J-Schools: Breeding Ground for Fertile Failure

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

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6 thoughts on “J-Schools: Breeding Ground for Fertile Failure”

  1. My experience as a journalist covering innovation in information technology and in biotech for over a decade has led me to understand that in those fields, industry doesn’t innovate, but commercializes innovative technology.

    I think that holds true for journalism. As an assistant professor of journalism at Hofstra University, I teach digital. There are basics that are critically important and top priority, and then there is the innovative side. I don’t know that industry is ever going to share funding/support with a small program like mine — it will go to Columbia, Missouri, Northwestern, Berkeley.

    So, with a small core of dedicated and passionate students, we try new stuff all the time and publish to Nassaunewslive.com and serve our community. But, I’m open to any suggestions and always looking for help — or a rich conversation.

    Mo Krochmal
    Assistant Professor of Journalism
    Hofstra University
    Hempstead, N.Y.

  2. I’m in wholehearted agreement. Contemporary economic constraints at many schools today have created added burdens, however, especially for junior faculty. They’re now more highly focused than ever on tenure and promotion requirements that may or may not by sympathetic to the sort of efforts described here.

    Administrators, take note!

    E.W. Brody, Ed.D.
    Professor Emeritus
    Department of Journalism
    University of Memphis
    Memphis TN 38152

  3. 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.

    I think you’re vastly overestimating the willingness or manpower needed for most campus news organizations to do this type of work. That’s just from my (admittedly limited) experience with these things.

  4. I like what you say in part. But I still think it suffers a bit from what has hadicapped journalism schools (and journalism research) for too long. In medicine, engineering, etc., academia tries to keep ahead of the current professional knowledge in cutting-edge research. Journalism schools wait for the industry to pose the problem (and often provide the answer). How many times have you heard a school ask the industry, “What should we be teaching our students?” If the industry new what the journalist of the future would be, they wouldn’t be in such a state of crisis. Instead of following this model which just ensures journalism schools fall even further behind where the industry is, journalism schools need to shed a history of being pre-professional training programs and focus more on rigorous research and innovation, which can put the schools out front and lead the industry in defining the future, much as other researchers do, especially in the sciences. I think you provide some great ideas for collecting data, but your proposal is still too reliant on industry to provide the leadership instead of the other way around.

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