Change at Work

Leading in Uncertainty: Behind the Scenes of “The Daily”

Reconnecting to your purpose, accentuating the positive, and consciously ending the workday help The Daily’s team perform under pressure

As the producer of “The Daily,” a daily news podcast from the New York Times, Theo Balcomb is no stranger to tight deadlines and working under pressure. During the Change@Work 2020 conference, Balcomb discussed her favorite practices for leading her team, including:

  • Refocus on your purpose. Having a project helps ground the team. It also helps avoid disagreements—everyone knows that any arguments aren’t personal, but rather, because everyone wants to make the product the best it can be.
  • Leave work behind at the end of the day—especially if you’re working from home. Let everyone know when you’re stopping. At “The Daily,” they call this practice “good nighting,” a term they’ve borrowed from broadcasting.
  • Accentuate the positive. Be intentional about making people feel good: the “Joy and Relief Team” is responsible for finding any breathers they can, like contemplative excerpts from literature.
  • Keep it small. To move fast, limit team sizes to four or five people, and designate one person to act as the communications liaison.

Read The Transcript

Kristin:

Thanks, Lucy. Hey Theo. Thanks for making the time to be with us today. I know you’re extremely busy. You’re pushing out multiple episodes per day to bring us The Daily, so really appreciate that.

Theo Balcomb:

I’m thrilled to be here. Good morning, everybody.

Kristin:

So before we dig in, I thought we could just do a couple of get to know you questions. So if you don’t mind telling us, what’s your hand washing song these days?

Theo Balcomb:

Well, today it was actually happy birthday to my mom because it’s her birthday today.

Kristin:

Happy birthday to Theo’s mom.

Theo Balcomb:

Yeah, yeah, exactly. Exactly.

Kristin:

That’s great.

Theo Balcomb:

So we get a lot of excuses to celebrate her today.

Kristin:

Great. And then what’s been one of your most exciting or one of your favorite episodes from The Daily that you’ve made?

Theo Balcomb:

So I have a ton of these, but I think the one that’s particularly coming up for me recently is an episode that we did where our publisher, AG Sulzberger, went to the Oval Office to talk to President Trump. And it was this moment where he went in with our White House reporters, who asked the president lots of reporting questions as they normally would. But then when he had a chance to talk to the president, talk to him about press freedom and the importance of not calling us the enemy of the people. And we played that tape on our show and I just thought it was something that only The Daily could do and was a really important public service.

Kristin:

Absolutely. So you’re obviously in the world of journalism, have been in that for a while with a lot of awards and accolades, and your job is really to work in and through ambiguity, finding the facts, sharing the truth. And even without a global pandemic, there’s already a lot of urgency and uncertainty that you’re working through. So how do you ground yourself and how are you grounding yourself now?

Theo Balcomb:

Yeah, so I think that the work of daily journalism is, as you said, kind of always nonstop. But now even more so because the story is not just our work, but it’s also our lives. I have a similar ethos to what Bud was talking about. Having a project is a really good thing. So I think the way that we ground ourselves is that we get the opportunity to put out a new show every day, right? That is both the curse of our job, but also the blessing of it, that we get to come in and tell new stories each day. And that is incredibly powerful, especially now where we’re hearing from so many of our listeners that they’re using our work to share with their friends and family about how serious the situation is that we’re in right now. There’s something about hearing a doctor from Italy tell you “stuff’s bad” that is kind of hard to ignore. And so I think having that kind of purpose is what keeps us grounded.

Kristin:

Absolutely. So this is a somewhat selfish question just because I’m sort of trying to figure out how do I balance being informed and being smart and making smart and safe decisions, but also it’s a lot to take in and process every day. So what are you doing to sort of check out at the end of these each day? What are you telling your teams? How is the team sort of holding each other accountable to say, “okay, we’re done now. Let’s move on.”

Theo Balcomb:

Right. I mean, you all probably understand this better than we ever did because you’re used to working really remotely a lot of the time and internationally as I know a lot of people on the call are. But it’s actually been really useful for us to have a bunch of check out points in ways that we just don’t when we’re in the office together. Because we can just linger and keep working on projects forever and ever. And so we’re able to set up a system where at the end of the day we have a check-in. We say, “where are we on all the stories that we’re working on? Where are we on tomorrow’s show?” And then I just actively say “we’re done.” If you’re not continuing to work on tomorrow’s show or you have something pressing, then we’re out. And there’s actually a term that I use with our team that comes from the world of broadcast. If anybody has worked in broadcast TV or radio, which I love, where when you’re on the line, you’re doing a live hit, a live interview. When you’re done, the engineer will say to you, “okay, I’m good nighting Kristin.”

