There are plenty of challenges that mainstream media newsrooms need to overcome if they’re to survive and thrive in the digital world, from mastering new skills to coping with greater competition to meeting increased audience expectations. But their biggest task may be to confront themselves – and their culture.
It’s an axiom of Silicon Valley that you need to “fail fast” to succeed, as Steve Myers points out in a recent post at Poynter. For all of Google’s successes – AdSense, search, Google Docs, Android, etc – the company blows it a third of the time. That’s not all that surprising – and makes a lot of sense when you’re working in an environment that’s constantly evolving. You can’t be wedded to particular ways of doing things, or even have too-firmly set ideas of where you’re going; you need to build small and fast, adapt and iterate in response to feedback, and be willing to kill off projects that just aren’t working. Or, as the Next Web piece notes:
Google is in the business of failure…
But news organizations aren’t – and for good reasons too. They’ve traditionally placed high premiums on not making mistakes. There are exceptions, of course, and you can make a case that newsrooms should be even stricter about getting things right, but in general they aren’t tolerant places when things go wrong. That, too, makes sense, for the business that news organizations are in. After all, if you’re selling high-quality, verified content, you can’t take a cavalier attitude to fact-checking. And it’s not much comfort to someone whose life you’ve ruined by a careless report that you’re figuring out the process and will iterate towards the truth one day.
Still, that don’t-screw-up culture – essential though it is for the critical function of accurately informing audiences – doesn’t serve the goal of quick innovation. Yet it’s baked into every level of newsroom thinking, from reporters to senior editors; it’s built into the workflow and even the CMS. The goal, after all, is to make things run smoothly with as little error as possible, not to encourage experimentation.
(Credit to the Guardian, by the way, which hasn’t been shy to try out new things – including now opening up its story plans to the world. It’s not something I’d do myself, but I’m glad someone is trying it.)
So how do we marry these two cultures, both of which have good reasons to exist? Is it even possible?
Should we build out more skunk works where newsroom innovators can experiment in peace? Should we bring more non-news people into the newsroom for fresh perspectives on how to do things? Nuture a new generation of non-traditional journalists that aren’t wedded to the old ways?
And even then, how do we get those new ideas integrated into the broader newsroom?
Dave Cohn, the founder of the innovative crowdfunding site Spot.us, lays out some thoughts about the “barriers to failure” in newsrooms. Read it, and you’ll recognize every comment he cites; you might have made some of them yourself. I know I have.
We talk a lot about barriers to success. But we also say that we can only succeed on the shoulders of our many failures. Therefore, I’d like to point out what I think are the barriers to failure (and therefore also to success). If we don’t fail early and fail often, we won’t push forward.
Dave is right. But it’s important to note, too, that there are rational reasons for why newsroom traditions evolved the way they did – and even rational reasons for keeping many of them. Even as we tear up the old ways of doing things – and we should – we need to be clear what needs to be kept and what can be experimented on.
It’ll be tricky, even given the best will in the world.
We don’t want to lose the newsroom’s traditional intolerance of errors when it comes to content, even as we build out more iterative ways of correcting and updating information online. After all, that’s one of the main differentiators of professional content – the systems of verification and the standards they uphold. That’s what gives organizations like the New York Times their brand value. Yet that needs to coexist with a real willingness to tear pretty much everything else up, from the form of stories to the relationship with the audience to business models.
Managing that split personality will be one of journalism’s big challenges.