At one point in my career, I worked in a local TV newsroom that was so rigidly programmed, the idea of innovation in the field was almost laughable. It was an invitation not to be rewarded, but to get told “that’s not the way we do things” and almost certainly get reminded at your next review that you don’t seem to be “with the program.”
It was the kind of shop where decisions on how to do TV news had nothing to do with the reporters and photographers who lived in the market deciding the best way to tell the stories they experienced in the field, but rather, merely following the formula cooked up somewhere else (I always envisioned a windowless conference room with hideous bagels and lame coffee and nothing but non-news executives and consultants with a love for PowerPoint around the table) and handed down from corporate to news managers to crews.
So with a memory of those days sending a chill down my spine, I read Greg Emerson’s post on Medium, “5 lessons news organizations can learn from Amazon.com.” Emerson, deputy editor at Newsday and a professor of journalism at Long Island University, makes some great observations, particularly this: “the people closest to the problem are best positioned to solve it.” Wow, yes:
If the problem is “how do we cover elections in a new and unique way” then put a politics reporter, a designer and a video person together to figure it out. If the problem is load time on the mobile app, then a developer, metrics person, UI specialist should attack it. If the problem is people unsubscribing from your newsletter, put a content person (Web producer), a marketing person, a designer on it. If it’s a declining audience in your health section, put your health reporter, metrics person and homepage producer on it.
As Lara Setrakian, founder of News Deeply, said about her company’s approach, “let reporters play.”
Emerson’s not specifically talking about TV newsrooms, but the principle here is the same. Imagine if you asked a reporter, a show producer, a web staffer, and a photographer to brainstorm election night coverage. What would it look like? Would we just put reporters on risers at the back of election night parties all over town like we usually do? What if we tried something different?
What if, as Lara Strakian says, we let the reporters (and the photogs) play, instead of simply using the same corporate cookie cutter on every story?
Mashable’s Jason Abbruzzese noted recently that in his first year of owning the Washington Post, Bezos hasn’t done a massive redesign or closed the printing presses to go digital-only, but rather, WaPo has started the far more difficult process of turning the giant ship toward a culture of innovation in its thinking. Bezos installed developers in the newsroom, working directly alongside reporters:
Executive Editor Martin Baron has been a journalist for about 38 years, having worked at numerous national newspapers including the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and theBoston Globe. He came into the head editorial job in late 2012 with a paper losing money and expecting layoffs. Now, he is reporting to a man with deep pockets and and his own ideas.
“I think that what Jeff Bezos has brought is a lot of questions about how we do our business, go about our business. He’s brought ideas about what we might do, and then he’s brought capital, so he’s given us this capacity to experiment in a variety of ways,” Baron said.
Baron noted that the embedded developers have helped drive home that digital is a priority.
For many local stations, the way it’s always been done–with the addition of social media and the web team–is still funneling cash into the corporate account. But should innovation not be part of the daily discussion? Or is that best left to off-site corporate thinkers? What’s the attitude toward re-thinking things in your shop?