Tag Archives: #jpreneur

Question ALL THE THINGS

A few weeks ago I came across this piece in Harvard Business Review imploring companies to embrace questions like: “Why are we doing it this way? Is there a better approach?” For some reason – maybe just my usual end-of-semester frustration – this one really hit home with me. The essence, when you get right down to it, of being able to adapt to change, to constantly improve, to be the “best you can be, whee!” is to:

Question all the things

 

In journalism, even the most traditional of our institutions are all about “experimentation” these days as they seek to evolve and remain relevant and viable businesses:  the New York Times Innovation Report mentions this several times; Washington Post Executive Editor Marty Baron told all of us at ISOJ in Austin that it’s a major goal of his newsroom. Most experiments begin, fundamentally, with a question, and an atmosphere that welcomes it.

A willingness let go of:  “This is the way we’ve been doing things for 20 years — who are you to second-guess us?”

One might think the spirit of inquiry is endemic to the academic mission, but one would be wrong. Even as our sector, much like the media, stands ripe for disruption, I’ve never worked in another field in which one is more likely to see resistance to even the slightest threat to the status quo. An article in the New York Times today on G.M.’s years-long failure to fix a deadly safety issue in its cars described the “G.M. nod” – aka “the nod as an empty gesture.” While thankfully most of the issues I deal with don’t have life or death consequences, I’m often amazed by how questions are met with just that kind of passive resistance.

I use theories of organizational culture in my research, and I’m well aware of how defensive mechanisms get triggered and how and why resistance to change occurs. But I wonder if something as simple as encouraging people to always question how they could do things better  and rewarding them for doing so would be a great first step toward building an experimental culture.

There’s always a better way to tell that story. There’s always a more efficient process. There’s always a new reporting technique. There’s always a better way to teach a course. There are always questions. Maybe it’s a wholesale overhaul, maybe it’s a tweak, but there’s always something that could be improved or better understood.

In many ways, I think being able to question is also what allows us to be satisfied and feel our work has meaning. Instead of simply pointing out what we are doing wrong, bosses that encourage questioning such as “How could we do this better?”  are not only more supportive but produce the kind of atmosphere in which everyone is working collectively to come up with creative solutions to problems rather than just slinging the blame around. I find questioning invigorating and intellectually satisfying, personally, whereas when somebody just tells me something I do isn’t good enough, I get defensive and angry.

Entrepreneurs know this – this is why many tech startups are constantly engaging in A/B testing and other ways of answering their questions. For example, in his book,  The Lean Startup, Eric Ries talks about using the “Five Whys” to evolve processes. When confronted with a problem, he writes, ask “why” five times, and you will often uncover the root of the problem.

The Harvard Business Review piece points out it’s also no good to say to people who have asked a good question and uncovered a problem: Now it’s your job to fix it – without any new resources and in addition to your regular job. That will shut everybody down and create frustration real quick. People need time and space to question effectively.

George Carlin knew about questioning, too:

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

ISOJ 2014 Highlights: Building an Experimental Culture for News

Earlier this month I was lucky enough to return to Austin for this year’s International Symposium of Online Journalism, always my favorite conference. My biggest takeaway was perhaps a selfish one, given that my research buddy Jonathan Groves of Drury University and I are working on a book bringing together about eight years of our research on newsrooms to help news organizations develop experimental, learning cultures. At ISOJ it came across clearly that from our most venerable legacy brands to new media upstarts, experimentation is a priority for today’s journalists.

For example, I was thrilled to hear Washington Post editor Marty Baron discuss his overall  optimism for the news business and his description of his efforts to foster an experimental culture by encouraging people to try new things and rewarding them for it.  Specifically, Baron noted that the Post has made an effort to expand its video content, and that they have learned that explainer video and video attached to news events works better for them than live video.  He  his encouraged by what they have found out so far, but noted that they remain in “the mode of experimentation” in which some things just won’t work, “and we aren’t embarrassed by it. I think of a scientist in a laboratory.” Exactly. This is what giants like Google and Amazon do – and is a big piece of their digital success. Caroline Little, president and CEO at Newspaper Association of America, also noted in her talk: “If people aren’t experimenting, we are never going to get there.”