Theo Balcomb:

And so I just good night myself, or I good night my team, and then we’re good nighted. And it’s really useful because you just, you don’t need to explain yourself. You don’t need to say anything else. You just say, “I’m good night.”

Kristin:

Right, having that quick lexicon, that one word to say, we both know what this means and we can go on our way now. Really like that. Well, I’ll be adopting that with the NOBL team as well.

Theo Balcomb:

Yes. You need to feel free to good night yourself.

Kristin:

I like that. Everyone, just as a repeat, the executive producer of The Daily tells us we should all good night ourselves.

Theo Balcomb:

Yes.

Kristin:

So tell us a little bit more, last week you made a pretty big shift to working remotely that you just mentioned and you’ve done a great job at documenting that. If you haven’t seen it already, check it out. It has pictures of everyone, how they’re setting up, as well as a really detailed account of what it was like to go remote. So for folks who are tuning in later, that’s something to definitely check out. So how was that decision made and what was that change like? Because it happened really fast.

Theo Balcomb:

Yeah, it did. So we had done a couple of stories the week before where we had done a view from Washington state and then kind of a check in with one of our science reporters who’s covered multiple pandemics. And then the stock market started to fall, and we came back that Monday and realized we were in a new zone. And we had put out an episode that Monday that was not related to the virus. And so we came in and we said, “we need to do more coverage about this starting now.”

Theo Balcomb:

And so we put out an afternoon show, we have a companion show called The Latest, which comes out intermittently, and we just decided, okay, we have to talk about the stock market on The Latest today. And then we were basically in all corona coverage starting from there. And that was driven really by our own questions and need to understand what was happening. We just, we came in each day thinking, “okay, maybe tomorrow we’ll feel like we’ve covered it and we can move to a different topic for a day.” But each day we realized we have way more questions and much more stuff to cover than we have yet to do. And we were also getting incredible feedback from listeners, saying “we have more questions, please keep reporting on this. We need more of this.” So our desire to do it, the listener desire to do it, it all kind of fed into each other.

Kristin:

Yeah. And tell us a little bit more about how those questions have changed over time. Like what were some of the questions before you made that shift and things got really intense, and then what it’s like now.

Theo Balcomb:

Yeah. So we get a bunch of emails from listeners, and we actually started soliciting voicemails from them too. And at the beginning of the pandemic, it was really around “should I go to my friend’s wedding” or “should I still have my kid’s birthday party?” And then it’s really changed now to like, “how do I tell my elderly parent that they can’t go out because I’m worried about their safety?” The shift in tone has really been from, I had this small kind of annoying thing that’s happening to me. How can you help me? To now, like, I’m worried about the safety of my loved ones.

Theo Balcomb:

And so that’s helped us shift our coverage too, right? To go from something that’s a little more like Q&A to what’s going on in China to now something that is all really affecting us here in the U.S., and it’s gotten much more serious.

Kristin:

Yeah. So I have one more question, which means we’d like to start soliciting questions from our attendees afterwards. So if you’ve got some questions for Theo, start hitting them up in the chat box and then I’ll field those to her. Okay. So how are you keeping the culture of The Daily team alive? What’s making you guys lighter? How are you making sure you’re having that human connection still?

Theo Balcomb:

Yeah, so one of the things that was really important to us as we went through last week, thinking about how every single day we were realizing we’re covering this really intensely, we also as producers started to realize we need a little bit of a breather. Breathe with the donut, right? We need to do that for each other, okay? And so much of the decisions around how we make our show are really driven by our team and how we’re feeling and questions that we have and the release that we need and what we want to be hearing. And so we realized we needed a little bit of a respite. And so I spun up this team that I called the joy and relief team, which is now responsible for finding any pockets of breathers that we can. And so we decided to put out an episode last Friday where we heard from reporters and actually the head of our newsroom, Dean Baquet, read some sort of contemplative excerpts from literature that they’ve been holding onto.

