Stuck in a Rut? Tackle Newsroom Frustrations With Board Games
Using games to abstract and solve common problems
Ever have one of those days where you’re buried in work, frustrated by all the things you’d like to do but don’t have the budget for, and annoyed that your coworkers aren’t prioritizing the things you need from them—and then along comes breaking news and you have to drop everything?
Yeah, you know the feeling.
For our SRCCON session, we wanted to capture some of these workplace frustrations, but approach solutions in a different way. What if, instead of feeling discouraged and overwhelmed, we developed processes to boil those challenges down to their basic elements—people involved, tasks, obstacles and goals? What if we figured out how to tackle each challenge in a measured way, one step at a time?
And, hey, what if we had some fun doing it?
That’s the challenge we posed to attendees of our session, “Candyland, Catan and Codenames—Oh My! Navigate Roadblocks in Small Newsrooms With Games.” Break down the challenges you and your news organization tackle every day into a game.
There are already some journalism games out there, including “Scoop: The Newspaper Game,” “Deadline” and “Extra! Extra! Read All About It!” Most of these games are for a general audience, of course. The Coral Project has dipped a toe in these waters, too, with their excellent Cards Against Community game.
But our goal was a little different. As journalists at small newspapers—Sara in Iowa, Andrea in Vermont—we know how overwhelming it is to keep up with existing work while trying to create new processes and learn new tools for videos, interactive maps, data reporting, and digital engagement.
Could we approach some of those challenges by putting them into a game, simplifying complex and overwhelming questions with a game board, rules, obstacles, and a goal? That’s what we asked each of our four groups to do. Oh, and they had less than 45 minutes to do it in. Easy, right?
No spoilers, but our participants discovered that finding that balance was tricky—there’s no silver bullet for balancing people, skills, and duties at your news organization.
They also came up with games that were intriguing and creative takes on the challenges, both macro and micro, that we face in our day-to-day newsroom lives.
Earn Skills, Publish Stories
Our first group came up with a card-based game with the goal of informing the public by publishing stories; the more complex the story is, the more points you earn. On each turn, players must balance deciding whether to publish a simple story or draw cards to earn skills like editing, data, design, and FOIA.
Players can consolidate their point-earning by asking others to join their team—or by “going to the management” to force players to join their team.
Group two developed a collaborative game in which players must use blocks of different colors—representing things like resources, time and tools—to build a balanced tower. Players draw cards that determine whether they gain or lose skills, staff or time. At the end of each turn, the group rolls a die to determine what kind of a day it will be. Will the team have to drop everything to cover breaking news? Will a coworker leave and delegate all his or her tasks to other players? Or will the die say it’s a normal day?
If the team is able to build a complete tower, they win. If the unbalanced tower collapses, they lose.
Keep That Budget Balanced
Group three took a macro approach, giving players a calendar board and a set amount of money, subscribers and staff. Players get choices throughout the year—develop a mobile app? Invest staff time in a long-term investigative project? Switch to a new CMS? Create a new podcast? Decisions cost resources—money, subscribers or staff—and outcomes can depend on previous decisions players have made.
Players must not fall to zero on any of the resources, and vie to come out with the most money, subscribers and staff at the end of the year.
Get a Story From Pitch to Progression
Group four created a collaborative newsroom game where all players must see stories through from the beginning pitch to publication. The team draws from a pitch deck of stories, each with a cost and value, and players must collectively decide which ones to produce. Each player has a role with his or her own goals—for example, to publish three engagement stories—and has a certain number of resources to spend on achieving team, personal, or other players’ goals. Players also draw cards each turn that represent hurdles or achievements, which can give the player or the whole group setbacks or advantages.
What We Learned
On the surface, every team went in a totally different direction with goals and game structure. But all four games grappled with common themes.
Every game worked in choice and chance, forces that are often at odds with each other in a newsroom. Breaking news is always going to hit—often when it’s least convenient—and it’ll derail even the best-laid of plans. Our strategies for new projects and experiments have to be flexible enough to fit around an ever-changing story calendar and unpredictable demands on our time.
The limited nature of resources also emerged in every game. Those limited resources might be staff time, money or training for new skills—or maybe (probably) all three. We’re never going to be able to do everything we want to do as perfectly as we want to do it, so we have to be able to step back and prioritize.
The games also negotiated interdependence and communication issues, by setting players up to work toward a common goal or by creating player goals that diverged from the group goal. To put out a paper or to produce a podcast, we need buy-in and teamwork across the organization. Still, depending on job title and responsibilities, your priorities might be totally different than those of the person who sits next to you.
By stepping back to look at the people, tasks, obstacles and goals of our newsrooms, we can see the bigger picture and refocus our attention on what our real priorities are—what we want to get done, beyond those day-to-day tasks. We can do better.
As one of our session participants noted, “Too many newsrooms are focused on getting that day’s activities done and moving on; (just) ‘I need to produce today’s story.’ It’s like pushing the Sisyphean boulder up the hill.”
Maybe all we need is a game night to remind us how to get out of that loop.
Sara Konrad Baranowski is editor of the Iowa Falls Times Citizen. She leads a team of five publishing in print, on the radio and online. A graduate of the journalism school at the University of Iowa, she is also a wife, mother of 7-year-old twins, and a waffle aficionado.