In praise of failing slow

I have a problem with Failing Fast.

It’s a phrase that crops up in discussions around newsroom evolution, and in presentations at journalism conferences, and I have to wonder, did whoever first coined the phrase (in a non-Product context, at least,) really believe a failing quickly and moving on to the next thing a good thing?

I guess it’s because it seems as though the underlying message is intended to be “we’re not attaching fault, we’re not blaming… we just need to experiment without repercussions, and Foster a Culture of Innovation (™️) ”.

I’m going to say that the underlying message of fail fast is hugely negative: It offers implied permission to a) fail; and b) make terminal and potentially hasty decisions quickly.

When you’re building an innovative new newsroom culture, don’t talk about failure. Don’t hang the idea of something not working around the neck of your shiny new idea pony, as you prepare to canter out into the arena.

It’s fatalistic and happy clappy all in one package – “it might not work but that’s ok! We tried”. Fuck off did you try; you gave yourself a get out clause.

One of the words I’ve found myself saying more often in relation to projects and ideas we test out is stickability.<<
e journalist/newsroom testing the innovation needs stickability in that a lack of immediate success is not judged as indifference or hostility from an audience, project sponsors need bravery to hold their nerve when returns – especially returns of audience or growth – aren’t as expected, projects need investment of people, money – and time.

Time, as the phrase goes, takes time. And newsrooms – or boardrooms, perhaps – don't always devote enough time to letting ideas and innovations find their feet.

You might hurry an idea into creation but you shouldn’t hasten it out of the door like an annoying relative, just because it hasn’t performed as you wish.<<
ve given my share of projects a midnight burial (no mourners, a hasty shovelling of earth, no flowers by request) but I know – because hindsight is a wonderful thing – that some of them should have been given more time to settle.

Instead of talking about failing fast, let’s plan to learn and adapt. If we fail slow we give things time to bed in, and from there we can iterate, learn, adapt, change. That's a more healthy space to introduce your culture of innovation.<<
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The end of ‘behind closed doors’ journalism

There are times in a journalist’s career when you are going to have to approach someone who is not having the finest moment of their life, and ask them to help you.

It might be calling on a grieving family, or approaching witnesses to an accident, or asking someone who has just emerged the loser in a tussle with Justice to talk about How They Feel.

The outcomes are sometimes unedifying, occasionally unpleasant but – more often than the non-journalist might credit – can also be mutually successful and beneficial. These interactions were also largely unwitnessed, except by those participating.
They happened behind closed doors, or, more accurately, on doorsteps – whether you got inside said door or not hinged, no pun intended, on how you conducted yourself, and represented your intentions.

I called it the Black Edged Voice and it would be employed for death knocks (low, respectful tone, apologetic demeanour for intruding, much stressing of the fact that I would leave  if the door-answerer wished, and would not return) and I was more often than not invited in.

I would interview the person or family; I would do my utmost to do justice to their dear one with a tribute. My goal was to give them a cutting that they would come to regard as a mini-memorial. Every newsroom had reporters who were ‘good on the knock’ – I suspect it comes down to empathy… and luck.

Things started to change in… I’m going to go out on a limb and say 2008, because that was when the first pebbles of social media sliding down a slope became a rumbling avalanche. In 2009 this happened, which gave me a personal insight into how my old-school ‘contacts’  had become my (much-wider) network and a plane crashed in the Hudson and (most) mainstream media suddenly got what was going on.

Now, when a news break happens, you can bank on Twitter being at the heart of it in some way, and often that’s because it’s where the witnesses are. If I’m passing a huge traffic snarl-up on the M6 my instinct is to photograph or video it and post it on Twitter with a hashtag (from the passenger seat, officer, of course) – my natural instinct is to share. And it’s a common mindset; whether you’re wondering what the noises overhead are, or seeing the Clutha tragedy unfold sharing the experience on networks is now a common thing.

But as a witness, or someone who acknowledges a connection to someone caught up in a newsworthy event, when you share that on Twitter you invite reaction, and a side effect of that is that the massed ranks of media are likely going to be in your @ mentions within minutes, asking for a) your content or b) an interview or c) probably both. For a journalist, it means these interactions are happening in the world; they aren’t behind closed doors or in a one-to-one exchange on a doorstep – you’re asking your questions on Twitter and onlookers may well view them as intrusive.

