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.
- A university could hold in trust a huge database of aggregated site usage statistics from news Web sites, conducting research on the data for the data center’s member news organizations without violating the trust of users or the proprietary secrets of the individual news organizations. The value to members would be their ability to control more variables and come to broader conclusions about usage behaviors. Student and faculty researchers would benefit by having easy access to the kind of large dataset for the pursuit of their own research agendas. This would result in faster testing of hypotheses about the future of news, with the costs being shared across a broad group of industry and academy.
- Funded with industry grants, a university could conduct ongoing usability studies that would populate a database of use-cases. This database would reduce the cost of site design by allowing media organizations to study mistakes made by a broad group of sites.
- Undergraduates’ lack of technical skills and disposable income make them natural rapid prototypers. A news organization interested in testing an idea could “hire” a class of undergrads to come up with 15-30 “good enough” prototypes to be tested on real news consumers.
- Campus news organizations should also be a natural place for professional news organizations to test crazy ideas that run the risk of damaging their brand. Not that campus news organizations are all dying to damage their brands, but their transitory audience makes small failures much less costly over the long run — failure artifacts don’t aggregate at campus news organizations the way they aggregate at professional news organizations.
- Don’t want to have editors waste their time trying to assess in-house experiments in your newsroom? Hire some faculty and grad students who are trained at research methods and analysis. Does registration really improve the quality of comments on your Web site? Sounds like a great research project to me.
Of course, both newsrooms and classroom are going to have to make some changes in order to work better together. In order for research to be relevant, it cannot wait for peer review before publication. There would need to be a switch to post-publication peer assessment and critique. And news companies would have to actually be willing to invest in R&D — a tough decision in times when newspapers are shutting their doors.