Monday, July 28, 2008

Finding time - and backbone - to innovate

I hadn't seen Jay Rosen's video about the progress -- slow progress -- on the Beatblogging project till this pointer from John Zhu.

Zhu brings up a point we are hearing more often as newsrooms cut back: Newsrooms, as they are set up today, are lousy places for innovation because of the incentive system ingrained into their structure -- an industrial mindset that equates stories to widgets and more to better.

But if news is seen as a service, instead of a production line, then there's an entirely different way to look at it -- does the service keep the customer coming back?

To do this, though, requires:
  • Managers' changing their own views of the production of news
  • Changing customers' views of the production of news
  • Changing advertisers' views of the news "box" that holds their ads
  • Changing newsroom culture from manufacturing to service
Consider the "box" managers are in. In the industrial model, we don't just produce widgets, we produce the package to hold them. But through custom and tradition, we -- and our customers (readers and advertisers) -- expect that package (the newspaper or TV broadcast) to be relatively the same size each day. That means it has to be filled, even if we don't have enough quality widgets. (Sure, there is some variation -- consider the massive Sunday edition vs. the skimpy Monday one -- but over time the average package doesn't vary that much.)

Even the biggest industrial companies don't box themselves in that way.

So if we don't have enough quality widgets, we start mixing in inferior ones: maybe a hastily reported story that leaves out important angles our readers are aware of, maybe a hastily written one that leaves them wondering. Pretty soon, managers see they can fill the box with lesser-quality stuff, and it's still full. And you know the rest of that story ...

The Web, of course, removes the box. You put your best stuff out there each day and link to the other good stuff you simply don't have the resources to do well. The real threat actually is not having too little but too much, being overwhelmed. But that, again, may be mitigated by doing what you can and linking to what others are doing better.

This is no apology for newsroom managers; they are going to have to reach down and find the fortitude to buck and change the industrial mentality if they really want to innovate.

But I'm afraid the "we don't have the resources" refrain might also become a chorus of the rank and file. It's easy to say we're too busy to innovate. But if we're smart, we do it anyhow, in small ways under their noses when no one's watching. Little by little we integrate it into our own culture and then it seems out into the wider newsroom.

Case in point: What other business do you know that leaves 80% of its raw material -- the reporter's notes -- on the floor (or in the notebook)? Now, if we figure that news gathering/production is going to have industrial overtones for at least a few more years (it's a big beast that, if it dies, will die slowly), why should we as journalists continue to allow that? We can do one of two things -- be more efficient in gathering the information or use more of it on the aft end.

The first might work in some cases. That's partly the idea behind link journalism, but that only works online. So we cans sharpen our questions and techniques and put less in our notebooks, but make sure it is the good stuff. This is a bit glib, of course, to anyone who has actually been a reporter. If it were all that easy to do, we'd all be sipping gin and tonics at 5 every night. But if we look closely, we probably can find some areas where we can get better.

The second, using more of the material, actually challenges us to innovate, in print and online. Are there things that might be more efficiently used as alternative story elements or online elements that would extend the basic story? Does any of the additional material suggest a different way to tell the story? It wouldn't hurt to occasionally flip back through the notebook and see if there's anything we missed like that.

Ultimately, of course, it's going to take a total change in newsroom culture, starting with managers (of which I have been one and am as guilty as the next). And it's not simple. Consider the "simple" thing of how you evaluate an employee when you don't have "widgets" (aka bylines) to count. It's not easy, and in this litigious world, it actually is fraught with dangers.

(Back to Rosen's video: One thing I do like that he says -- there is not formula. Now, he put a sort of "yet" at the end, but I think trying to find a "formula" is what kills most of these things. Time after time, we have learned the individuality, not the turnkey, is what brings people back. Perhaps it's better phrased as finding some "best practices," but not a formula. Anyway, here's the video.):

Posted to SABEW by SABEW Admin on May 06, 2008


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