The art of the critique, Part 1: The value of “pre-mortem” feedback

3 newsroom factors must change to allow feedback before, not after, publication

(First of two parts. For the second part, focusing on quality feedback after publication, I spoke with Bonita Burton about what works at the SND-award winning Villages Daily Sun. Link here for that blog post, with lots of tips for post-publication feedback.)

By Ron Reason

Who hasn’t endured a tough critique of his published work, and thought of their boss: “If only she’d mention this stuff earlier!”

Early in my career I spent 10 years at the St. Petersburg (now Tampa Bay) Times, long regarded as a terrific regional newspaper, in a variety of roles including copy editor, page designer, page one editor and design director. There I learned some hard but good lessons about the art of the critique, from both sides of the fence.

In some roles, I’d have my design or editing work critiqued after publication by, say, the managing editor or art director, who would balance the good with the bad. Their hope and mine was that I’d take constructive criticism and learn to not repeat mistakes, or perhaps do the good stuff more often. This is the classic “post-mortem,” after-the-fact type of critique.

Later, as design director, I was asked to provide feedback for dozens of editors and page designers. At first this came in the form of post-mortems, tackled via a number of angles due to differing or busy schedules: critiques via published pages I marked up with red ink (ouch!), memos sent via computer message, or remarks made during stand-up meetings.

[Related: How “pre-mortems” made a difference for one magazine.]

Quickly I came to realize the limitations of the post-mortem approach, especially when pointing out style errors or just creative problem solving that missed the point of the story: If the execution was so bad, why wasn’t it pointed out before publication? This could save the reader from seeing a headline error, clumsy design, or inappropriate photo or illustration. Plus, the designer too often just felt bad, and it was frustrating for me to deliver a tough verdict when it was too late to make a fix. (By contrast, if the design solution was so great, why couldn’t this be pointed out to everyone earlier, maybe send them home from their shift with some praise, and save us from repeating the obvious in a meeting the next day?)

The reasons for emphasizing post-mortems were many, but mainly, it was difficult to give valid feedback during production due to insufficient time, planning, communication, or the designer failing to fully grasp the story in question. “I didn’t see the story until the very last minute” was a common lament.

In other words, inefficient newsroom culture and workflow, and lack of discipline, were to blame. While we began to tackle all those things, I realized we needed to switch up how we did critiques. I landed on the concept of “pre-mortem,” delivering feedback while a page design was still in progress. As a newsroom manager, I realized I had to set out to create cultural change first. Among the things we tackled:

Deadlines: We had deadlines for when a page had to be released to the printer, but other deadlines, which could have helped with the production and review process, were missing or unclear. We created a deadline schedule, setting times for the following tasks to be completed in the production process. This applied mainly to cover stories, feature designs and special projects, obviously, not every inside or partial page:

  1. when a story idea had to be presented (at least 1-2 paragraphs describing the main direction of the story); this was usually one week before production day.
  2. when a rough draft of the story had to be submitted to the editor and designer; 1-2 days in advance of production day.
  3. when the final text of the story, and primary visuals, were due; this was often the day before production day, or when the designer needed to sit down and create the page.
  4. when the draft of the layout had to be presented for “pre-mortem” review (the page should be at least 70-80% finished, with main ingredients, including lead visual and accurate headline, in place); this was usually 4-8 hours in advance of the release of the page, sometimes earlier for a special project.

Newsroom roles: It wasn’t always clear who could decide the art direction of a page. Was it the copy editor, who was often the designer? The art director of the department or of the newspaper? Illustrator or photographer? Or the section editor? There was lots of overlap of “turf,” but we worked through it. We set up a “point person” to convene at least an informal conversation about the main story of the day with his or her colleagues, and arrive at a consensus of where to take the visuals. Where there was serious disagreement or 2 or more competing strong ideas, I as the design director was sometimes asked to chime in.

Expectations: For many of the designers, having someone review their work in advance of publication was a new thing, a little awkward at first. Some were uncomfortable sharing pages that were still “in the works.” So we acknowledged that this was a new way of doing things, perhaps even contrary to what they expected when they took on the role, and asked them to view it as a positive thing for their work, for the paper, and most important, for the readers.

To pave the way for a pre-mortem culture, we had lunchtime conversations where we shared examples of pages that “fell short” or were missed opportunities (I prefer this language over “pages that sucked”) and articulated how they could have been better with more of an open process of review during production. We actively sought suggestions for making the process better. (A big request: “Make editors enforce deadlines!” So up the chain of command we went to the managing editor, to seek his help making this happen.) I made it clear that I did not have time to monitor basic style mistakes, and everyone needed to learn the Design Style Guide – we learned that some departments had no clearly embraced design styles, so we had to establish those. The focus of pre-mortem critiques would be the content of the visuals and text, including headlines, and the design fundamentals: the use of color, type, and white space, where the designer had some leeway to choose that.

Some designers lamented that seeking feedback, making and sharing proofs of designs in progress, and fixing pages would add to their work day. But we soon realized that “pre-mortems” eliminated the lengthy meetings we were having after publication to review what worked and what did not; instead, those meetings changed focus, to address only stories that were still in the works. Everyone viewed this as a win-win situation.

Sometimes “post-mortems” are a necessary evil – breaking news happens late at night and a manager isn’t there to review the work. Or, I’m asked to visit a college campus, and it makes more sense to review a collection of pages already printed. (See Part 2 of this blog post, where Bonita Burton of The Villages Daily Sun shares at length how her newsroom thrives with a variety of “post-mortem” feedback mechanisms. She talks about a great pre-mortem tool as well.)

I’ve taken the gospel of “pre-mortems” around the world, in newsrooms where I have created redesigns or where I have been invited to do training. In every instance, there is agreement that more feedback before publication is desirable, but the same newsroom cultural challenges prevent it from happening – lack of deadlines, unclear turf, etc. We gather with management to agree that change needs to be a priority, we review the three cultural factors above, for starters, and move forward. It always takes a mandate from the top editor that feedback before publication is necessary, and will make the publication better.

All this serves as a good example of how the art of leadership (of people) and management (of time, roles, deliverables) is married directly to the art of news design.

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Do you have experience you’d like to share, good or bad, with pre- or post-mortem critiques? Have another solution that has worked for you, that doesn’t fall into either category? Email me about it for a future blog post, at ronreason@gmail.com.

Of related interest:

 

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