Theo Balcomb:

And we just loved making it, we loved sharing it. And the reaction that we’ve gotten from listeners has been huge. And then we were able to put out another episode on Sunday as a little bit of a breath where we read from an article that our reporter had written, a profile of Tom Hanks. And it just makes you feel good. And so I think that’s what we’re looking for. In the midst of obviously keeping everybody informed, how can we help people still feel good? And Taking those opportunities.

Kristin:

That’s incredible. I can feel it and see it, even from being far away, just how meaningful that is. And I think everyone can, everyone on this conference right now can can feel that as well. Thank you so much for sharing that. I think a lot of people will be inspired to find out ways of figuring out how they could apply that to their world.

Kristin:

So I’m going to move over to questions because we’ve got a lot of questions going on.

Theo Balcomb:

Great. Okay.

Kristin:

So Hey Theo, I’m interested to know how do you and the team manage disagreements among yourselves? You work amongst so much ambiguity. I imagine things could get heated but you have to hit a deadline and deliver. Any techniques, methods to manage disagreements in a heated collaboration environment? That’s from Pete. Thanks Pete.

Theo Balcomb:

Yes. Good question, Pete. We do have a lot of disagreements. I would say that the way that we handle that, first and foremost high level, is we have disagreements because we all want the product to be so good, right? We just want the story to be so good. We all care so deeply about the work, as I’m sure you all in your companies do, but we are a particularly emotional team because we just, we love telling stories and we love our show and we love our listeners.

Theo Balcomb:

And so that’s really where the disagreements come from, which I think helps, right? The disagreements are rarely like “I’m mad at Kristin, so I’m going to cut her down,” right? It’s more like, I just really want this section to stay in the story and please don’t cut it, please, please, please. So I think that helps when you’re having disagreements about stuff, when you’re still focused on the task at hand, right? You’re focused on making the product good. So with that baseline, the way that we generally decide things is we go through many edits and many drafts. So if you are really pulling for your thing to stay in that draft, you may try to keep it in for a few drafts, and by the end of listen three or four, you might start to realize for yourself, you know what, actually this can go.

Theo Balcomb:

So I think we try to make things work, and then we try to help people see why it’s not working, without just cutting it down immediately.

Kristin:

For sure. And I love, basically what you shared is this, everyone’s assuming positive intent, right? Everyone understands that everyone has this desire to make the product better. Love that. From Jessica, how do you prioritize content/stories, and how does your team stay agile and fast moving? Looking for specifics if possible. Team size, war room, off topic stories. Thank you.

Theo Balcomb:

Yeah. Okay. So I guess I can talk the first part about how we move quickly. We have a team of about 30 people, and what I have learned over the last week in particular is that we have to keep the team as tight as possible. So if you’re working on the next day’s show, typically we might have five, six, eight, 10 people working on that thing.

Theo Balcomb:

We have to really tighten it up. So what I’ve done is I’ve taken teams that would normally be that size and bring them down to four or five and then delegate one person who is the communications person who is organizing the team. And I don’t have to be in that small team, but I need that communications person to tell me what’s going on. So that way, I’m not in everything and people don’t have to communicate everything to me. But just one person is my liaison. So that’s one thing in terms of efficiency. When it comes to topics, the way that we work is we have a big morning meeting where everybody can be tossing out ideas. The way that we’ve structured that in new work from home days is we have a channel on Slack, where you just are raising your hand or putting in your idea or plus oneing like in the chat we’re doing here on Zoom.

Theo Balcomb:

So that helps a bunch, so that people aren’t just talking over each other or they feel like they can’t get in. And then basically myself and then a couple of other editors are the war room, I guess, to your analogy, just making the final call at the end of the meeting, saying “this is what we’re doing and this is who’s going to tackle it.”

Kristin:

Got it. Thanks, Theo. Well, we are actually at the end of our time. I know there have been a ton more questions. Thank you so much to everyone who contributed those questions. We do have to keep our day moving. So Theo, I’m actually going to let you do your thing and good night me, and then Lucy will come back on and we’ll go to the next speaker. Thank you so much for your time, Theo.

Theo Balcomb:

Thank you Kristin. Yeah, thanks everybody.

Published March 30, 2020

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