Friday, October 19, 2007

Good enough

I have opined on here before about the shift to "good enough" as a standard in the industry, a misreading of what the American Press Institute's Newspaper Next study actually says. I decided to put some more extensive thoughts on paper for this month's Common Sense Journalism column that goes out to press associations and others around the country. Here it is:

CSJ for October 2007
"You can have perfection, or you can have a newspaper," the saying goes, "but you can't have a perfect newspaper."

That old saw recognizes that with the crush of deadlines, the intransigence of some sources and the vagaries of news in general, most times we strive for perfection but know we're settling for "good enough."

Lately, though, "good enough" has taken on a new tone that gives me pause.

Before, when we strove for excellence, "good enough" meant getting as close as possible.

But in conversations with some newsroom managers and at a journalism educators' conference recently, I kept hearing the term in an unsettling new tone, one that leads me to think "good enough" is seen by some as the new standard to meet, a sort of silver bullet to make the ills go away.

The American Press Association's "Newspaper Next" report, now a year old, brought "good enough" to the front of mind for many journalists. It builds on the work of Clayton Christensen, a Harvard business school professor and consultant, who has studied disruptive innovation.

Christensen says too many companies get into a product-improvement cycle that seeks perfection beyond most customers' needs, allowing disruptors to come in with "good enough" solutions. API is trying to get news organizations to break from the mold of requiring that everything be perfect before trying something new – in other words, take some risks by starting with "good enough" and then tweaking as needed. That's a good thing.

But as so often happens – and despite API's repeated warnings – I also see distortions, like the editor who, when asked about the problems of errors online, said it was all right to get it "just good enough" and come back later and fix it – if there was time.

And then there are the times I sit through presentations touting this site or that as showing off newsroom innovation, and I ask myself, "Where's the news?"

There are the hyperlocal sites that don't have a link to the parent newsroom's "top stories." Or the entertainment sites that seem to be running as far away from the main brand as possible (yeah, news isn't "hip"; but maybe the point is to ditch another process story and add one about the lack of concert venues or about unsafe clubs in your town). Or the "mommy" sites that don't point users to all those good stories probably in the newspaper's archive about bringing up Johnnie and Jamie.

Serendipity and helping people connect to a wider web of stories and information is core to our function in a democracy. Getting it right or getting it corrected quickly is our duty. "Good enough" is not good enough.

Perhaps there is a bit of "owner's remorse" here. For years, I have written and spoken about the need for news organizations to diversify, try new things, get out and meet their audiences where those audiences are. But always the idea was that we would keep our connection to "the news," however tenuous, as part of the bargain for our democratic role. Maybe the solution is context-based software, like Google's Ad-Sense, that will patrol the archives and current stories and display links to those similar to what we are reading.

Newspaper Next warns thinking that "good enough" is some kind of silver bullet. We've seen that kind of thinking before. For instance, some editors scurried off muttering how more narrative writing was going to fix things while waving a Readership Institute report.

But if applied unthinkingly, it won't, as reader Joseph Carducci of Pittsburgh pointed out in a recent letter to the Washington Post complaining that too many stories "are often written in the meandering style of William Faulkner."

If the headline reads, "Bridge Set to Close Down for Repairs" the story might begin with: "Bob Wilson gazed down at his empty coffee cup and listened to the patter of rain falling gently against his window pane."

Then, after reading about two paragraphs of fluff like this, the reader is told to "See BRIDGE, C21, Col. 1" to learn when the bridge will be closed. We clearly need a newspaper digest that will get to the point more quickly.

But than again, at least he's reading it.

And if "good enough" is the new standard, does the old saying become: "You can have a newspaper or you can have 'good enough.' But you can't have a 'good enough' newspaper."

Now there's a double-entendre to make any headline writer cringe.

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At 10/20/07, 3:37 AM, Anonymous Elaine Clisham, American Press Institute said...

You write:

"Christensen says too many companies get into a product-improvement cycle that seeks perfection beyond most customers' needs, allowing disruptors to come in with 'good enough' solutions. API is trying to get news organizations to break from the mold of requiring that everything be perfect before trying something new – in other words, take some risks by starting with "
'good enough' and then tweaking as needed."

Thanks for the shout-out, and you're entirely right about the first part -- the natural tendency of legacy industries is to overshoot customer needs in an effort to satisfy the most demanding (and usually the most profitable) customers.

And you're right that one definition of "good enough" means going to market with something simple and developing it based on customer feedback.

But "good enough" also means the final product satisfies, rather than overshoots, customer needs, and those needs vary widely from product to product. If we make a product more complex, more expensive, more difficult to use, more difficult to acquire, etc., than customers want, then we set ourselves up for disruptors to come in and take our market away from underneath us. This second idea of "good enough" is that the customer thinks it's great.

What does this mean for newspapers? There will always be a place for the traditional, perfectionist journalism we do, and Newspaper Next stresses that this core function needs to be fostered and protected -- hence the push to develop a portfolio of profitable new products. But the various information jobs to be done for consumers demand a wide variety of solutions, not all of them as comprehensive and thorough as a newspaper; the key in developing those products is to strive to meet (not exceed) customer demand, not our preconceived standards.

This is a very different definition from the concept of getting a basic prototype out in the market quickly, and it's the definition most newspaper journalists have trouble with. It's been very difficult to reassure our industry that quality standards can and should be different for different products. (Example: quality standards in a Toyota Corolla are different than in a Toyota Avalon, but they're both Toyotas and they're both crafted well. They're just designed to do different jobs.)

Please see Some thoughts about 'good enough' for a more complete explanation of this second meaning of Christensen's term "good enough."

At 10/21/07, 10:50 AM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...

Yes, but my point is the bastardization of "good enough" into an excuse across the board as the new standard -- and I am seeing that in conversations with too many people in the industry.

Further, and I challenged Steve Buttry on this, too often these other products seem to be running away from the core brand and mission -- which is supposed to be to give us some connection back to the wider tools needed for democracy. So when I go to sites like Indy Paws or Indy Moms, for instance, on one hand I like what I see, but on the other I am troubled by what are somewhat insular communities.

When I call up a day care post, for instance, why, perhaps, isn't there a box suggesting two or three recent stories in the Indy Star related to the topic? That broadens the conversation, provides the serendipity and suggests that maybe we understand that part of the "vision" was not just to create a portfolio of commercially viable products, but a portfolio of commercially viable products that also foster democracy.

You may disagree with me -- you may well say that simply bringing a bunch of moms or pet owners together to talk about topics of interest to them is as democratic as it gets. I disagree and say that's only 80 percent of it -- that that's only "good enough" relative to the function of the press planted in the roots of this country. And in the end, that's not good enough.

So I challenge you to not only spread the gospel of "good enough," which I do think is exactly correct in some contexts but not others -- but to put some muscle behind ways to tie the core newsroom and the democratic functions it is supposed to serve to these "portfolio" products -- perhaps in an unobtrusive way, but tied just the same. Perhaps we can start by developing software, similar to Google's Ad Sense, that we can dub "NewsSense" to do this.

Because, you see, we're not just making Toyotas. If we are, then let's drop the pretenses of First Amendment protection, which the Toyotas of the world don't have, admit we are nothing more than a business, stop being duplicitous and go on from there. I have no problem with that. Just do it.


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