Monday, May 19, 2014

Rebooting the Killer Robot in Your Newsroom

"Editing is choosing."

That wise adage comes from my former boss Doug Feaver, a legendary Washington Post editor. Doug was around the paper long enough to both earn a prominent mention in the acknowledgements of All the President's Men and help found the Online News Association a quarter century later. He also played a key role in hiring a number of accomplished journalists who passed through the Post. That says a lot about the importance of editing choices -- and not just the choices that appear in the copy under well-known bylines.

As editors, our choices define our news organization -- not just the journalism, but the public's perception, the makeup and culture of our newsroom and the direction of our products.

The Goat Must Be Fed, a new report I coauthored for the Duke Reporters' Lab, is all about these kinds of choices -- in this case the leadership decisions that determine whether a journalism organization will or won't take advantage of emerging data tools that can add new dimensions to the stories we cover. But the functions of the editorial "choosing" mechanism is little discussed or understood.

Here's how it works:

Becoming a newsroom manager turns us into killer robots. Our new cybernetic functions kick in almost the moment we are promoted. Like Arnold Schwarzenegger's Terminator, we suddenly look across our newsrooms through a computerized readout. A countdown to deadline ticks in one corner of the screen. The day's story list scrolls beneath that. Occasional news alerts or messages from the central hive node pop up, demanding attention. Neglected project plans and personnel matters blink for attention in a bottom corner of the readout.

When our reporters and colleagues approach with questions, automated responses appear on the screen:

  • Can you move that quote up?
  • Can you make that story shorter?
  • Can you file for the web?
  • What's new here? Didn't we already do this story?

We are busy robots, so when someone approaches with something new -- an idea for an interesting way to tell a story digitally, for instance -- our defense systems activate and generate a different response protocol:

  • We don't know how.
  • We can't afford that.
  • That's going to take a lot of time.
  • That's risky.
  • Give me a break! Our publishing system won't even let us embed a YouTube video.

Most of these responses spring from three almost universal newsroom challenges: people, budget and time. But if we want our newsrooms to do innovative work, we have to short-circuit this hardwired defense protocol. And the hack is not as hard as you might think. You simply turn these automatic responses into open-ended questions.

Here are some examples from a presentation I did earlier this month for "Hacking News Leadership" --  a gathering of news managers and digital journalists in Austin hosted a by the American Society of News Editor.

Those slides were derived from the conclusion of The Goat Must Be Fed, where coauthors Bill Adair, Prashanth Kamalakanthan and I offered a longer list of alternate responses. We wrote these responses to help news leaders bypass the questions that dominate our news days and ask them in new ways.

An excerpt:
"How can we innovate more within the reality of our current constraints? What does our audience really want and expect from us? Those questions can sound pretty abstract, but reducing them to specific, practical terms can make the big challenges less daunting. 
"Personnel questions: Who on our staff understands how to tell stories digitally, regardless of where they work now? Would shifting them (temporarily, some of the time, all of the time) create professional development opportunities -- both for them and for staffers who would fill in? 
"Coverage/audience questions: How much of an audience is there for all of our routine coverage anyway? Which stories can we stop doing so we can tell high-impact stories that are data-driven, visual and interactive instead? Are there topics or beats (traffic, schools, real estate, economic development, crime) where digital tools will have the most impact on our audience and our community? What stories will we find by wading into the data? How can our audience help? 
"Tool and process questions: Which low-cost and open-source tools can we use to do this work? Can we create digital “sandboxes” that allow our news staff to work around the constraints of existing publishing systems? Who else can partner with us (other news organizations or academic journalism programs)? Where can we find free or inexpensive training? 
"Organizational questions: Can we use editorial experiments to make a case for the newsroom’s technology needs? Or even our staffing needs? How can we make sure that any new know-how is retained and shared as broadly as possible with others in the newsroom? How can we present and promote our innovations to excite our audience -- and our sponsors?"
The point of all these questions is to turn conversation-ending responses ("We can't do that.") into conversation starters ("How can we do that?").

I can't promise that these questions will make your daily "people, budget, time" realities disappear. But they will activate and enlist your coworkers. Instead of being a lonely killer robot you will become the leader of a powerful and more creative army of self-actuated Robots for Good.

The choice is yours.