What's wrong with us?

SUNNYVALE, Calif. – I am on the road today, attending the “NewsTools 2008: Journalism that Matters” conference at Yahoo! The conference is the work of the Media Giraffe Project, which bills the event “a concept/design mashup for journalists, technologists and entrepreneurs.”

Today’s event focused on the ‘concept’ half, with ‘design’ – whatever it might turn out to be – left for tomorrow’s agenda. Organizers eschewed a traditional, panel-oriented format in favor of asking participants to design their own sessions on the fly. That format offers great potential, for keeping topics fresh and audience members engaged. The risk, however, is an event that resembles a junior high school mixer, with everyone glued to their seats around the perimeter, afraid of initiating contact with anyone.

To the organizers’ credit, many volunteers stepped forward, and the participants I spoke with reported the sessions they attended worthwhile, though not revolutionary. I meant to hop between concurrent sessions, but found myself sitting through my first choices until their end, engaged in the discussions.

We will be interviewing some of the participants about their initiatives, in future articles on OJR. And I hope to bring you reports of some of the research and production tools and operational solutions we examine tomorrow in a future column.

But today, I’d like to start with the problems — the challenges and roadblocks that I saw, or heard others describe, during today’s sessions. How many of these sound familiar to you?

Impatience with unsolved problems

I don’t know of anyone who’s launched a website, or other computer application, and had it immediately work well and serve its audience completely. Nope. It’s alpha, beta… then launch, usually followed by a quick succession of revisions and patches. With users providing valuable feedback along the way. Developers accept that a project is not complete until it has had some time to live in the field, used by actual consumers.

This, of course, is not the way most journalists work. They keep their stories internal, password-protected within their newsroom’s publication system, until it’s been desk-edited, copy-edited, sometimes lawyer-vetted, skedded and copy-edited again. That’s created a cultural expectation within the journalism business that one’s product will be complete when it goes to the public.

With the exception of a few early adopters of open-source journalism, the public beta is a foreign concept to most reporters. But a willingness to test, even to fail, in front of the public is a requirement for technical innovation. If you’ve become used to having everything “just so” before sending it our into the world, you’re bound to feel disappointment, then frustration, when that world changes and people rapidly want new and different things to try.

That’s the tone I heard underneath many frustrations expressed today (and at previous industry events). Even when the industry is making progress (with blogging and with online community management, for example) many journalists feel uncomfortable waiting for initiatives to play out in public. Journalists would do better to think like programmers in the sense of recognizing incremental success and not getting too depressed when initiatives fail. Keep what works, learn from what doesn’t and try again, a little differently next time.

Inbred analysis

One participant mentioned that she kept running into the same people at these types of conferences. That’s a problem. The journalism industry typically looks within itself for potential solutions to technical and business challenges online, when it should be looking to people outside the “news” industry who have taken on, and solved, many of the same challenges.

Newspapers have struggled for years to learn how to build and manage insightful, responsible online discussion communities, ignoring the hundreds of individuals outside the field who have built large, well-run and, sometimes, even financially lucrative, forums online. Some newsrooms have struggled to deploy multi-million-dollar content management systems, while open-source developers have created more stable and scalable systems at a fraction of the cost.

The situation reminds me of political parties keep hiring the same losing campaign managers, election cycle after election cycle. Again, it’s time to think like a programmer: If you want a different output, you need to try a different input. Just because someone is engaged in publishing content online that doesn’t carry the “Big ‘J'” Journalism label doesn’t mean that such individuals haven’t learned and can’t teach those who do use that label something valuable about publishing online.

Dinner isn’t all vegetables

Many journalists who whine about their inability to make money online for their “serious journalism” need to take a more thoughtful look at what they are offering their potential audience.

It’s a rare publication that rakes in the cash offering readers nothing but investigative pieces and serious, in-depth profiles. Even The New Yorker runs a hell of a lot of cartoons. Individual journalists may aspire to a career of hard-hitting reporting. But their companies also employ people who are shooting wild art at Little League games, publishing pages filled with comics and Sudoku, and running reader sweepstakes and giveaways.

If you’re going to publish a website, you can’t forget the gimmicks. As one of my colleagues asked, ‘where’s your Wingo?’ What fun, silly, engaging things are you going to do online to help make your potential audience want to spend more time with your website?

As I discussed with several other conference participants over dinner, journalists need to treat their websites like a dinner party. You can’t just dish out a plate of veggies. You need to invite your readers in, chat with them, serve ’em a drink and get them comfortable. Then you can start dishing out the food, including a main course, veggies and dessert.

Reporters who worked as specialists offline need to develop and display additional skills when they move online, including the ability to entertain as well as inform their online readers.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at http://www.sensibletalk.com.