Telling Your Boss “No”

Matt Waite says just because you can make it doesn’t mean you should

Two of the most common questions in a newsroom are “Can We?” and “Should We?” They go hand in hand, and there’s a vast difference between them.

A lot of times technology makes the Can We question almost silly: of course we can. The Should We question isn’t as easy. And if you’re new to a newsroom or not in a senior position, it’s going to cause conflict.

Here’s the scenario in a news organization. You’re working with an editor. The editor’s job can be pretty easily summed up like this: Get good stuff on the thing. What is stuff? Depends on the news organization. What is the thing? Same.

That means any good editor is going to push reporters and devs to get the best stuff on the thing. They’ll ask provocative questions, they’ll slash things you were excited about, they’ll make you go back for more. It’s infuriating, exhausting, rewarding, and more often than not worth it.

Half the time, those provocative questions are just that—provoking you to think, to stretch, to open your mind. Does that editor, who probably isn’t very tech savvy, actually expect you to do what it is they’re asking, like build that feature they just spouted off the top of their head? Not always.

As journalism and technology merge, more editors are working on news applications and data visualizations. And that means more than just reporters are getting the same treatment.

As a reporter, I’ve been through more edits than I care to remember. And as a developer, I’ve seen what happens when editors ask provocative questions to technologists who’ve never experienced a spitballing bender like editors are prone to go on from time to time.

When the thing the editor wants is technically just a matter of coding it up, it’s easy to just say “Yes, we can make that happen.” But just because you could get that feature online in a matter of hours doesn’t always mean you should just do it.

Here’s an example from my own work. Throughout the development of PolitiFact.com, the single most requested feature is “Who lies more?” Do Republicans lie more than Democrats? Does Barack Obama lie more than John Boehner?

Readers ask for this all the time. There’s a constant stream of this. There’s even a constant trickle of studies claiming to show that PolitiFact data shows politician A lies more than politician B (or, in the case of partisan think-tanks, PolitiFact is hopelessly biased against A in favor of B).

More than a few times, Tampa Bay Times editors doing their jobs have asked what it would take to make this. Are readers right? Should we? Could we?

One answer, from the point of view of the developer: Could we? Sure. It’s trivially simple. We already code each speaker by political party. This is beginner level query stuff. This page could be up and online in an hour.

The real answer? Absolutely not. Building this feature would be a terrible idea. First, PolitiFact is not a valid sampling of everything every politician is saying. It’s PolitiFact editors and reporters picking and choosing newsworthy statements that, one, can be fact-checked and, two, might cause someone to wonder if it’s true or not. So the data won’t tell you who lies more. And, because of that, any answer the site would provide would do nothing but damage the credibility of the whole enterprise.

In thinking about this, I called Bill Adair, now a professor at Duke University, who started PolitiFact and ran the site day-to-day from its birth in 2007 until this summer.

Neither of us could remember a Times editor ever seriously pushing this who-lies-more idea, but we can remember them asking several times, the way editors do. Every time our answer was the same: No, no, no.

That’s an uncomfortable place to be for most people. It’s also critical that you are able to say no when no is the right answer. So to help you out in those situations, here are the five things you need to prepare for when you need to tell your boss no.

Be Right

Sounds stupid, but if you’re going to take a stand, you have to be right. And not think you’re right—be right. Totally, objectively, without question right.

How do you know if you’re right?

In our case, we had social science to fall back on. Editors who are accustomed to reading about political polls can understand issues of sampling. The math, in our case, just didn’t work. Does it in yours? Is there another academic flaw in their plan you can point to? Use it.

Another way to know if you’re right, or if there’s a right answer and a wrong answer, is to think about the consequences. Project out what would happen if you did this thing the editor is asking you to do. Most of the time, the consequences are opportunity cost—if I spend time doing this, I can’t spend time doing that (more on this in a minute). But sometimes the cost is something else: we look bad, we lose readers, we lose customers, we hurt our credibility.

It’s absolutely critical to be able to clearly articulate why you are right and the consequences of not agreeing with you.

Make Your Argument Short

In this, as in many things, what’s the most effective way to tell your boss no? Keep it short. If you can’t articulate your argument in a few sentences, you haven’t thought it through, and you won’t be convincing enough.

Editors are busy. Most have serious attention span problems. A long, multi-part argument is not what they are looking for.

And, most of the time, their questions are just to provoke you, to get you to push yourself in your thinking and your skills. They don’t want a term paper from you. Make your argument. If it’s a good one, they’ll say okay and that’s it. Case closed. But don’t interpret a provocative question as a request for a thesis defense. A couple of sentences will do.

Have Friends

If you’re worried about how this is going to go, then get some people on your side. Test your argument out on the rest of the team. Do they get it? Do they see your point?

And, more to the point, will they back you up?

The reason the “who lies more” discussion never went very far is partly because no one was very serious, but also partly because everyone on the team agreed with the argument that doing it was a bad idea. It didn’t matter who you asked, you’d get the same answer.

That makes a difference. No boss wants to be the only one advocating for something. So get some allies.

Offer an Alternative

This is Bill Adair’s strategy when he told his bosses no: Instead of your thing, I’m going to do this thing, and this thing is so much better. An alternative means you’re still a team player, and your editor has a way to save face if they’ve barked up a sketchy tree.

When I want to say no to a boss, I need to persuade them that what I’m going to do is more valuable than what it is they want me to do,” Adair said.

And don’t be defensive about it. Editors are trying to get the best stuff on the thing, so the question they’re asking is coming from a good place. Consider the merits of what they’re asking, and if there’s something better, say so.

Know When to Quit

I mean quit the job. It’s not about storming off in a huff. It’s about assessing the situation you’re working in.

This is the hardest one of the five.

If you do a job long enough, you’re going to be left with a task you don’t want to do. Maybe you feel it’s a waste of time or a waste of resources and the only reason you’re doing it is because your boss said so.

Most of the time, that’s all it is. It’s an annoyance. Sigh, do, complain about it over a beer later and move on. It might be a learning experience. I’ve fought against features, lost, built them and watched them get used far more than I ever thought they would. It happens.

The trick is knowing the situation. Is this really something you want to go to war over? Is this something your boss is set on doing? Is arguing about it healthy or hurting? Has this gone from a spirited discussion of ideas to you looking like a petulant ass dragging it out? Or, worse, is this something you’re not willing to let go, and it’s time to walk away from the job?




  • Matt Waite

    Matt Waite is a professor of practice in the College of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and founder of the Drone Journalism Lab. Since he joined the faculty in 2011, he and his students have used drones to report news in six countries on three continents. From 2007-2011, he was a programmer/journalist for the St. Petersburg Times where he developed the Pulitzer Prize-winning website PolitiFact.


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