What’s the most useful thing hanging on your newsroom wall?
If you said the instructions for the coffee-maker, or the menu for the late-night pizza delivery place … okay, it’s hard to argue with that. But somewhere among the top five should be: the organization chart for the college.
In the White House, it’s said that location is power. Physical proximity to the Oval Office tells you who has the president’s ear; distance tells you who doesn’t.
Reading a college’s organization chart can, similarly, tell you what the college values and prioritizes. Let’s check out this one from Virginia’s George Mason University just to see how many story ideas jump off the page:
- Notice that the director of athletics doesn’t answer to a vice president — he reports directly to the president’s chief of staff and then the president, unlike any academic department. What might this say about the president’s level of personal control over and involvement in managing athletics?
- The university has a “vice president for global strategies.” Whoa. That’s a mighty prominent role for international programs — where does this college (and your college) have an overseas footprint, how much does that cost, and what (besides frequent-flyer miles) does the college have to show for it?
- Who’s the one person that — besides the president — reports directly to the college’s governing board? The internal auditor. That’s also an interesting choice — it speaks to the independence of the auditor’s position, and it tells you that’s an influential person who, as a reporter, is worth getting to know.
And so on … you can see how a college’s org chart can be a revealing source of story leads. Importantly, it can help reporters figure out who to call in a deadline pinch — if the source you need is out of town, the person one box directly above or below might have the answer — and who to ask for a sit-down interview. (If you wait for the media-relations person to tell you who’s available for interviews, too often the answer is … the media-relations person.)
Knowing the chain of command helps you better explain the campus decision-making process to your audience. Say the vice president for student life makes a policy that’s controversial. Does the provost have the authority to overrule the V.P. — or must any challenge go straight to the president?
Reporters and editors often ask us: “Where can I go when my freedom-of-information request has been turned down?” The organization chart will tell you. Say you’re frustrated getting the Director of Public Safety to respond to your calls and emails. That person has a boss — and once you know who, then you can start climbing the ladder a rung at a time until you locate someone cooperative. (“Dear Ms. Vice President, on September 21 I faxed the attached letter to the Director of Public Safety requesting public records. The statutory deadline for responding to my request has passed and I have received no response.” Sometimes that’s all it takes to shake loose a logjammed request.)
And finally, that org chart is indispensable for a simple but practical reason: Spelling a campus VIP’s name wrong, or giving her the wrong title, sucks the credibility right out of a story. Take the extra five seconds to look next to the pizza menu, and save yourself a humiliating correction.