The question that keeps coming up in recent discussions about experimentation and fertile failure is this: Who will drive the vision and who will take the risk that journalism needs to get over this hump?
As a preamble, I’m re-running two blog posts (…hmm, I wonder if “the long tail” is going to make the word re-run go the way of the turntable…anyway…) that highlight the challenge and two potential answers:
- Open Letter to The Washington Post: Keep the Frontier Open (Jan. 9)
- Newsroom-Classroom Panel at ONA: A Bridge to Nowhere? (Sep. 13, 2008)
After the jump, I’m looking for where we might be most likely to find the fertile failures and experimentors that journalism needs.
Question 1: Who Drives the Vision?
A Free Market Competiton Between News Organizations: One argument is that news organizations themselves are in the best position to drive vision and are the most likely to take calculated risks. In an industry that has historically favored competition over collaboration, the argument is that companies will implement new storytelling and delivery techniques and seek new revenue streams based on their calculation of how they can gain advantage over their competitors. But the challenge of driving innovation in a mature industry has been well documented. As Phil Meyer says in The Vanishing Newspaper, it’s only logical for most news companies to continue harvesting the golden goose.
Startups: With much to gain and less to loose, perhaps small companies will be the most innovative and experimental. The only problem — the founders of startups often take as much personal risk to do a small-scale startup as a large scale. So they favor going big too quickly, before they’ve experimented and failed enough on a small scale. They seek big rewards to mitigate big risks. Entreprenuers meet the requirement of failing fast, but it doesn’t make sense for them to fail cheap.
The Community: A lot of the best things — such as WordPress and many of the plugins I use on this blog — are free, built by a community for the benefit of all. The motivations for this behavior are many and diverse. But the one thing that I find most open source projects lacking is neutral-party hypothesizing, testing and evaluation. In short, communities are innovative but not experimental.
Large Nonprofits: Large nonprofits — especially the Knight Foundation — has been seeking to foster innovation and mitigate risk for news innovation, especially innovation around the riskiest type of journalism — investigative and explanatory public affairs journalism. I have an idea I need to think about more carefully, but my hunch is that grants and awards tend to encourage applicants toward unbridled optimism rather than the more valuable skepticism. Skepticism is a pre-requisit for experimentation and fertile failure.
Industry Groups and Consulting Companies: Some of the most comprehensive and current research is coming from news industry trade groups and consulting firms. But their reports often focus on market predictions and ad sales. And, for the most part, their best stuff costs so much money that the research cannot be either publicly scrutinized or widely disseminated.
Research Universities: The best thing about the academic environment is also its greatest weakness — speed, or lack thereof. We’re slow. Now, that means we maintain standards in the face of fads and it means that our research is usually rock solid. The down side is that peer-reviewed research is often too incremental or too slow to be relevant. And while we watch the world carefully, we miss opportunities for leadership. Where we do get out on the cutting edge, our efforts are often funded by large foundation grants that (see above), I think, reward optimism over skepticism.
Each of the players mentioned above has a role to play in driving experimentation and fertile failure. Here’s a quick inventory of what we need from each:
- Relevant questions and hypothesis — industry, community, entrepreneurs. But these questions can’t be limited to the transformation of content to revenue. They need to help us understand which, if any, innovations can help us hold powerful people accountable, shine light in dark places, give voice to the voiceless and explain an increasingly complex world. How do we get the right information to the right people at the right time so we can increase participation and improve individual decisions in a democracy and free market economy?
- Experimental Design — universities. We don’t teach these grad school seminars for nothing. Academics are very good at making sure these big questions can actually be measured and tested in some way.
- Data — industry organizations, consulting groups. Privacy and the competitive value of information I think has made it difficult for journalism programs to get their hands on the kind of massive data sets that can help separate variables and increase validity. If there’s going to be collusion in the news biz, it shouldn’t be over charging for content. It should be over finding a solution to these valid concerns about privacy and proprietary information.
- Risk Mitigation — industry, government, foundations. Large companies will be in the best position to put experimental findings in to practice. They need to foot a big part of the bill. Good journalism — like public health and a basic education — is a public good. Government can fund research without getting in to the business of favoring solutions. Foundations are already playing the biggest role, but could use the failure form to begin encouraging skepticism rather than optimism from their grant applicants and award winners.
None of this can happen without leadership from people who are in a position to influence each of these institutions. Perhaps the first thing to do is open the floor for nominations to be the first Czar of Fertile Failure.
You work on coming up with the names. I’ll work on designing the funny hat.