The One Tool Your Newsroom Needs Right Now: A Failure Form

June 10th, 2009; 9:50 am by Ryan Thornburg

The other day I wrote about the need for newsrooms to encourage experimentation rather than innovation. OK, but how? Here’s one tool you can download right now and use in your newsroom — the Failure Form, to be used by reporters and editors who want to pursue a crazy idea.

It’s called the Failure Form because the questions it poses requires your staff to articulate the value of a project even if it fails miserably. It could just as easily be called a risk mitigation assessment tool, because good experiments ensure that even if everything goes wrong, the organization will at least be able to glean some value from the experience.

It also mitigates risk in another way. When we seek “innovation,” the pitches are ambitious and often overpromise and underdeliver. Innovative projects are going to be SO awesome! Sometimes SOOOO awesome that they are technically infeasible.

The final way it mitigates risk is by defining an end point to the project. Like line items in the federal appropriations, newsroom projects are often easier to start than they are to kill. Experiments have a definite end, which means that the failure will be limited to the shortest period of time needed to acquire some meaningful data.

Of course, the results of the experiment need to be shared with the rest of the newsroom. Unless you have an ongoing partnership with a research university, my suggestion is to use editing positions to create a team of people to assess the experiments and publish the results. Better yet, every news organization would have some sandbox for experimentation, where failures wouldn’t hurt the core brand.

So, which projects should a newsroom fund? The ones that are completed the quickest, cost the least and teach the most.

So, without further ado, the “Failure Form“:

  1. What specific questions about the content, style, production, delivery, use or consumption of news will your project attempt to answer?
  2. Describe your project. What will you do in an attempt to answer the questions you described above?
  3. After the end of your project, what new information will we have about the future of news?
  4. At the end of your project, what two things will you compare in order to determine the answer to your question?
  5. What changes might other journalists consider making based on the discoveries you will make during your grant?
  6. How long will it take to conduct your experiment?
  7. What resources will you need? If this project is funded, what tasks will you stop doing during the course of the experiment?

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