It’s not necessarily pretty but that’s beside the point – asking the questions, respectfully, within the Editors’ Code of Conduct, and knowing that varieties of “NO” may be the comeback are part of the job. There are two problems: Dozens of other media may well be @-ing the same “can we [use your photo, speak to you, ask you to put us i touch with X]?”; others witnessing the Twitter scrum get outraged (sometimes with good reason) and start throwing abuse back. This will usually include references to vultures, lazy journalism, disgrace etc etc.

This week’s Smiler crash saw a spate of no-closed-doors journalism approaches. Mercifully no one died, although the terrible injuries (I would imagine mental as well as physical) suffered by those caught up in it meant it was an incredibly sensitive story to stage a “can we have…” media grabfest on Twitter. This is pretty typical of what went on:

and this

Followed by

There are scores of these exchanges – I imagine her mentions column was in meltdown. She obviously was sanguine about the journalists who approached her (although if you read the full exchanges, it shifts from journalists asking for interviews to some fairly nasty tweets from non-media, taking her to task for the original tweet). But there are also variations on a theme of this

And it wasn’t unique – other people tweeting photos were getting similar requests, and similar views were being expressed

Is it fair? No. Do they have a point? Yes. Am I contradicting myself? Sorry but I don’t care. Publicly requesting content like this is a legitimate part of the journalist’s job, while taking photos without asking is obviously not; and yes, it can look shoddy to the wider world. That’s ok – most of us don’t come into this job to win an award for our high-minded purpose and nobility, we come into it to tell stories and let people know things they otherwise wouldn’t.

If someone wants to tell a journalist their story because said hack asked the right questions, politely, mindfully and within the Code of Conduct, that’s a valid exchange. When it fails is when the question is posed in a crass way, or we barge into exchanges between friends, because we had a Tweetdeck search running.

The above tweeter posted her content and opinion to broadcast it – she was happy for journalists to amplify the message. But an enormous amount of Twitter users don’t understand the network, or think that when they @ a friend, it’s not public. Leaping into what they think is a private exchange is a bit like opening the front door and walking in the room to ask if you can interview the grieving family, without knocking.

Just observe for a few moments and follow the conversation – you’ll soon work out whether it’s something you can step into (or another journalist will jump first, and you can take a cue from the reaction). Being first isn’t a great thing when all you’ve achieved is a mentions column of abuse, and retweets with added angry comments. It damages you, the brand you work for, and the wider journalism community.

When you’re using Twitter to find witnesses, treat it like a door knock. Sometimes, in real life, the journalism pack gets there first and you can ask them what reception they’ve got so far. On Twitter, a couple of minutes of observing conversations, or watching others rush in to the breach, can be very valuable. Knock at the metaphorical door if you think it’s appropriate, and be prepared to have it shut in your face – or to have someone else tell you to clear out.

But if you aren’t respectful, or you don’t conduct yourself in a way that reflects well on you and the title you represent (quick sense check: How would you react if you were the person you’re about to approach?) you can expect to get flung off the metaphorical doorstep and land in a heap.

Update: Here’s a link to Robin Hamman’s post on the VirginiaTech shooting – it’s not a new phenomenon.

Talking innovation, skills and the future with journalism students

After decades of not going to Sheffield, 2014 was the year I found myself there on several occasions – incidentally, what a fine city it is, once you manage to negotiate the frankly rubbish rail links that run from west to east.

My most recent trip was at the invitation of Sheffield University journalism professor Peter Cole, who asked me to give a guest lecture on how the industry is changing, in my opinion, and what it means for students. Specifically, the brief was to give an insight into my innovation role, what skills I looked for when recruiting, the digital transformation of the newsroom and my own experience, along with new ways to tell stories.

Here’s what I talked about, some of it is taken verbatim from my notes, some paraphrased for shortness but the gist is the same:

Past behaviours inform future ones

Many titles in the regional press have been working in online spaces for a long time, in digital terms. Way back in the sepia-tinted days of 2008 there was innovative, experimental work being done around live content, social media and the use of digital tools. It wasn’t perhaps the most structured approach but it did mean there was a lot of trying, learning and success (and some failing, but that was ok too).

