Government Shutdown; Or Why News Teams Need Slack

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past nine days, you know that the federal government is shut down. There are a million stories about why it’s shut down, what exactly is affected, and how Congress is going to get themselves out of this mess.

This is not one of those stories.

This is a story about why a news team needs slack, which can also be described as people sometimes doing nothing, which is why managers don’t like slack. There’s no such thing as an average day in the newsroom, but most news managers try to keep their staffing at a level where, on a regular day, everyone is pretty busy, but there is some slack in the system. There is a person who can take on an additional task, such as a quick breaking news story or one added event to cover.

Slack is relative. Large teams often have more slack, while small teams by nature have less. A team with 10 people working Monday-Friday can often find at least one person to volunteer to come in for a weekend shift or work a late night once in a while. This works best when every member of the team is equally inclined to volunteer, since each member then knows they only have to do it once in a while.

A team with four members will have less slack than this team of 10 and will need a good manager to determine what is possible, but with enough slack built into the system (i.e. not using your team of four members to do the work of six or more), the team can still be flexible and dynamic.

Where this system falls apart, however, is when that one-time added event or breaking news event becomes two solid weeks of breaking news with no end in sight.

Enter the government shutdown.

While many people in D.C. are staying home, wondering if they will be getting a paycheck next week, my team and I have been busier than ever. We have been trying to cover breaking news 16 hours a day, 7 days a week with a staff of four for two weeks. My best prediction is this will last through next week, when we will be trying to cover the same number of hours and stories with just three people on all but one day, and potentially into the following week, where we will be covering the same hours with three people all week.

Because of the sheer number of hours in the day divided by the fact that we each work 8-hour shifts, you can see that there is very little overlap. Add in a few meetings or technical problems (such as, say, a streaming video issue), and you see a team stretched very thin. At some point, something has to give.

Or else you end up with people who are burned out, frustrated with each other and the management, and just generally feeling taken advantage of.

Because the hiring process takes weeks (instead of hours, which is about as much warning as we get that we are going to need extra staff), it seems to make more sense to have one too many people than one too few. If there was a perfect number, then this wouldn’t be the news business.

When you are rock climbing slack refers to the amount of loose rope you have. It is the amount of room you have to climb higher before someone needs to give you more slack in the rope. It is also how far you are going to fall if you lose your grip. That is why it is important to have just the right amount of slack so you feel like you can reach higher and cover more rock, while still feeling like you have the support you need to reach and fail.

And finding that balance in your staffing is the key to being able to cover breaking news without sacrificing your staff or the quality of your product.