Monday, August 11, 2008

The necessity of triage

Last week, I wrote about how Google's 20 percent policy* fosters innovation and suggested that news organizations similarly consider giving their employees time to imagine and experiment with new ways of attracting and retaining readers. I also noted that most news editors would probably scream bloody murder at me for suggesting that they give their staffers a full day a week to work on something other than feeding the news beast, at a time when so many newsrooms are struggling to meet daily news demands. And I wrote that, in order to ensure that the operation even exists tomorrow, newspapers have to be willing to sacrifice some daily news demands today.

Happily, I'm not the only one who thinks this.

Chris O'Brien is a business reporter who's covered Silicon Valley for the San Jose Mercury News for most of the past decade. He's also working on The Next Newsroom project, to design an ideal newsroom from scratch.

There must have been something in the Bay Area water last week because O'Brien expressed many of the same thoughts as I was having, over on the MIT MediaShift Idea Lab blog. Specifically, he wrote:

If 100 percent of your newsroom's time is devoted to just producing your current products, then you're already doomed.
And he said:

No one can simply order up innovation on demand. Wish as you might, the innovation fairy won't sprinkle pixie dust on your newsroom while you sleep. But you can encourage innovation, nurture it by lowering barriers, supporting those employees with entrepreneurial drive, and providing a fertile environment for their ideas.
He also noted that myopia regarding how to innovate is not unique to the newspaper business. It's characteristic of any business that enjoyed a long period of uncontested domination:

It's the classic fate that strikes any once-dominant company when the world turns upside down. It happens all the time in world of technology. Look no further than Microsoft, which after more than a decade, is still trying to adapt its business to the Web, as evidenced by its ill-fated bid to buy Yahoo (another company that's failed to innovate). The Redmond giant can't let go of a legacy product (Windows) enough to reorient itself to where the market and its users have gone.
O'Brien's prescription is one many Silicon Valley technology companies use to create the future and ensure the continuing health of their businesses:
  1. Make it a priority

  2. Create a process

  3. Foster new collaboration

  4. Offer incentives

  5. Evaluate and learn

Again, this might seem overwhelming to news leaders already feeling strapped. But hopefully it's actually encouraging. It gives permission to editors to to do what needs to be done, even if--or, rather, especially when--doing so requires violating the canon. Previously, newspapers held firm to the notion that they needed to be the institutions of record, that they needed to cover everything newsworthy going on in their communities, that to miss a story was an almost unrecoverable shame.

In this new world, however, news organizations need to triage. They need to be willing to let go of some stories today, some news coverage today, so they can focus efforts on ensuring the survival of the institution as a whole.

* Google gives its employees one day a week to work on a project of their choosing.

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