In the years since then, the onslaught of unchecked code being shoehorned into a CMS (whether it could handle it or not) has calmed somewhat, but I think that digital Goldrush was important. It helped us understand how the new world worked, what audiences wanted from it, where mainstream media could fit into it, and the possibilities of building things that told stories in new ways. It also helped us understand that not everything would work, and those failures should be learned from. Regional newsrooms are inventive, partly because of their historic need to be that way. I think it can make us braver about pushing into new digital territories in the future.

Innovations team work

I don’t post much of what the innovations team does, partly because I do struggle to find time/connectivity to post a lot, partly because, y’know, confidentiality, and partly because I don’t want people confusing my personal views and the views and opinions of my employer. But I should do because I’m really proud of what 2014 brought, in terms of innovation.

We worked with drones (Side edit: Here’s a 2015 prediction: We’ll see arrests and calls for tighter legislation around drones. I was talking to an Establishment Source recently and it is a definite Hot Button as far as law-botherers are concerned) and turned longform storytelling into a commercial opportunity; we went live in the Manchester Evening News newsroom; and the Google Glass project we’re running has turned me from something of a skeptic into an advocate for the role of wearables in journalism. Next in the pipeline is more video work, and tapping into the Internet of Things to foster culture change and audience engagement.

What I find most interesting about the innovations team work, however, is that it’s much more successful when we involve others. Whether it’s teaming up with external third parties, or combining with skills from the data unit or social media colleagues, the end result is richer for collaboration. Journalism is as much about human networks as it ever was.

Newsroom skills

When I started job hunting you needed an NCTJ qualification, perseverance and a degree of luck to break into journalism. These days, I guess the skills I’d expect to see used by a journalist would be a daunting list, and probably considered unreasonable to those whose newsroom experience ended somewhere in the mid-90s (looking at you, Hold the Front Page commentators). However, these are skills you use a lot. Some of them you’ll call on every day, without thinking, and your job would be much, much more difficult without them.

And to students who think it sounds like too much is being required, I’d ask them to imagine trying to acquire these skills when you’re already working in a newsroom – bringing in stories, covering meetings, building contacts. And then trying to learn advanced Tweetdeck, or Excel spreadsheet wrangling. Learn it before you have to learn it, would be my advice, because learning on the job is hard. I know, because I had to do it.

There’s no ‘one size fits all’ journalist skill set any more. If you want to be a court reporter or a city editor, you’ll need to know Law and the pillar NCTJ skills or similar. But you will also need to be a skilled mobile journalist, adept in using a smartphone to shoot video, take photos, record audio, live tweet, and/or live stream.

As our audience becomes more device-orientated, we need to be there with them, providing the news – and our analytics show us that social platforms and live content are what brings us large audiences who are loyal and who share what we do.

So these are some of the skills and knowledge I look for if I’m interviewing candidates: An awareness and ability of and in audience engagement/social media; mobile and live journalism; multimedia; interactives; data visualisation; analytics; Search Engine Optimisation.

If you’re a senior journalist with an NCTJ or equivalent qualification, who wants to specialise in hard news reporting, you also need to demonstrate social media skills, multimedia abilities – video, audio, photos, for example – mobile journalism skills such as live tweeting or liveblogging breaking news and real-time events, data journalism, FOI familiarity, SEO knowledge.  Knowledge of digital tools such as Storify, timeline and mapping software, basic coding knowledge, detailed knowledge of social search and verification processes will give you an edge.

If you wanted to specialise in data journalism, the ability to use tools such as Excel, data visualisation tools and ability to source and extract data is essential, but I’d say you also need social media skills (not least because there are a lot of data experts on social who are very generous with their knowledge) to source and promote your work. Then there’s SEO knowledge, plus enough coding knowledge to be able to articulate to a developer what you want to achieve.

Social media writer or editor roles obviously need excellence across social platforms in terms of use, understanding of language and tone, copyright, sourcing and seeking UGC, ability to live tweet or run social Q&As, understanding and application of social analytics tools, SEO knowledge and an understanding of marketing analytics that reveal habits and patterns of users, such as what platform and what device, at what time.

