editor on the verge

Online musings from the newsroom and beyond . . . by Yoni Greenbaum

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Experimentation is the path to online success

January 27th, 2008 · 11 Comments

One of the things that I truly love about having my own blog is the opportunity to experiment. This site has become my own personal laboratory where I can try out new ideas. If I read of something and want to see what it can do, I try it. And if it works I keep it; if not I chuck it. I think it’s an approach that benefits my readers and can help to grow traffic.

As of today, for example, you’ll notice a “listen” button appearing on my blog (it’s above this post if you’re at my site). This is functionality that I’ve seen on sites like Jerusalem Post. Simply, it converts my blog posts to audio files that can either be heard through an embedded player or downloaded to an mp3 player or even added to an iTunes playlist. I know you’re thinking that it’s going to be one of those creepy, computerized voices, but give it a listen — not too bad, actually pretty good. This is thanks to technology from Odiogo and best of all, for bloggers, it’s free.

I’m using this example not just to highlight a new way to enjoy my own blog, but also to hopefully illustrate the importance of experimentation and innovation. Sadly, at many newspapers experimentation and innovation have been replaced with process and stagnation. And, I would argue, at those papers both the employees and the readers suffer.

Employees are more likely to find satisfaction and enjoyment in an environment in which experimentation and innovation are embraced and as a result, will generally perform at a higher level. Readers and visitors to your site will benefit from a better site, better content and/or better functionality and as a result traffic to your site will grow.

I understand, that a newspaper’s website is not like a personal blog. Not everything that is free for me to use on my site is free for a commercial site and that it is not as easy as deciding to add functionality and just doing it. But it shouldn’t be as hard as it currently is. I have colleagues at newspapers where they wait for months for permission to add a Digg or other social networking buttons or where changing positions of elements on the homepage requires a discussion by a committee.

As an industry, I think this really needs to change. We need to be more nimble, more aggressive; we need to be quicker to act and even quicker to react. We need to stop being afraid of new technologies and start embracing them. We need to trust our employees and give them the room to work. Success for us online, would not be a bad thing — it is likely the only way to save our industry.

So take some time and listen to some of my other posts thanks to Odiogo and think about how your paper, your site can better embrace experimentation and innovation.

Tags: Audience Development · Best Practices · Blogging · Editor on the verge · Industry · Innovation · Online · Podcasts · Tools · Traffic

11 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Digidave // Jan 27, 2008 at 12:12 am

    Rule number one of the internet: It’s cheaper to try something then it is to debate about whether or not to try it.

  • 2 jack lail // Jan 27, 2008 at 10:44 am

    I like Digidave’s rule!

  • 3 JohnofScribbleSheet // Jan 27, 2008 at 10:48 am

    “We need to be more nimble, more aggressive; we need to be quicker to act and even quicker to react.”

    Well said, thats why I love startups and small businesses. If we want to change something we can do it in minutes.

  • 4 Damon Kiesow // Jan 27, 2008 at 11:03 am

    I am working on a hypothesis that a newspaper’s Website is an almost perfect external representation of a newspaper’s internal culture.

    This is true for the Web in a way it is not for print in a few interesting ways.

    1) The look and feel of the print paper is by-and-large the result of 100+ years of tradition, standards, best practices, style rules, beat configurations, staffing levels and edicts laid down by editors and publishers perhaps long past for reasons long forgotten. In short – a lot of what dictates the creation of the print paper is beyond the influence of the staff on a daily basis. Not because no one cares to change, there is just a lot of institutional inertia involved. This is also a strength as positive momentum can sustain a paper through circ declines and budget cuts.

    2) Most newspaper Web sites are less than 10-years old. Few were taken seriously until the last 3 – 4 years. There is probably a new design every year, new tools almost monthly, new content weekly. If there are any best practices in place they are recent and probably fluid due to the frequent changes on the site. In short – the state of your Web site is a direct result of the talents and strategies of people who are probably still on staff. This can also be a weakness if inertia is all that is inherited from the print culture.

    So, if your Web site is boring shovelware with no reader interactivity, poor or no multimedia, and is updated once-per-day and always AFTER the print edition is on the street, you are probably working in a newsroom with a rigid bureaucracy, a publisher still upset that the Web is free, a capital budget that is not investing in multimedia gear and a staff that is likely too worried about layoffs to get involved in innovation.

