Learning from a failed journalism project

I want to applaud Jen Lee Reeves who wrote about the mistakes that she made for a journalism project that she worked on for the 2008 elections in the US at PBS’ MediaShift blog. It’s a brave thing to do, but her courage flags up a number of mistakes that are common to journalism projects, including a few that I have made myself.

She is an “associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism, I am also a new media director at the university-owned NBC-affiliate, KOMU-TV”, and for the elections, she had an ambitious idea to bring together the coverage of several different outlets “to make it easier for news consumers to learn about their candidates leading up to election day”. She would complete the project during a fellowship at the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri.

In 2006 for the mid-term elections in the US, she had done something similar, but the site had been hand-coded. (I’m assuming what she means is that there was no content management system.) She realised that this would be too cumbersome, but in 2008, she opted for a “hand-built” site created by students with her oversight. Technically, she was moving in the right direction. The site took in RSS feeds from the participating news organisations, and web managers simply had to tag the content so that it appeared in relation to the right candidate and election. However, while, the site was easier to user for the news organisations, it still wasn’t clear enough to use for the audience. She said:

Unfortunately, our site was not simple. It was not clean and it was hand built by students with my oversight. It did not have a welcoming user experience. It did not encourage participation. I had a vision, but I lacked the technical ability to create a user-friendly site. I figured the content would rule and people would come to it. Not a great assumption.

Back in 2008, I still had old-school thoughts in my head. I thought media could lead the masses by informing voters who were hungry for details about candidates. I thought a project’s content was more important than user experience. I thought I knew what I was talking about.

She goes on and lists assumptions that she had about the audience, assumptions which proved false and which she believes doomed the project for failure. Go to her post and read them. She is grateful that she had the opportunity to experiment and make mistakes during her fellowship, an opportunity that she says she wouldn’t have had while being in charge of a newsroom.

If we’re paralysed by fear of failure, we’ll never do anything new. It’s not failure that we should fear but rather the inability to learn from our mistakes. For big projects like this, it’s really important to have a proper debrief. Free services on the web can bring down the cost of experimentation, and by testing what works and what doesn’t, we can not only learn from our mistakes but also make sure that we take best practices to our next project.