Posted by: structureofnews | December 13, 2012

In Praise of Process

Modern TimesWell, if that title doesn’t firmly stamp “bureaucrat” on my forehead, I’m not sure what will.  After all, doesn’t the recent (and excellent) Tow Center report on “Post-Industrial Journalism” say (accurately) that “the presence of process is a bigger obstacle to change than the absence of money”?

Yes.  But.

Legacy process – the way we’re used to doing things, or making people do things – is unquestionably a huge issue for newsrooms and media businesses trying to adapt to a much-changed landscape.  We have to find ways around it, as well as create more flexible newsroom processes that can adjust more easily to changes yet to come.  But finding and fixing on stable processes is also a critical component of how the media fulfills its responsibilities to society – and very likely a key part of how it can make money in the future.

First, a step back.  The Tow report – more accurately, Post-Industrial Journalism: Adapting to the Present, by C.W. Anderson, Emily Bell and Clay Shirky – speaks to the need to come up with a “hackable” workflow.   It says much more than that, of course, and there’s been much written about the report, including here, here and here.  But let’s, for the moment, stick to the need for cultural change in newsrooms and a content management system, or CMS, that can adapt flexibly to different – and newly invented – forms of content. (Full disclosure – the authors talked to me in the course of research, although I can’t say I provided much in the way of deep insights.)

Without that, they note, newsroom culture – processes – are precisely designed to hamper change.

This conundrum isn’t surprising; as we noted in our definition of institutions, the entire purpose of institutional arrangements is actually to ingrain and rationalize standardized patterns of behavior – in other words, to make change hard.

And in stable – and “industrial journalism” – times, that made sense.  Culture helped ensure standards and served to build pride in publications and brands; processes helped make sure the presses ran on time.

But times have changed, and as the report notes, newsrooms now need to be able to experiment much more freely with new ways of working and new types of content; for that, they need an adaptable CMS that doesn’t straightjacket journalists into doing things only in prescribed ways.

That’s absolutely true.  CMSes originally designed to turn out stories once a day – often as free text with some metadata – just aren’t suited for a modern information landscape.  Having a system that could easily adapt to the needs of specific types of stories – a relationship map, ala Muckety, or a murder tracker such as Homicide Watch, say – would let newsrooms experiment much more quickly to see what works and what doesn’t.  And we need more experimentation.

Beyond CMSes, we need mindsets to change, too – to rethink what a story is, how coverage should be planned, what the role of a news organization is, and all that.

But there are also virtues to consistency – of process, of product – that serve readers and finances.

As the report notes, the press plays a role not just as a watchdog over wrongdoing, but also provides a “scarecrow” deterrent simply through regular coverage of specific beats.  That only comes by enforcing a certain type of coverage through a newsroom process.

The watchdog press, it must be admitted, barks only rarely. But the continuity of the press, the fact that it is “out there,” is often enough to constrain bad behavior on the part of powerful institutions.

We think the real institutional function at risk in this case, however, is the scarecrow function.

And that’s not a small thing.  A great investigative journalism unit may uncover an instance of corruption at city hall; but if such reports are few and far between, there might be a lot of other problems going uncovered.  On the other hand, the prospect of a diligent – even if unspectacular – reporter writing about a particular department every week should at least make officials think twice about what they can get away with.

The promise of continuing and sustained coverage isn’t useful just as a deterrent; it also serves users/readers well, because they know they can count on it.  If I know the local news organization will cover schools in depth on a regular basis, rather than splash a big investigation on the education department once a year, I’m more likely to want to follow it regularly.  Both types of reporting are important, but regular beat reporting often gets shorter shrift when it comes to debates over the future of journalism.

And perhaps just as critically, such regular coverage means you can collect information consistently, and that gives you the building blocks for data businesses that can scale. Homicide Watch works because it covers every murder in DC, not just the ones it thinks are newsworthy; Politifact tracks a large pool of political statements regularly, rather than do a big roundup of fact-checking whenever it’s in vogue.

But all this requires a process.  And a relatively stable one.  We can’t get that kind of coverage without a system for making sure reporters show up each day, or have them collect a standard set of data in every story. In fact, you need a CMS built around that process.  It doesn’t work if your newsroom decides one week to cover school standards and health violations at restaurants the next.

True, forcing people to do one thing is by definition forcing them not to do something else.  But life is all about choices.  (After all, Homicide Watch, Politifact, Muckety all require their staff to do things a certain way.)

And while experimentation is critical to find new, promising fields that may work well for users, we need to figure out how to focus quickly once we see something that works, so we can turn our efforts into helping it scale.  Indeed, the Tow report points to the need to help new news organizations become more like institutions – which in turn means their settling on practices and processes rather than being flown by the seat of the pants.

“Public” or noncommercial resources (including government and foundation money) should be used primarily to helping organizations institutionalize.

To put it another way, the problem isn’t process per se; it’s process that’s wedded to a product that really no longer exists – a once-a-day “product” built primarily around the story as the basic unit of news.

Rather, the key insight of journalists raised on the rhythms of digital production and programming languages is the understanding that “content” is not used once and then discarded.  Rather, content is endlessly reusable and should be designed for perpetual levels of iteration.

Amen to that, which echoes very much the core themes of structured journalism.  As Ken Doctor notes in a recent smart post on technology-enabled journalism:

We live in an age of way too much.  People want context, not more content.

Well, OK. They want both.  But content without context isn’t very helpful, and structured information can help build the products that can more automatically – more scalably – provide context.  And that should free up journalists to do more original digging. (Not to mention help pay the bills.)

But all that requires us to figure out, and then submit to, some kind of process.  But the good kind.


Responses

  1. [...] Well, if that title doesn’t firmly stamp “bureaucrat” on my forehead, I’m not sure what will.  After all, doesn’t the recent (and excellent) Tow Center report on “Post-Industrial Journalism” say (a…  [...]

  2. [...] See on structureofnews.wordpress.com [...]

  3. [...] Well, if that title doesn’t firmly stamp “bureaucrat” on my forehead, I’m not sure what will.  After all, doesn’t the recent (and excellent) Tow Center report on “Post-Industrial Journalism” say (accurately) that “the presence of process is a…  [...]

  4. [...] The issue of scale is also lurking in the background throughout the recent report from Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism on Post-Industrial Journalism (though it weighs in at an industrial-length 122 pages). Much of the report discusses the need for a new workflow that is more open and responds to the ways in which information is currently assembled and consumed. (For a smarter, Cliff Notes version of this concept, read thepost from my friend and former editor Reg Chua.) [...]

  5. [...] The issue of scale is also lurking in the background throughout the recent report from Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism on Post-Industrial Journalism (though it weighs in at an industrial-length 122 pages). Much of the report discusses the need for a new workflow that is more open and responds to the ways in which information is currently assembled and consumed. (For a smarter, Cliff Notes version of this concept, read the post from my friend and former editor Reg Chua.) [...]

  6. [...] work, most obviously, calls for more systems and process – and that really brings home how data-driven journalism organizations have, in some ways, a [...]


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