Fertile Failure & the Lessons of History

October 30th, 2009; 7:21 am

Speaking this week to journalists in Argentina, there is much concern about the closure this week of award-winning Spanish Web site, Soitu.es. A student at  Universidad del Norte Santo Tomas de Aquino in Tucuman said she felt “heart-broken” by the news.

She and others have been asking me whether this is strong evidence that new online-only news organizations will never work. My question back to them: Why do you expect them to work? We are in an era of innovation and entrepreneurship. We are early in the process of leaving behind the security of mass media and we can expect to see many failures as brave journalists look for new ways to re-engage a shrinking news audience and to make money doing it.

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U2’s Bono Sings the Battle Cry for Online News

June 25th, 2009; 12:24 pm

“You didn’t come all the way out here to watch TV, now didya!?”

Standing in the outfield of a giant baseball stadium under the glow of more than 40 video walls and monitors, the lead singer of the rock group U2 aimed his remote up at the screens and flipped from station to station while tens of thousands of concert-goers screamed and cheered. It was the fall of 1992. CNN had just made history with the first live video coverage of a war, and somewhere in a computer lab at the University of Illinois – in a town that could have comfortably fit its entire population in the sports stadium – researchers were about six months away from launching the first graphical Web browser.

The hundreds of channels on cable TV were about to be dwarfed by millions of Web pages. The mass media that was able to send one message to an entire planet all at the same time and had defined a shared American experience for more than a half century was about to be replaced by communication technology that would blend the telephone with the television and the postal service and the printing press to form a decentralized network of news and information that would allow every – or everyone with a computer and Internet access – to talk to everyone else all at the same time.

The online news audience doesn’t spend an average of 35 minutes every day because they need another glowing box. News organizations that aren’t committed to giving their audience something fundamentally different should quit throwing money at their Web site and start re-investing in legacy media.

They didn’t come all the way out here to watch TV. Stop giving them a news product. Let them visit news experience. They’ll pay for that.

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Rerun Posts: Who Drives the Vision? Who Takes the Risk?

June 16th, 2009; 9:18 am

The question that keeps coming up in recent discussions about experimentation and fertile failure is this: Who will drive the vision and who will take the risk that journalism needs to get over this hump?

As a preamble, I’m re-running two blog posts (…hmm, I wonder if “the long tail” is going to make the word re-run go the way of the turntable…anyway…) that highlight the challenge and two potential answers:

After the jump, I’m looking for where we might be most likely to find the fertile failures and experimentors that journalism needs.

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J-Schools: Breeding Ground for Fertile Failure

June 15th, 2009; 9:38 am

For a lot of very good reasons the word “failure” is not welcome in newsrooms. The aversion probably begins in  j-schools when we give automatic Fs to students who write news stories about “Thornberg” or “Thornburgh” instead of “Thornburg,” it continues with 2 a.m. panic attacks about transposing quotes, and probably calcifies completely with the fear of being sued for libel. In short, journalists don’t get paid for making mistakes. Good. They shouldn’t.

But a failure is not always a mistake, especially in the context of an experiment that fails to prove a widely held belief. Experiments that fail often lead to entirely new lines of inquiry and new understanding about the world. To enjoy this kind of fertile failure that yields innovation, you have to pursue success in the right way. Fertile failure is most likely when you tackle a very specific, very big question with small experiments that are conducted as quickly and cheaply as possible.

Universities, where failure leads both to the creation of new ideas as well as the ability to shed old ideas, should be ideal partners for risk-averse news organizations. Here are a few ideas about how journalism schools can be breeding grounds for fertile failure.

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

June 10th, 2009; 9:50 am

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.

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Innovation Isn’t Enough

June 9th, 2009; 9:47 am

The role of innovation in news has come up in several conversations I’ve had with folks over the last few weeks, and I’ve come to the conclusion that the pursuit of innovation may be fun as all get out, but on its own it does not do enough to move the industry forward. What we need instead of innovation is experimentation.

What’s the difference between innovation and experimentation? Innovation only values success. Experimentation also values failure.

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We All Live in Tiananmen Today

June 4th, 2009; 10:58 am

Twenty years ago the Chinese military killed perhaps thousands of people as they crushed a pro-democracy movement in Beijing. Two weeks ago I stood in Tiananmen Square for the first time, looking for any remaining hint of the energy and tragedy of that day.

What did I find? Unable to speak Chinese and woefully ignorant of the subtleties of country’s recent history, I was able to take mental snapshots of China, without knowing the signifance or meaning of those images in my head. But today I sit here writing a blog post that my friends in China probably won’t be able to read. And I find it incredibly ironic that while the Chinese government let me freely wander Tianament Square two weeks ago, today it prevents me from speaking freely with friends — or enemies — who live there. In the interconnected world of social media, I feel the spirit and tension of Tiananmen more today while I’m writing this blog post than I did two weeks ago standing in that concrete pasture 7,000 miles away.

Here are my snapshots of China. I’d like your help thinking about what they will mean to us on the 40th anniversary of Tiananmen and the world in which my daughter will be entering when she turns 21 on June 5, 2029.


Full Screen Slideshow

(Conflict of Interest Disclosure: My airfare to Beijing was paid for by the China Internet Information Center, which is controlled and directly funded in large part by the Information Office of the State Council. I was invited to China for the purpose of speaking with the staff of China.org.cn about online journalism, through an ongoing partnership between that Web site and the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.)

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Newspaper Corrections: Sources Now Share the Obligation

June 1st, 2009; 12:40 pm

Handling errors and corrections online is good topic for newsroom debate. The dual challenge is that online text can be updated/fixed/improved/corrected at any time and it’s also always available. That means errors can get corrected quickly, but those that don’t can damage credibility long past the daily print edition.

In a world where anyone can publish a blog, professional journalists need to emphasize accuracy and credibility even more. But the reductions in staff at almost all newsrooms in America is putting a squeeze on quality control.

This story from last week’s News & Observer provides an interesting case study. The piece quoted me, but mistakenly said I had worked for USA Today. When I saw the error, I emailed the reporter and used the article’s comments section to quickly post my own correction.

In the last week, though, I never heard back from the reporter. It turns out he was on furlough. He sent an apologetic note once he got back. That said, the fact error remains online.

So, let’s walk through what’s wrong (and right) with this picture:

1. Error gets in the news article. Yes, this is an automatic F in my introductory newswriting classes, but it’s certainly not the end of the world. Many people would wisely artgue that these kinds of pernicous little errors are going to become more common, though, as reporters take on the work of departed colleagues and stories get fewer reads by editors before they go to press.

2. Vigilant sources can use comments to correct errors in the article. This is incredibly empowering and could go a long way to increasing trust in journalism. You often hear sources say they spot errors in reporting but never bother to ask for a correction because they figure the reporters and editors won’t care anyway. For the most part I think that’s the opposite of true. But it also doesn’t matter now — sources have the ability, and even the obligation, to correct errors of fact. To not do so is to complictly accept and tolerate inaccuracy.

3. Someone at the N&O should have been monitoring these comments and alerting the appropriate editors to corrections. The primary reason the comments section on newspaper articles are so low-brow is because the (already thinly spread) staff is not participating in them. Which leads us back to the old sentiment among sources and readers — that newspaper editors just don’t care about what I have to say.

This example highlights the two key components to success in the future of news — high levels of accuracy and engagement. Journalists who don’t pursue both are in danger of becoming quickly irrelevant.

Reflection: The Secret to Teaching Journalism to Digital Natives

May 24th, 2009; 9:55 am

A brief story in The News & Observer today notes how journalism education at UNC and Duke are changing. When I spoke with reporter Eric Ferreri a few weeks ago for his story, he asked about the difficulty — and perhaps futility — of teaching “new media” to students who probably can’t remember a world without the Internet.

As Ferreri notes in the story, I think there’s a significant difference between using technology and understanding its social, political and economic implications — just like there’s a difference between driving a car and being able to repair its engine. (This is why it’s still important to teach students HTML.)

The challenge for educators is to get students to begin to reflect in both positive and normative terms about how they communicate in different media environments.

Reflection is a key component in service learning, but it’s also critical to add a level of consciousness to any field that has developed informally and organically. Journalism students don’t need classroom education to BE in the world — they can acquire skills more efficiently just by doing internships. But they do need classroom education in order to EXPLAIN the world and to LEAD it.

Our role as journalism professors in a world where anyone can publish a blog is to develop leadership, not merely train practitioners.

Notes From a Semester

May 6th, 2009; 5:03 pm

The semester at UNC-Chapel Hill is done and the students in “Public Affairs Reporting for New Media” have put together a wonderful resource for learning about and engaging in efforts to curb the state’s high dropout rate.

You can read my notes about their work at http://www.ncdropout.org/node/415
or visit the site’s homepage at http://www.ncdropout.org.

Among the pieces I’ve enjoyed the most are the online journalism tutorials that the students themselves created based on their own experiences hashing through their first efforts and multimedia, interactive, on-demand news story telling. You can see their tutorials here.