Tuesday, April 17, 2012

A reporter's guide to project management

I've been moving between journalism and development for the past five years, ever since my boss ordered me a copy of "Project Management for Dummies." Nothing personal, he said, it's just a good book on how projects get done. Eventually the head of the Project Management Office told me I needed a more formal study of the project manager's body of knowledge. So I began reading "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Project Management."

A newspaper is not the model environment for project management. Editors are focused on producing today's news. If the results fall short, there's always tomorrow's news. With deadline after deadline, this process is a little too agile. Even so, making plans in a newsroom looks pretty much like initiating a project in the code room. To move beyond day-to-day tasks, you need to look into the future and imagine where you want to end up. That's the first step to figuring out how to get there.

Outside the office, the same discipline can keep you from spinning your wheels starting things you can't finish. Every so often it's worth reviewing the basics of goal-setting. Don't take it personally, but let's assume you're a complete idiot, or a maybe a reporter:

Don't bury the lede. Editors warn writers not to obscure their central point. The Onion takes this to an extreme, writing the headline first. But a reporter often will draft the opening paragraph in her head as a working hypothesis, then calls her sources and find out if those hunches are grounded. This doesn't always work in journalism but it's how all good projects start, with a clear statement of the task at hand. A single-page statement of the objectives and who has a stake in them is often all you really need to launch a project.

If your mother says she loves you, check it out. So the editors at City News Bureau told cub reporters. Eyewitnesses don't always agree at a crime scene. It's too tempting not to compare a roomful of stakeholders to a crime scene, but there it is: If they can't agree on the final outcome, it's no use to even start. Here's where a project manager acts like a newsman and get a consensus on paper, including who's responsible for what, before the sales team changes its mind.

Follow the money. Often I have to get things done without people to do them. That means I'll be spending a long time negotiating with vendors. Good thing I'm an editor: A lot of contracts try to commit the vendor to as little as possible in as many words as possible. As it turns out, the contract that passes muster with the legal department will spell out the deliverables, what they do and who pays if they come up short. It'a also the contract where both sides are happy with the results.

"Give me a break!" How many times would "60 Minutes" show a politician's pat answer, then cut to Mike Wallace with a look of utter skepticism? In an interview with NPR he called that "a perfectly sensible thing to say to somebody: Give me a break, come on, let's talk seriously. Don't phony up your answer." Project managers do this all the time setting the scope of work. Goals have to be realistic and achievable to motivate a team to get behind them.

Obey the deadline. Most of my projects get handed to me with one aspect locked down: when the finished product needs to be done. That's a blessing -- without a deadline, an investigation or any other project can just go on forever. My job is to work backward from the deadline and figure out what has to fall into place along the way, what project managers call the work breakdown structure. To pass the Mike Wallace BS test, the job has to be something that can actually get done in time.

Recently I recommended a friend coming out of DePaul's digital media program for an IT job, and she wondered if tech resources cross over into the newsroom. That really doesn't happen, partly because there's more money on the engineering side. Either way she'd be doing a lot of writing. Stakeholders thirst for news from the project team. One thing makes a media company a good place to work, whether you're a journalist or a technologist: When things go bad it's part of the culture not to blame the messenger, whether she's carrying a notepad or a GANTT chart.

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