Maestro concept

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The Maestro Concept

The Maestro Concept is a time-management technique in journalism designed to assist a newsroom in creating a project-based, teamwork-intensive approach to quality reporting and presentation of news stories by "thinking like a reader."

The Maestro Concept begins with a “great story idea” that is generated through collaborative idea-group meetings to shape stories before they are written and integrates writing, editing, photography, art and design.[1] The Maestro Concept is not applied to all stories all the time. The concept applies only to those stories that are integrated with photographs, design elements and information graphics. It is a method designed to improve presentation of important stories through teamwork that brings the story to life and results in high impact and high readership.


The Maestro Concept created by Leland “Buck” Ryan, now director of the Citizen Kentucky Project of the Scripps Howard First Amendment Center and tenured associate professor of journalism at the University of Kentucky’s School of Journalism and Telecommunications. Ryan created the concept in the early 1990s when he was an assistant professor at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. The inspiration for the Maestro Concept came from a 1991 Poynter Institute study by Dr. Mario Garcia and Dr. Pegie Stark called “Eyes on the News.” That study followed the eyes of readers (tracked actual eye movements) in three cities and discovered that readers do not read a newspaper as journalists believed. This study[2] and subsequent studies, including online publications, are used in newsrooms and classrooms today as a teaching model.[3] The original study found that good indexing for busy readers is the key to successful publishing.[4]

The Maestro Concept was developed through an “approach to newsroom management, organization and operation that applies W. Edwards Deming's management principles used in manufacturing to the creative process."[5] Striving for quality, in both product and management, is Deming’s focal point. As a statistician, Deming noted that when management focused primarily on costs, that approach over the long run drove up costs and diminished quality. Deming found that a focus by management to increase quality while reducing costs through reduction of waste and rework lowered costs in the long run. Continual improvement of the system, and not by bits and pieces, is integral to Deming's principles.

The Maestro Concept debuted in April 1993 at the American Society of News Editors convention in Baltimore, Maryland. After the debut, a list of 324 newspapers in the United States, in 59 newspaper groups, and more than 50 universities and high schools showed interest in the concept by purchasing a report and video entitled "The Maestro Concept: A New Approach to Writing and Editing for the Newspaper of the Future." The concept's impact covers 48 states and Washington, D.C., and 16 other countries.[6]

A part of the international impact was a maestro workshop conducted in Hanoi for Vietnamese print and online journalists in December 2006 by Buck Ryan.[7]

In June 2010, three Russian journalism organizations invited Ryan to speak on the concept during 12 days of seminars: one was in Barnaul for the Press Development Institute-Siberia, a second in Kirov for the Russian Union of Journalists, and a third in Rostov-on-Don for the Alliance of Independent Regional Publishers of Russia. The director of the Press Development Institute-Siberia in Barnaul wrote that Ryan's "ideas spurred numerous projects that our regional newspapers are eager to carry out as soon as possible.”[8] Then in July, Ryan visited and served as the first journalism professor in residence as he taught two journalism courses in China for three weeks at Shanghai University.[9]

High schools have increasingly used the Maestro Concept to introduce students on how a newsroom operates. The online High School Journalism Initiative has lesson plans devoted to introducing high school students to the concept. One lesson plan titled “conducting the orchestra: how to implement maestro” details how students can be taught to build small teams that are able to motivate, be productive and encourage quality throughout the school year.[10] High schools have reported that since the concept was introduced, students who have never before worked together find that they can coordinate fully reported stories and photos in one day. Besides meeting deadlines, students working together see that their story packages are of higher quality and often have a greater page presence.[11]

"The Maestro Concept" is presented in and is the title of Chapter Eight in the 2001 book, The Editor’s Toolbox, A Reference Guide for Beginners and Professionals. Ryan co-authored the book with Michael O'Donnell.

Concept and quotations[edit]

The Maestro Concept is a time-management technique for story planning and newsroom organization through team collaboration to shape stories early before they are written. The central concept is trying to anticipate readers’ questions about news stories (“think like a reader”) and then answering those questions as quickly as possible through visual aspects with high-visibility points such as photos, headlines, captions and information graphics. It is a management technique to encourage collaboration across news departments and ensure that quality work in a story package comes not from the traditional method of an assembly-line process, but from teamwork and good time-management from all players working on the story.

