Late in the documentary “Page One: Inside the New York Times” — the SPJ Virginia Pro chapter held a viewing Saturday night at the University of Richmond — Times reporter David Carr tells a room of journalists in Minnesota something like (the quote may not be exact because I’m going from memory): “Don’t think about all the people who are gone. Think about the fact that you are still here.” It’s partly encouragement, partly a warning not to succumb to survivor’s guilt. It can also be taken — whether or not Carr specifically meant it that way — as an instruction to newsroom leaders: If you spend all your time thinking about the beats your news organization used to cover and all the bureaus everyone used to have but doesn’t anymore, you’ll paralyze yourself. You can’t stretch your current resources to make up for what has been lost and will never return. You have to think about what you have and what you need to do to best achieve your newsroom’s goals. Change the entire beat structure if that’s what it takes to get people to stop thinking of how things used to be done.
Back in the mid-’90s when I was an assistant state editor (a job that no longer exists at that paper), there was a reporter we had who was covering a county by herself against daily competition from three other papers. She seemed overwhelmed and was turning in briefs that were a day behind the competition, and she was not getting many stories because she was always trying to catch up. I and another editor (in hindsight, it was overkill to have two of us do this) pulled her aside one day and told her she needed to choose her battles. She couldn’t, all by herself, outreport all of her competition, so she needed to set her own agenda, pick what she thought was important, and if she got beat on something, well, evaluate how important that is on a case-by-case basis. We made her cry, which was not the goal, but she changed her approach, found her footing and became the reporter we all believed she could be. The situation currently facing newsrooms is not very different: You can’t do everything you want to do, so choose your battles.