July 23, 2009

Newspapers and blue sky thinking

JD LasicaFor the past 10 weeks I’ve been a faculty member of the Knight Digital Media Center Leadership Conference, helping editors from 10 newspapers learn how to incorporate social media into their newsrooms. The online training sessions culminated in three days of hands-on, in-person workshops this week in downtown Los Angeles.

Some top-flight social media consultants — Susan Mernit, Amy Gahran and Paul Gillin (whose slide show Getting Over Fear of Failure to Make Rapid Decisions is embedded at top) — and USC’s Dana Chinn were also on hand, with Vikki Porter and Michele McLellan running the show. (Follow KDMC and Michele on Twitter.)

I came away from the session more hopeful than I’ve been about the fate of local news organizations. While newspapers still face formidable obstacles in addressing the systemic shifts under way in the mediasphere away from mass marketed products and toward specialized, socialized, fragmented media forms, I was intrigued to see the energy and creative ferment that animate several of the projects.

That willingness to experiment comes largely from the managers, editors and journalists who make the daily miracle of newspapering happen. Said one editor about the need to transition to a digital future — despite obstacles imposed by upper management: “We have bosses who think we’re on battleships when we need to be on speedboats.”

“We have bosses who think we’re on battleships when we need to be on speedboats.”

Another participant made the point that retaining certain employees in legacy jobs, when those jobs will go away, only does a disservice by delaying retraining and entry into a 21st century workforce.

Some of the projects that resonated for me included:

• The Philadelphia Daily News came up with the idea of Hot Button, a lunchtime online water cooler discussion around a hot topic of the day.

• The Riverside Press Enterprise’s plans to roll out a new concept, Inland SoCal, which will include content verticals such as arts/entertainment, dining, things to do, pets and shopping, to name a few, with channels created through content from both staffers and strategic partners. The Sacramento Bee is trying something similar with Sacramento Connect.

• The Charlotte Observer will deliver a newspaper for young readers in a Facebook format.

None of the projects goes as far as I’ve advocated in urging newspapers to open up their sites to become “open community platforms” exposing the rich, wide-ranging conversations and activities taking place in the civic townsquare. But sparks of blue-sky thinking flew freely throughout the three days.

Failure is an option

Almost anyone who lives within Silicon Valley has become familiar with the mantra of “fail often, but fail fast.” It means that if you’re not constantly innovating and trying new approaches — most of which won’t ultimately pan out — then you’re not opening yourself up to big successes. Creative failure is an inevitable, even welcome, part of the process.

Paul Gillin riffs on a related subject in his blog entry In praise of failure:

Social media offers unprecedented ways to avert this syndrome, or at least to cut it short. By listening to customers, we can identify and fix shortcomings much earlier in the product lifecycle. By engaging in continuous dialogue, we are more likely to hit the market head on with new products. If we don’t let failure become some kind of referendum on our self-worth, then we are much freer to experiment.

That nails it. Newspapers have traditionally been very conservative institutions when it comes to embracing change. That may prove to be their undoing — but not if enough editors are allowed to paint the sky blue.

Related:

Michele McLellan: Creative carnage: social media takeaways

• See the #kdmcleader tweets from this week

• Paul Gillin: Getting Over Fear of Failure to Make Rapid Decisions (slide show)

• Paul Gillin: Conversation marketing for newspapers (slide show)JD Lasica, founder of Socialmedia.biz, is now co-founder of the cruise discovery engine Cruiseable. See his About page, contact JD or follow him on Twitter or Google Plus.

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