Monday, September 22, 2008

Who would you fire?

Newspapers are experimenting with new tools left and right, as well they should. One they're trying to get a handle on is Twitter.

As you probably know, Twitter is a tool that lets you dispatch mini-updates -- up to 140 characters in length. Recipients can choose to get them in any number of places: On their cellphones, in their RSS readers, etc....

Newspapers are trying to figure out whether Twitter has any value to them. They're asking themselves what are the situations, if any, where sending 140-character bursts is useful to readers? And, of course, can Twitter be used to generate audience loyalty that can somehow contribute to the bottom line?

As happens whenever you experiment, not all your efforts pan out. There are two recent examples where newspaper Twitter reporting fell flat on its face.

-- As Hurricane Ike loomed, the Houston Chronicle created a special Twitter account that people could subscribe to get the latest storm info. But, as Cory Bergman over at Lost Remote points out, they totally bombed with their implementation. Instead of posting immediately useful information -- like "Bridge X now closed" or "Johnson HS in Town Y now accepting displaced residents" -- they have simply posted headlines to their stories, along with links to the articles online. Now let's think about this for a moment. If you're in the middle of a hurricane (or its aftermath) and are trying to make game-time decisions about what's best for your family or business, are links to stories online really the most useful information you could be receiving? Obviously not.

If you're getting the tweets on your cell phone, you might not have Web access to get to the articles. But even if you do, do you really want to stop what you're doing to read an inverted-pyramid story about this thing or that? No, of course not. You just want information you can act on immediately, like "Avoid this street" or "FEMA grant applications being accepted at the library from 10-12."

-- Meanwhile, the Rocky Mountain News has also been experimenting with Twittering, sending play-by-play updates from the Democratic National Convention, for example.

They got themselves into journalistic hot water, though, when a reporter sent to cover the funeral of a three-year-old victim of a widely covered traffic accident used Twitter to send minute-by-minute updates. The Poynter Institute's E-Media Tidbits blog challenged the news value of such tweets as "the father is sobbing over the casket" and "family members shovel earth into the grave." The Colorado Independent called the reporting "Utterly, and unforgivingly, inconceivable." Posters at a forum on called for those involved to be fired.

Which leads us to the question of the day. Between these two incidents, if you were going to fire someone, who would you fire? The creator the benign yet useless Houston Chronicle tweets? Or the people behind the conceivably tasteless Rocky Mountain News tweets?

If it were me, I'd fire the Houston Chronicle staffer.

OK, "fire" is a little strong. I would have them reassigned.

As for the Rocky Mountain News folks, we'd definitely do a debrief and draft "lessons learned." But fire them? Not for a minute. Here's why.

The key to figuring out the future of news lies in experimentation. It is only through experimentation that we'll figure out what new forms of journalism both serve our readers and generate the revenue news organizations need to survive and thrive. In today's environment, we should never fire staffers who experiment and fail -- especially when they fail. Failure is a necessary part of learning and growing. (In fact, I remember a friend of mine once telling me soon after he started at the New York Times that the editors there had told the newcomers that if they weren't messing up every now and then, they weren't trying hard enough.)

But people should be fired for being stuck in the past. And that's why I'd fire -- OK, reassign -- the Houston Chronicle staffer who authored those benign but useless Hurricane Ike tweets.

To explain:

-- The Houston Chronicle people fundamentally don't understand the technologies they're working with. They are stuck in the old world model: "We write articles. Our goal is to get our readers to read our articles." People who start out with that mindset will never be able to find the future. As tough as it is, news organizations need to get people like that out of the way so that the people who do get where things are headed can do their work and find the future.

-- The Rocky Mountain News folks do get what the new technologies are all about. It seems like they messed up in this one case, but that's OK. Try it and learn from it. You'll never find what is valuable and useful unless you're willing to push the bounds.

Here's an analogy. There are some people I know who will only go to a show (theater, music, etc...) if it's received a stamp of approval and they're guaranteed that it's going to be great. I take a different approach: I'm willing to try anything that sounds like it could be interesting. Invariably, some of the shows bomb, and I end up walking out at intermission. But because I was willing to take risks, I've also found a lot of good shows that my safety-minded friends never saw. It's only by taking risks that we make discoveries.

When it comes to weekend entertainment, the stakes are pretty low. So I have some friends who never get to discover cool shows because they aren't willing to take risks. So what. No harm done.

In the news business, however, the stakes are higher. The stakes are, in fact, our very survival. As such, we must
be willing to take risks. Playing it safe may ensure that we never accidentally transgress. But it will also ensure that we don't have a future.

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