Matt Waite FLYING A DRONE at ISOJ

Daniel Eilemberg, senior vice president, chief digital officer at Fusion, a new cable and digital content platform and joint venture between Disney and Univison, also talked about building a data-driven learning culture. He said: Our goal is to produce more content, test it….and then continue to invest in things that really resonate. Bring to the screen content that already has an audience from digital.

And even when new ventures do fail, or perhaps more accurately, are killed before they are given a chance to succeed: Jim Brady, one of my favorite journalists to hear from, and, sadly, soon-to-be-formerly of Digital First Media, noted that the demise of Thunderdome is NOT a bellweather that means we can’t do innovation in newsrooms. Much was learned, and the battle goes on.

Jim Bankoff , chairman and CEO at Vox Media, also verified the importance of culture, although he said it was one reason why he left legacy media to help start something new. In his view, you need the kind of experimental culture and financial commitment that many in traditional media may say they want, but when push comes to shove: Don’t. Other interesting highlights:

  • Bankoff of Vox also noted that that his company continues to hire passionate experts on a given topic and said that their revenues are growing at a rapid rate, roughly doubling year over year; they are operating at about even right now, and they expect to be profitable later this year. Huzzah!  
  • Loved hearing John Keefe, senior editor for Data News & Journalism Technology at WNYC talk about Arudinos and all of the creative projects he has led using these small, programmable computers. For example, many have probably heard about the cool cicada project they did in which 800 people made a simple device to measure soil temperature, predicting when cicadas would emerge. Keefe also was wearing a hoodie that pulsed with a heart monitor, and talked about a device he built for his wife – it was her idea, he swears! – to track her monthly cycle. Keefe learned how to do all of this cool stuff basically just by Googling it. Pushing the frontiers of journalism FTW!
  • Fun fact about Google Glass from Tim Pool, producer at Vice Media – while it’s good for taking and publishing quick photos during a breaking news situation, it overheats quickly when used for live broadcasting. Yikes. Pool also talked about Tagg.ly, launching soon: With one touch it will allow you to add location and your logo to your photos.
  • Matt Waite, professor of practice at University of Nebraska-Lincoln and founder of Journalism Drone Lab, FLEW A DRONE for us. Need I say more? Drones clearly have many exciting possibilities for journalism, but Waite pointed out that the legal environment is currently very unsettled – “this is a $500 constitutional challenge in a box,” he said. Will be interesting to see how that plays out. Waite noted that drones DO pose safety issues – those blades are sharp – but not to aircraft, given how low drones fly.
  • Discussions of journalism ethics can get pedantic. Refreshing take from  John Cook, editor-in-chief at First Look Media’s digital magazine Intercept: While we are all as human beings bound by basic ethical precepts such as honesty,  the ethics as applied on a professional level to journalists have been used to keep people out of the priesthood. This was echoed by New York University professor Jay Rosen, who noted that people can use ethics to “escape their anxieties” about new things and City University London professor Jane Singer, who noted that when new technologies come along, journalists stretch to find a reason not to get out of their comfort zones. Great exemplary quote from a US magazine journalist she interviewed in her research: “Blogging is little more than hype dished out largely by the unemployable to the aimless.”
  • Penelope Muse Abernathy, Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has a new book coming out called “Saving Newspapers” that sounds good.  Her key takeaways when it comes to pursuing new revenue: Advertisers are confused and look to news companies for answers. Come up with a rate card that encourages advertisement across mediums. Have a compensation system that rewards people who prospect and a good digital sales training system.
  • Jay Rosen was big-time preaching to at least this crowd of one when he said: Journalism schools allowed the teaching of practice and the making of academic knowledge by PhDs to evolve away from one another. Bad decision. YES,  INDEED. Philosophically, I am also a pragmatist, which, as Rosen said, means we believe knowledge advances when we try to improve things.  I agree that we need to put everybody we can to work on the problems of practice, and that we shouldn’t just be training grounds for future journalists but also as an R&D wing for newsrooms.
  • If you aren’t aware of startups like Homicide Watch and Policy Mic – you should be. Their passionate founders will restore any lost hope you had for journalism. For example, Jake Horowitz, editor-in-chief and co-founder at PolicyMic, argued that contrary to popular belief, young people DO care about news. They just need sites like his that know how to make the news relevant, and that a news site is only as good as its distribution channels.
  • Also from Baron:  The Washington Post is hiring three dozen people this year alone. Doesn’t count people  in business and technology. WOW. Thank you, Bezos, sir.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Enhancing engagement and a culture of experimentation

