A focus on forward planning — and how it’s impacted The Times news desk
A new forward planning position at The Times has made a strong start in allowing the news desk to think about more than just the next deadline.
Anyone sitting at the heart of a publication will tell you that news desks are busy places. You are taking pitches and commissioning reporters, fielding calls from PRs, while keeping an eye on the wires for any breaking news. As a team you are frantically working towards getting the perfect product off to the printers every evening (and in our case, publishing digital updates at three set times throughout the day). As a result, thinking any further than today’s deadlines can be the last thing on your to-do list.
But in today’s digital environment, forward planning is more necessary than ever. It’s not just the paper we have to worry about — many of our readers now come to us via search or social, and many use the mobile app. The Times has to be strong across all of these digital mediums if we want to keep attracting subscribers in a competitive landscape. It’s vital that big diary events, which can be anything from local elections to the arrival of a new royal baby, are flagged well in advance. It means that the right digital teams can get involved at the earliest possible stage, and create a package that works online as well as for the paper.
While this might seem obvious, forward planning used to be treated as an add-on to already busy news desk roles, rather than a role in itself. This meant it often fell by the wayside. The inevitable result was that big events were far more likely to sneak up on us, leading to the frustration that with extra time, we could have put together a stronger package — with a shiny distribution and promotion plan to boot.
So my role as forward planner was introduced. Originally at The Times and The Sunday Times as an SEO journalist (which also involves a large degree of planning for big events), I was placed on the news desk for a six-month stint. While a big part of the job is planning the home news print pages in advance, the hope was that having a “digital bod” embedded in a print-focused team could encourage more digital-first thinking, whereby other members start to envision how a news story might work online before looking at the paper.
Nearly six months on, the forward planning role has led to multiple changes:
1) Stronger digital execution
There have been a raft of quizzes, interactives and community pieces created around diary events. One of the biggest successes was a piece on Nasa’s Insight mission to Mars, which attracted around ten times the average number of unique visits. As it was flagged well in advance, it provided everything that a reader might want: a video, graphic and interactive graphs, with a lively debate taking place in the comments. Other notable pieces include a Community article focusing on our readers’ experiences meeting Prince Charles (in celebration of the prince’s 70th birthday), and an intricate graph made by the Interactive team on the 2019 Oscars and Baftas. The strength of the digital execution showed us that having advance knowledge of big diary events allows us to prepare accordingly and produce a better digital offering. Simply put: the more notice we have, the more cool stuff we can create.
2) Centralising knowledge (knowledge is power, after all)
When I first started this role, I created a central diary — a beast of an Excel document recording anything that might be happening on any given day. Shared among the digital team as well as the news desk, it has become an important resource for everyone. The Interactive team’s own diary is based around it, with one of their journalists checking the doc on a weekly basis to see what’s been added. Then they choose which events are worth investigating, and approach reporters with their own ideas. The document is also used by other areas of the digital team, including our Community and SEO teams, who have become more aware of what’s around the corner and are better able to plan articles or social strategies accordingly. The next step is to get the reporters to take note of the doc, and feed into it themselves — leading to less manual work and freeing me up to do more creative projects.
3) Getting rid of siloes
As a publication that has to finely balance print and digital, one direct outcome of the new role is the bridge built between the two teams. Having someone approachable on a busy news desk can make a real difference. Instead of bothering a busy news editor, the digital team can check in with someone they know first to be sure they’re approaching the right person.
4) Streamlining social
In addition to keeping an eye on the diary, the news desk was also keen for the forward planner to keep track of emerging social stories. Once I got to grips with what makes a Times article, the number of pieces that were picked up through Twitter, Facebook and Instagram increased exponentially. This knowledge is now also being passed on to the rest of the social team, which will lead to more successful pitches in future. An update with potential leads is shared with the news editor twice a day.
Overall, it’s clear that the planning has resulted in stronger story execution. That’s not to say that improvements can’t be made: instead of doing “digital add-ons” like Q&As, timelines and analyses that won’t make it into the paper, The Times is focusing on bigger projects that take much longer to create but also add more value (and lead to more subscriptions). However, the forward planning position has made a strong start so far in allowing the desk to think about more than just the next deadline.