By connecting the different roles in a newsroom, a Maestro congeals the story planning process and pulls it all together by integrating the separate work done by writers, photographers, graphic designers and editors. These members will meet together in a maestro session and they will coordinate the story line and graphic design layout of how the story will be presented to readers.

"Reinventing the Newsroom" by Carl Sessions Stepp from the American Journalism Review:

  • A guru in this area is Buck Ryan of the University of Kentucky ... His system involves a coordinating editor (the maestro), who convenes writer, copy editor and designer, very early in the process, to discuss story focus, illustration and packaging.
  • "Ryan says that if you allow everyone – from the editor to the library researcher – to contribute, and let the story idea drive the organization of the newsroom, then you break through."[12]

The Maestro Concept:

  1. Idea-group meetings
  2. The importance of coaching writers
  3. The challenges of hurdling newsroom traditions
  4. The maestro session in action
  5. A lesson in critiquing

— The Editor’s Toolbox, A Reference Guide for Beginners and Professionals[13]

1. Idea-group meetings

Generating story ideas is traditionally a job assigned to editors, but with the Maestro Concept an idea-group meeting contains reporters, copy editors, photographers, designers as well as various department editors. Non-traditional attendees such as librarians and office clerks may be included. Therefore, the field of creativity is expanded and allows for a wider breadth of inputs and ideas. Each of these members learns to team up and work across departments to more fully develop stories that engage and answer readers' questions about the story. The editing process has expanded and is no longer the sole province of various editors.

This idea-group is concentric with the inner ring comprising the top editor, section editors, star reporters and the known creative members of that media organization. The next ring will comprise the copy editors, photographers, designers, graphic artists, newsroom librarians and editorial assistants. The next ring extends to the staff members who are not in the newsroom such as circulation, production and the pressroom. The final outer ring reaches readers and reader advisory groups. The advisory groups provide background information and evaluate coverage.

Idea-group meetings are short (15 to 20 minutes) and structured to have three rules: Story ideas can be suggested by anyone for any reason; a person suggesting a story idea will not have to be the one to write it; and there is no critiquing ideas, just listing ideas. Editors and decision-makers will determine the story list later and assign those stories to the best equipped staff.

The frequency of idea-group meetings, whether weekly or monthly, has no set rule. Meetings are held on days when the largest number of staff can attend.

2. The importance of coaching writers

The editor or assistant editor acts as the "maestro" in development of a story and time-management of it after preliminary reporting. Preliminary reporting is complete when reporters know they have a story but are not clear on how best to tell it. A three-part test is applied while brainstorming with the reporter in a “pre-maestro check” to see if the reporter is at a point where he or she can summarize the essence of the story. To identify key reader questions, the editor and reporter complete a 30-word summary of the story, a preliminary headline, an early draft of a lead and then they isolate readers' top questions about that story.

This brainstorming session, or pre-maestro check, is the time where the editor will decide whether to proceed with that story. If the pre-maestro check is successful, then a maestro session will be called to include a photographer, copy editor and page designer.

A good maestro takes lots of notes from all the players during the development of the story package to make sure good ideas do not disappear. Throughout this session, the editor asks questions instead of delivering orders.

3. The challenges of hurdling newsroom traditions

A lot of newsrooms run an assembly line approach to publication production where writers report to an editor to receive their assignments, write their articles, and then the editor creates photo assignments before the stories are ultimately compiled into a publication. Reporters traditionally follow three standard notions in an assembly-line approach to journalism. One, do all reporting before writing. Two, write the story, then discuss it with the editor. Three, don't write a headline, a copy editor will. The Maestro Concept challenges these notions and further challenges editors to be more successful by putting decision-making into the hands of those with the most expertise. For example, a photographer in a maestro session has more expertise about the best photo and does not need a photo assignment if he or she is involved early in the process.

The trick is detaching traditionalists from the journalist mindset and instead thinking and observing like the reader. Readers of a publication are seeing more than just a story. To them, a story is composed of everything on the page: photos, headlines, graphics, captions, and text.[14]

The goal is to identify key reader questions and let them provide the framework for reporting and presentation of the story. Unlike the traditional approach where the answers to those questions lie in the text, answers to the key readers' questions go to high-visibility spots on the page, such as photos, headlines, captions, and sidebar boxes and graphics. If the reader-friendly index is successful, the reader is hooked and reads through the story.

4. The maestro session in action

The maestro session is a 10- to 15-minute teamwork exercise that begins after the “pre-maestro check.” The maestro session is where the key players involved in a story package (i.e. the reporter, the editor, the photographer, the designer) sketch the presentation of the story before the writing is fleshed out. This maestro session is led by the “maestro,” a senior editor or section editor. The key players draft headlines, the layout, arrange for the photo assignments, and establish deadlines and story lengths.

The maestro session itself will then focus on the quality of the story to ensure relevance to the readers. The focus is on quickly answering the top questions on a reader’s mind. Quality is built into the story from the very beginning with teamwork instead of waiting until the end to rely on inspection.

The maestro session has three core components and works consecutively down them, thereby building quality along the way into these news stories. The concept is taught across the world through the use of a story planning form and its process to “think like a reader.”

Think Like A Reader Story Plan.
Maestro concept story plan – think like a reader.
I. The first core component in the process is the “reader’s viewpoint” a.k.a. "think like a reader."
  • First, essential questions that would immediately come to a reader’s mind in the story are asked
(these questions are answered in the high-visibility points on the page).
  • Second, the question is asked, “What is the single most important thing about the story?”
  • And finally, "Is there any way readers can take action in response the story?"
II. The second core component involves picturing the story on the page and its high-visibility
points in the layout, including graphics that will quickly attract a reader’s
attention to the details of the story.
Some of those integrated graphics that quickly tell the story are:
  • Quotation boxes
  • Question-and-answer boxes
  • Sidebar charts
  • Lists
  • Maps
III. The third core component involves pulling all the parts of the team’s work together
(photo, headline, graphics and writing) along with any design elements. This involves a sketch of the story package showing where the key readers' questions are answered on the page.

Getting the whole story: reporting and writing the news by Cheryl K. Gibbs and Tom Warhover:

  • Some newspapers use a group brainstorming strategy called "the maestro concept" to plan stories and visual elements simultaneously. This approach was developed in the early 1990s by journalism professor Leland "Buck" Ryan in collaboration with journalists at the Logansport (Ind.) Pharos-Tribune. Editors, reporters, page designers, photographers and artists meet about individual stories, after enough reporting has been done to get a sense of them. In each story meeting, a person designated as the maestro uses a story planning format to help the group (1) think through questions readers would have about the story, (2) refine the story concept, (3) picture it on the page and (4) identify challenges. In picturing the story on the page, they consider what kinds of photographs and/or informational graphics might be appropriate, what kinds of sidebars or pullouts could be written, and whether series logos or other graphic elements will be needed. In these discussions, the journalists sometimes go so far as to sketch out possible page designs.


5. Lessons in critiquing

The maestro conducts follow ups or “audits” of the story package and asks for improved ideas and the story is fine-tuned.

Each reader question will be revisited to identify where it was answered. The goal is to answer the questions in the “high visibility” positions of the story page: the headlines, photos, information graphics and quotes. These high visibility spots are “hooks” which will pull the reader into the story to read it fully. If say, during this critique tally of five top reader questions, only three of the top readers’ questions are answered in these high visibility positions, that is a 60 percent efficiency rate. The team members will then ascertain why and how 5-out-of-5 questions could be answered. The goal is continuous improvement in identifying readers’ questions and answering them through page design and writing approaches.

The maestro concept respects the ability of journalists and team members to accurately list the top questions that readers would have of a story. Those "Reader’s Viewpoints" would then provide the framework for the reporting, graphics and design layout that successfully tell that story with the highest impact.

Four-graph approach[edit]

The four-graph approach to writing, editing, photography and design is meant to efficiently create an article designed for the reader. The design is partly based on the findings in the "Eyes on the News" study that found readers typically look at photos first, headlines second, captions third, and text fourth. The goal of this approach is to engage the readers by presenting the primary factual information.[citation needed]

The inverted pyramid technique of journalism writing
Inverted pyramid inverted technique of journalism writing
  1. Who? A photo or illustration shows the readers.
  2. What? A headline quickly gives reason to the visual.
  3. When and Where? A caption to further engage readers.
  4. The lead follows and eases the reader into the rest of story, summarizing in an inverted pyramid technique the who-what-when-where of journalism writing.

Frequent mistakes[edit]

Mistakes point out three key areas:

  1. Maestroing can be a big help or a big waste of time, depending on the participants' attention to detail and willingness to follow through on a maestro plan. The maestro needs to be a vigilant shepherd.
  2. Managing change is difficult enough without mistakes that demoralize participants and lead to a loss of confidence in the system.



  1. Fewer rewrites. Writers and editors see less need to rewrite stories because of missing information or organization problems.
  2. Fewer unpublished photos. Photographers and photo editors see less need to reshoot photos, and clearer assignments reduce wasted time and effort.
  3. Cost-cutting. Mileage reimbursement checks dropped to $300 a month from $350 for photographers at the first paper to adopt the maestro concept.
  4. More camaraderie. Teamwork across sections and departments raises the respect for each other's contributions to the paper.
  5. Increase in awards. Typically, results can be seen from one year to the next where maestro sessions become daily events. The opposite also is true: as the number of maestro sessions decline, so do the awards.

— The Editor’s Toolbox: A Reference Guide for Beginners and Professionals

Baylor University Lariot Online student newspaper:

"There is a maestro concept in journalism, like looking at art," Huett said. "You look at stories and story ideas and then create a package."[16]

Kathy Silverberg, Executive Director of the Times Daily:

"The writer should have planned strategy with her editor before making the call. The Maestro concept works." [17]


The maestro plan is a cooperative editing plan to change the way newsrooms work. Not everyone agrees with the changes that are altering newsrooms.

Reinventing the Newsroom:

"They're getting involved in all this hokey bullshit instead of putting out a hard-hitting newspaper," Schwartz contends. "People are getting away from what really moves circulation, and that's news, stories that have gut appeal."[12]

American Copy Editors Society, Board Notes:

"... there’s always going to be turmoil in our industry. If it’s not the maestro concept or pagination, it’s readers’ short attention spans or the Internet. But through it all, we – as individual copy editors and the group ACES – adapt, grow stronger and get better."[18]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Package Planning, Teamwork Can Help Turn Stories into Appealing Packages PDF
  2. ^ Eyes on the News
  3. ^ The Editor's Toolbox: A Reference Guide for Beginners and Professionals – Buck Ryan, Michael J. O'Donnell – Google Books. Google Books. p. 257. Retrieved 2012-03-08. 
  4. ^ good indexing
  5. ^ The Maestro Concept, What is it?
  6. ^ Kentucky School of Journalism Buck Ryan
  7. ^ [1]
  8. ^ Ryan presents Maestro Concept, ‘Citizen Kentucky’ project to Russian journalists, professors
  9. ^ CHROIX, “Hot Off The Press” Business Lexington, Retrieved 2012-05-27
  10. ^ Conducting the “Orchestra:” How to Implement Maestro
  11. ^ The maestro concept
  12. ^ a b "Reinventing the Newsroom – Carl Sessions Stepp". American Journalism Review April 1995. Retrieved 2012-05-07. 
  13. ^ The Editor's Toolbox: A Reference Guide for Beginners and Professionals – Buck Ryan, Michael J. O'Donnell. Google Books. Retrieved 2012-04-12. 
  14. ^ The Editor's Toolbox: A Reference Guide for Beginners and Professionals – Buck Ryan, Michael J. O'Donnell – Google Books. Google Books. p. 246. Retrieved 2012-03-08. 
  15. ^ Getting the whole story: reporting and writing the news – Cheryl Gibbs and Tom Warhover. Google Books. p. 225. Retrieved 2012-05-07. 
  16. ^ "BU journalists earn sweepstakes award – Amy Anthony". The Lariat Online. 1999-04-13. Retrieved 2012-05-07. 
  17. ^ "When can a reporter not identify herself? – Kathy Silverberg". September 1997. Retrieved 2012-05-07. 
  18. ^ "The glamour of it all – Teresa Schmedding". American Copy Editors Society, Board Notes. 2010-11-02. Retrieved 2012-05-07. 

External links[edit]