Increasing engagement remains a key priority for newsrooms today, and was another topic of focus at the American Press Institute’s Research Advisory Group’s meeting in February in Miami (I wrote about mobile earlier on this blog).

Engagement, while notoriously hard to define,  is conceived by most in journalism as some combination of as loyalty, stickiness, and/or a consumer’s likelihood to interact with and share the brand’s content. While many news organizations have slowly but surely become better at garnering pageviews, they increasingly recognize that this is a difficult game to maintain and that they ultimately can’t compete on volume with tech titans. Instead, they are looking to bolster ad rates and/or subscriptions by boosting metrics tied to engagement.

View from meeting hotel...not bad.

View from meeting hotel…not bad.

Two things stood out to me in the discussion on engagement at the meeting among some of the smartest journalism academics and professionals I’ve seen in the same room in a long time. The first was the need to create a culture of experimentation in newsrooms. This is close to my heart as somebody who studies organizational culture and change in newsrooms as well as how journalists can learn from startups to become more agile and improve their ability to learn and adapt quickly.

Lisa George, an economist at Hunter College, noted that at tech giants like Yahoo, they are running around 100 experiments at any given time, trying to find out how they can make the user experience better and get people to stay around. This was echoed by Matt Hindman, associate professor at George Washington University, who discussed how Google constantly uses A/B testing to measure ways to maximize stickiness, and recommended that news organizations conduct more robust user tracking and test multiple site versions. As I’ve become more immersed in startup culture through my teaching, I’ve learned how critical the build-measure-test cycle is to some of the most successful and fast-growing technology and information businesses. Other academics like Steve Lacy of Michigan State also noted the importance of getting more longitudinal data.

For example, one of the key insights from this kind of constant testing by Google is that even small differences in loading speed make a massive difference when it comes to stickiness. Small variations can compound quickly over time. Hindman said that Google’s first foray into A/B testing involved trying to determine the ideal number of search results to return for a query. They found that because giving more results increased load times, they saw as much as a 25 percent drop in traffic over six weeks if they offered 30 results instead of 20. George similarly said that even an additional half-second of load time is incredibly important to user experience: “How quickly can I find what I’m looking for?” is a critical factor for information seekers.

The second thing that stuck out to me was what academics do know about stickiness, in addition to the previously mentioned insight on load time – although it should be noted that all were quick to point out that these factors are always dynamic.  Hindman said that personalized content recommendations and sign design, usability, and aesthetics are the other key ways to keep digital visitors staying longer. More specifically, he said that news sites in search of boosting stickiness should consider: 1)More stories 2)More frequently updated 3)SEO and social media optimization 4)Headline testing 5)High-immediacy content (e.g. live blogs) 6)Affective content 7)Computerized story prospecting 8)Utilization of the news brand/individual journalist brand.

Of course, at the end of the day, these research-based insights are only as good as the ability to execute on them, as Lacy pointed out – and that, I think, is where those of us interested in how to galvanize change might come in.

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized