Friday, July 25, 2008

It's OK not to know

According to the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, 95 percent of newspaper editors and publishers feel like they can't predict what newsrooms are going to look like in five years.

And apparently, they think that's a problem.

"I feel I'm being catapulted into another world, a world I don't really understand," Virginian-Pilot editor Denis Finley told Pew.*

But you know what, that's OK. That's what innovation is all about.

When I first landed in Silicon Valley in the late '90s, nobody knew what the future of the Internet was going to be. They had no idea whether a certain kind of website would have a future. Whether a certain business model would pan out. Whether they would be able to find customers or an audience for a specific use of the web.

Not only was that not a problem, however, it was part of the fun. I can remember interviewing for a job at a specific Internet company, a new one that was doing something that had never been done, and thinking to myself, "By working here and coming up with new ways of doing stuff, I'm going to be creating the paradigms that websites are going to be using for years to come."

Of course, the difference was that there wasn't an "old way" of doing things that we were breaking away from. We weren't at risk of breaking any paradigms. No paradgims existed.

And this is what I think is the crux of the problem for traditional jouralists. Their paradigms, which served them extremely well in the print era, are the ball and chain preventing them from diving into the digital world, moving forward confidently, and actually discovering how to use the web to deliver great journalism.

There are two paradigms in particular: A canon, and a bias against failure.

The canon, of course, is everything that we think of as constituting "good journalism." Being "objective." Keeping attitude out of copy. Inverted pyramids. Publishing only once you have all your ducks in a row. I've talked about that before and will talk about it again, so I'll put this aside for now.

The bias against failure is equally problemantic. This is the longstanding view that any error was cause for monumental shame. What reporter hasn't dreaded filing a correction, knowing that too many of them would constitute a firing offense? What editor hasn't raged upon being scooped? What journalist hasn't died in their chair when a source called up to tell them they got the story all wrong?

And yet, in this new world we're entering, there's going to be nothing but failure. Maybe that overstates the case a bit. But by definition, when you're trying something new, you're experimenting. And when you're experimenting, many of your experiments will fail. That's how you find what doesn't work--and, eventually, what does. As Thomas Edison once said, "I haven't failed. I've just found 1,000 ways that don't work."

So here's my advice to all the editors out there biting their nails over the fact that they don't know what the future is: Relax. Relax, experiment, learn, try again. And you will get there, eventually, even if you don't know where it is you're going.

* Via Maui Time Weekly, Via
AltWeeklies.com

Photo courtesy of Dementia_X. Creative Commons license.

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