Real-time innovation in news organisations

Ryan Sholin has started a great conversation about how to create cultural change at newspapers.

The important part of the job isn’t speaking to the first 20 people on the conference call for an hour, it’s maintaining contact with the one person on the call who has the potential to Get It: Moving from the Paper business to the News business isn’t as simple as picking up a different skillset; it’s about changing the mindset of journalists.

It reminded me of a question I’m often asked about cultural change: How do you turn journalists into bloggers? The simple answer is that I don’t. I find journalists who happen to be bloggers or who show an interest in blogging, give them all the technical and editorial support that I can, and then I try to share that knowledge and success around the organisation.

How do I spot a good blogger? I ask whether the journalist is already aware of other bloggers writing in their beat. I try to determine whether they are willing to engage with other bloggers and people who comment on their posts. In short, are they ready to join the conversation?

Sharing the success stories helps spread the culture. As David Anderson of Fairfax Digital in Australia told me recently, you need success stories to tell your managers, and I would say that you also need success stories to win over journalists, who are professional sceptics. You have to spread culture up and down the organisation.

I’ve been fortunate. At the BBC, I had support at all levels for digital experimentation and, when I came to London, it was great to see evangelism from people like Richard Sambrook, the head of the Global News Division. At the Guardian, we’ve got digital evangelists all the way up to The Editor’s office. However, both the BBC and the Guardian still grapple with cultural change. And I couldn’t agree with Ryan more when he says you can’t mandate change from the top down.

Anyone who has worked with me will attest that sometimes I get frustrated at the pace of change in the industry. I really thought digital journalism would be further along by now than we are. The crash wiped out a lot of talent in the industry and set us back years. And I’ve crossed swords with a fair number of nay sayers. I’m not sure there is much we can do for the close-minded, and the need for change is urgent enough that arguing with the Andrew Keens in the industry just isn’t worth your or my time.

Industry scale change will only come with time. The industry is struggling because the depth of digital culture is still too thin and still so new. Don’t sweat that. Don’t even try changing your organisation wholesale. We might have the experience, but as Steve Yelvington says, we still don’t have the political capital. Many of you will run into middle management who ‘own’ the bureaucracy and have an investment in the status quo. They’ve spent several years supporting the Andrew Keens because it protected their position and power. Now, they have a new strategy: They are fighting over who owns change rather than focusing on actually creating change. While they’re fighting, us digital journalists need to get on with it:

  • Start small with an event or story-based project.
  • Bring the cost of the project down as close to zero as possible from a technical standpoint. Use open-source or free net-based services.
  • Try one new multimedia story-telling feature or engagement feature with each project.
  • Debrief. Learn. Repeat.

This is based in part on my interpretation of the Newspaper Next project. As Steve Yelvington says:

We need to think of making things that are good enough and not overshooting. We’re taking too long to create ‘perfect ‘ systems that don’t meet needs. We over-invest, over-plan and then we stick with the bad business plan until it all collapses. Come up with a good idea and field test. Fail forward and fail cheaply. Failure is not a bad thing if we learn from our mistakes and correct. Be patient to scale. Impatient for profits.

This is real-time innovation. Try journalistic projects with existing tools and learn journalistically and technically from that. That takes zero development and relatively little time. It’s about editorial creativity, not about development cycles or budgets. If you find something that works, then you know where to focus product development. What can you do with Twitter, blogging software, YouTube, Seesmic or FriendFeed to create a journalistic project and help build your audience?

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