Audience engagement roles are vital in today’s newsrooms. We rely on the ability to use analytics such as Omniture, Chartbeat, and social metrics such as Facebook Insights and Twitter Analytics, to gauge what matters to audiences and apply journalistic knowledge to developing and shaping content. Understanding the spikes that exist through the day – from the 6.30am traffic, travel and headlines, to the evening social conversation and long reads can be the difference between snaring readers and keeping them, and missing them completely.

These skills apply across all departments in editorial – not just news – and anyone preparing for an interview these days had also be up-to-speed on their IPSO, copyright laws, defamation and contempt in comments, and rights-of-use of UGC on social platforms, because they will probably crop up in any interview.

Like I said, it’s a long list but when you’re up against perhaps 200 applications, showing use of social and live journalism, data journalism, mobile journalism, and some awareness of SEO/analytics could be the edge you need.

The future

Journalists have learned a lot, quickly, in recent years about new way to tell stories and reach audiences. We’ve also learned what our audiences expect from us, because they tell us – very publicly across social media when we let them down. Social media skills are essential – it’s a publishing platform, a breaking news tool and a conversation engine, and expertise in this field can lead to an accelerated career path, just as it has allowed to growth of new business opportunities and media publishers.

There’s a lot said about the diminishing of the regional press, and it’s true some titles have disappeared, some have gone weekly or become purely digital, and probably all newsrooms have smaller staff numbers, than when I started 20 years ago. That said, I once worked at daily titles where the opinion column had its own journalist, who did nothing but that every day – I couldn’t then, and still can’t, imagine a working day so stultifying dull.

While traditional roles have reduced, new ones have been created and with them new opportunities. The route of reporter, specialist, news desk or subs desk, and then perhaps management is only one way to progress now – the newsroom conference table looks nothing like it used to- some don’t have conference tables at all.

In six short years, the newsroom as I knew it has changed out of all recognition, both culturally and physically. I suspect in six years time it will look different again.

Talking innovation, blockers and culture change at WAN-IFRA summit

I was amazed and delighted when WAN-IFRA contacted me recently to invite me to speak at the upcoming 13th International Newsroom Summit during World Publishing Expo in October, in Amsterdam.

I said yes  – what an opportunity to hear industry leaders from around the world talk about things I passionately want to learn as much as I can about! – and then I entered into a state of terror at the idea of public speaking at such an event. This terror has not left me yet…

Other speakers include Steve Herrman,  Editor of BBC News Online, Lisa MacLeod, head of operations for ft.com, and John Crowley, digital editor for WSJ.com in Europe, Middle East and Africa.

Anyway, ahead of the event WAN-IFRA’s Jessica Sparks asked me for my thoughts, as a regional journalist, on innovation, newsroom blockers and how the industry should continue to adapt and evolve.

Here’s a sample of her (very tough!) questions, and my response;  her article in full is here.

You’re speaking at the upcoming Newsroom Summit on strategies to prevent newsroom cultures blocking change. What’s the biggest barrier you have personally faced working in this space?

Inertia has been a terrible thing for the news industry – for decades nothing changed, and then everything changed, including the amount of revenue flowing into our businesses, and we just weren’t equipped to deal with it on an economic, cultural or and operational basis.

[Online] was regarded at best as a luxury, and at worst as helping hasten the demise of historic news brands. I think the biggest blocker was probably the ‘them and us’ mentality that existed between digital and print teams, because it fostered the idea that the newsroom Nerd Herd ‘did digital’ while everyone else did the heavy lifting. It wasn’t uncommon to find a journalist refusing to file breaking news stories for online because they felt it would damage the newspaper.

We’ve travelled a long way in a relatively short time, but we can never stop striving to do more – otherwise we will simply end up repeating the mistakes we made in the late 20th century all over again.

The theme of the conference centres on: “See how successful editors are syncing their newsrooms to the digital world. Over one and a half days, we will hear how people and processes are being managed to ensure growth in audience, engagement and loyalty”; my contribution will be on the important role of leadership within that changing world.