The WSJ's Robin Kwong says project managers need to keep track of who does what tasks, and when. Image: Shutterstock
“Good project management is hard to find in newsrooms,” says The Wall Street Journal’s Robin Kwong. The nature of the news industry makes it hard to plan far in advance, budgets are often limited, and few reporters and editors receive structured project management training.
Kwong has been a reporter, editor, special projects editor, and a senior leader and manager in newsrooms across Asia, Europe, and North America. He is currently the director of audience loyalty at the WSJ, with previous roles as new formats editor and overseeing the newsletters team. Before joining WSJ in 2019, he worked for 13 years as a reporter and manager at the Financial Times.
He is also the author of a 70-page guide, published last year by the Association for Project Management and freely available online, which offers advice for journalists who’ve found themselves managing a project within their newsroom or would like to try leading one, whether it’s launching a TikTok account or piloting a new approach to election coverage.
The Fix spoke with Kwong about what makes project management in journalism uniquely difficult, what reporters should consider while taking on responsibility for a new project, and how newsroom leaders can improve project management culture in their organization.
Why Journalism Struggles with Project Management
The digital transformation of the news industry has disrupted not only our business models but also operating procedures and processes.
“When I first started in journalism, the print newspaper production process was well established and well defined. Everything had a very rigid process and everybody had a very specialized job,” says Kwong. “But a media organization these days cannot just be one product anymore. We need to put our journalism out through all sorts of different ways: newsletters, videos, podcasts, newspapers, websites. Not all of these are well established ways of working, and not all of the established ways of working [are suitable] for every news organization… That means a lot of experimentation and a lot of doing things that are out of the ordinary — and so a lot of project management. This is a new muscle.”
On top of that, the news industry is uniquely challenging for project management compared to, for example, construction or manufacturing. “The pace of news is something that is quite unique to journalism,” Kwong says. Building a hospital or constructing a highway is a multi-year process, while “in news, we often work in the next 30 minutes or the next day.” This makes project planning and management difficult.
Advice for Newsroom Project Managers
Kwong’s guide aims to walk reporters and would-be managers “through the entire project process, from seeking approval to launch a project all the way to sunsetting (or closing down) existing projects.” It’s worth reading the full document for a more thorough understanding of what’s needed to make a project successful, but here are a few highlights picked by The Fix on what new and aspiring project managers should consider:
- Formulate a clear definition of your project and define its goals. “It’s really important for you to be able to very clearly describe what the project is and what you’re trying to do and what you hope to get out of it,” Kwong told The Fix. A part of that is writing down early on what success (and failure) would look like, which will bring more discipline and rigor to assessing the project later.
- Recruit people internally — and think about who holds veto power. “In newsrooms especially, projects are done by ad-hoc assemblies of people who have day jobs to return to,” Kwong writes in the guide. Getting buy-in from people you need to implement the project is crucial, and here making a convincing pitch of your project idea is a big part of getting people on board. Also, identify people who can kill the project (due to typical newsroom structure, there can be quite a lot of them) and make sure to get their buy-in.
- Embrace to-do lists and timelines. The nuts and bolts of the project manager’s job is identifying and keeping track of who does what tasks and when. Kwong advises creating a clear mapping of the roles and responsibilities using frameworks like RACI, a model that describes the participation of various roles in completing tasks or deliverables for a project or business process. He advocates creating a high-level outline of the project early on while expanding it later as more information becomes available. “Timeline planning is best done collaboratively,” he notes in the guide.
- Keep track of the problems and make sure the right people are informed. As the project progresses, a big part of the project manager’s job is to process a lot of information, being aware of how everything is going, and making sure relevant people are kept in the loop. “Information is power, and as the person who holds and is responsible for disseminating information to everyone else, it’s easy to get drunk on that power… This is unproductive because the nature of collaborative work means that you can’t ever truly have full control over what happens,” Kwong writes in the guide.
- Make sure you keep thorough documentation — and create institutional knowledge. It’s tempting to implement a project and move on to new, more pressing endeavors. But there’s a huge value to be extracted from a thoughtful approach to properly documenting the project, such as keeping track of the problems that have arisen and ideas that were deemed to be out of scope but might prove useful for the future, as well as by hosting a retrospective meeting for the project team.
Improving the Culture of Project Management on the Organizational Level
Kwong’s guide focuses on advice to individual project managers in the newsroom. What should newsroom leaders do to improve project management across their organization?
Kwong’s advice is to start with thinking about how to structure the newsroom around being good at projects and consider putting resources into hiring dedicated professionals for this work. Whether media executives need to hire full-time project managers or just empower and train existing employees depends on the size of the organization, but “getting newsroom leaders to even start thinking about the possibility of hiring actual project managers would be a major step forward.”
In the short-term, it would be useful to read up on project management to get a better appreciation for what is required to make a project successful. “Having correct expectations and making reasonable demands as a newsroom leader around projects” is useful itself, Kwong believes.
This interview, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, was originally published by The Fix. You can read the original here. This version has been updated by GIJN and is republished with permission.
Anton Protsiuk is a senior editor at The Fix, a media analyst, and nonprofit manager. The Fix is an outlet committed to “cracking the media management puzzle with insights, solutions, and data.”