive calculator about the BBC with just Henry Mance, our reporter covering the British public broadcaster, and Caroline Nevitt, our graphic designer.

Again, we had no need for a separate project manager. But that wasn’t because there were established systems and templates for how we would tell this story. Rather, it was because our team was just three people and we had a clear idea of what we were trying to make. In short, we could just get on with it.

I suspect this is the case for most interactive / visuals / digital teams within newsrooms right now. They are self-contained enough, and small enough, that they could self-organise without the need for a distinct, dedicated project manager.

When worlds collide

My contention, however, is that newsrooms will increasingly find themselves in situations that don’t fit into either of the two scenarios above — in short, they will be in situations of high complexity and without well-established systems to fall back on to.

This could be as interactive or graphics projects become more complex. For example, when they require greater co-operation with the rest of the newsroom or even between multiple departments (i.e. audience engagement, technology, commercial) that each have their own culture and ways of working. To quote from Rands: “When it was five of you sitting the same room, it was easy …”

Or maybe newsrooms come to realise that the systems and templates they relied on have become obsolete. No new systems or templates have emerged yet and suddenly everyone is forced to experiment in order to know if something will work or not.

For example, “How best to tell a story?” used to be a relatively easy question to answer. Is it news? 400 words and an inverted pyramid structure, please. Now, no one really knows if it would be better as a structured Q&A or a video (or, maybe, a structured Q&A with embedded video clips?)

The editorial judgement to answer that question still rests firmly on the shoulder of the editor. But the workload and skill required to actually carry it out increases with both the scale of the project and how experimental it is.

At some point it crosses the threshold from being a one-person job to being two distinct specialisations. The trick for newsrooms is knowing when it does so.

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