It's been awhile since one of Daily Journal editor David Houston's memos about such things as getting to work by 9 a.m. and doing more work has landed in my in box. But one did arrive Monday. It informs DJ reporters they will now be evaluated in writing every month, on the quantity and quality of their output, with more formal followups every three months. Most editors-in-chief don't find this necessary, but Houston seems to roll a bit differently than most. Here's the memo:
Starting on Nov. 4, you will get an email from your editor the first week of every month that lays out in narrative form an assessment of your performance over the previous month. Your editor will discuss the quantity of stories you produced but more importantly the quality of the work. Your editor will assess the quality of the story ideas you generated and how well you executed them as well as how well you executed ideas generated by editors.
Every three months you will get a more formal version of this assessment that also lays out goals for the coming three-month period. (Since we're just starting out, you will get a list of goals on Nov. 4.) These monthly and quarterly assessments will inform the performance evaluations you receive in February and July.
Most of you know we count the stories you produce. But a high number has never been the goal (read: writing a lot of 2-inch briefs doesn't really help you). Our readers are a sophisticated lot who demand something deeper than the surface reporting they'll find (for free) in their local daily. However, we always want as many of these quality stories as you are capable of producing. Our current system had some built-in mechanisms for assessing this. We consider how many front-page stories you wrote and how many you assigned art for. Ultimately this system is too much about a number and doesn't give us a real assessment of the quality of your work. Too, this system fosters a tendency to judge you against your peers in the newsroom. We want to judge you only against yourself, to look for ways of pushing you to be better.
I hope this new system fosters deeper and on-going conversations between reporter and editor about how to improve the quality of our stories. There are too many stories based on press releases and press conferences. Too much scrambling just to fill the paper every day. Too much scrambling to compete on general interest dailies that offer no added value to our readers. Too much desperation because nobody thought about art possibilities for their stories.
* Update: Houston expands on the memo in an email to Jim Romenesko. Excerpt:
The Daily Journal wants to move away from a system in which one is judged solely by the number of stories one writes or the number of website clicks one’s stories receive. Our newspaper has a sophisticated readership, almost all of them lawyers, who demand from us information that is useful for building and maintaining a law practice. This is particularly important to remember in an economic environment where media companies are struggling to remain not only relevant but also valued. This is why we are re-emphasizing quality over quantity.
Like most newsrooms, ours is filled with a diverse group. We have reporters who are newly out of graduate school and others who are veterans with decades of experience. I began trying to find a way to better assess reporters’ work out of a concern they were not interacting with editors in a way that would help them develop and grow. Too often, we are consumed by the day’s ultimate task: putting out a newspaper. But I don’t think any reporter here went into journalism to be reduced to a provider of content that serves no purpose other than to cover the white space between the ads. My goal is to empower reporters to feel like they are not only honing their craft but making the contribution they seek to.