Monday, June 28, 2010

There is No Silver Bullet. And Trying to Find One Just Puts Us Further in the Hole

Here's a question I got recently: What would I do if someone handed me the reigns of a newspaper and told me: "Go at it"? The answer was simple. But also complicated.

I was on a plane, chatting with my seatmate (who, à propos of nothing, turned out to be a commander in the US Navy). The subject of the sorry state of journalism came up. I assured my seatmate, as I do whenever anyone asks me what I think is going to happen, that, despite however dark things look today, ten years from now, there's going to be great journalism takingplace, better than we've ever seen before, and it's going to be financially sustainable to boot. "Really?" he said. "So, if you were the boss of a news organization today, what would you do?"

The question's always difficult to answer. I could tell that he, like most people, are expecting a silver bullet. Like: "Print the paper on pink newsprint, put the comics on page 2, and boom, you're set."

What's harder to explain is the thing we'll actually have to do between now and the shiny future I'm confident lies ahead of us. Which is to experiment and to innovate. It's hard to explain that, if I were handed the reigns to a news organization today, I'd basically rip it apart. I'd throw the entire canon out the window. I'd say: Where do we have an opportunity to make a real impact, to do something better than anyone else can do it? Let's take that and start experimenting with different ways to actually do that. Let's set up a system of metrics that measures how much readers like it, whether it's serving our purpose of being of service to the community, and whether it shows any indication of being monetizable. I'd tell the staff that v1 of this thing is going to be a disaster. Not because of any failings on our part. Just by definition of being a v1. But we're going to push it out the door and learn from its real world implementation. And use those learnings to do a v2. Which will go out the door one month after v1. And I'd tell the staff: I'd going to do my best to guarantee your financial security. But it's going to be rough going. So if you decide to stick around, it better be here because there's nothing else in the world you'd rather be doing. (And it'd be helpful if you were married to someone with a stable job. Like a prison guard.)

Because there is no silver bullet. Not yet. Just a bunch of hard work. A bunch of giving things a shot and seeing what happens. And learning from it. And refining the thing and giving that a shot.

Lather, rinse, repeat. Until we finally find what works.

Photo courtesy of eschipul, Flickr. Creative Commons license.

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