    But, if your Web site is a focus of community conversation, is creating new and engaging ways to display the news, is experimenting with audio and video projects, is attracting advertisers, is pursuing non-news audiences and has newsroom staffers blogging, podcasting, and Digg-ing, you likely have an enlightened publisher (or at least benign neglect), an editor who understands the Web is not Print, a capital strategy that invests in digital priorities, a training program the newsroom believes in and an atmosphere where the best idea wins, regardless of who proposes it.

    Bottom line, the Web is changing too quickly to allow us to fake sincerity. It is changing too quickly for us to wait for the ‘answer’ to be handed down from on high – be that the latest story in a trade mag, or the latest hype from a conference speaker. It is changing too quickly to rely on the internal tools and processes that have made newspapers successful for 200 years.

    To stay ahead of the curve the entire newspaper (not just the newsroom) needs to abandon the comfort of institutional inertia, hire the right people to work online and give them the freedom and resources to make your Web site work with and for your readership.

  • 5 Pat Thornton // Jan 27, 2008 at 4:47 pm

    Yoni,

    There is a fundamental lack of innovation at newspapers. It’s a huge reason why they are dying right now.

    The problem is simple: there is no culture of innovation. Innovation isn’t rewarded, because most editors and publishers don’t want to deal with an inevitable side-effect of an innovative culture — failure.

    Most newspapers are horribly risk averse. Top managers are hanging on to retirement. They want to do just enough to keep their jobs, so they can ride out into the sunset while the industry dies. If they risk too much, they risk getting fired and losing that golden parachute. In a culture of fear, which newspapers are firmly in, innovation can never be fomented.

    But innovation is the only path to salvation. That’s the fundamental paradox of newspapers. They’re in a death spiral, and because of this spiral they cannot innovate, but it is their lack of innovation that is causing this death spiral.

    Most writers and editors are just barely getting by, producing that daily miracle. The only “innovation” any of them have ever known is marginally redesigning the print product every 5-10 years.

    But the Web demands real innovation and a fundamental paradigm shift. It demands rapid and swift action, not the glacial change that newspapers are accustomed to. It requires people who are willing to let go of everything they have ever held on to.

    Do we really think all those newspaper employees who started before the Web was born really get that culture? Do we honestly expect them — most of today’s managers — to take risks on a medium that many of them barely understand? Of course not.

    It is up to owners to get the right managers and employees in place to take the necessary risks. And owners must empower publisher to spend money on new ventures. Innovation can never happen in a culture of cost cutting. At some point, newspapers will have to spend money to make money.

    And they’ll have to do something that most old-school journalist loathe to admit — print resources will have to be drastically cut back to beef up new, innovative Web and mobile initiatives.

    What’s the No. 1 complaint I have about my job? A lack of innovation. The culture just isn’t there. It would make my job a lot more enjoyable, and would ultimately improve my newspaper.

    But hey, why do newspapers need to innovate anyway? Right?

  • 6 The Journalism Iconoclast » Innovation is the path to salvation // Jan 27, 2008 at 10:07 pm

    [...] Greenbaum has a must read post about how “Experimentation is the path to success.” He argues that newspapers need to more nimble and ready to try new things, instead of [...]

  • 7 Mel Taylor // Jan 28, 2008 at 6:23 am

    forgiveness is easier to get than permission

  • 8 Pat Thornton // Jan 28, 2008 at 1:09 pm

    Mel,

    That is an awesome comment.

    More employees need to just start doing things. Generally, they won’t get in big trouble for trying something new, and they might get a lot of praise.

  • 9 Adrian Monck // Jan 29, 2008 at 7:48 am

    Yoni

    It is an annoying computerized voice. But congrats for trying.

    Best
    Adrian

  • 10 Join the Publish2 Election News Network - Publishing 2.0 // Jan 31, 2008 at 9:37 am

    [...] away — but news organizations can’t afford for innovation to have long lead times. As Yoni Greenabum wrote, “We need to be more nimble, more aggressive; we need to be quicker to act and even quicker [...]

  • 11 Join the Publish2 Election News Network » Publish2 Blog // Jan 31, 2008 at 7:41 pm

    [...] away — but news organizations can’t afford for innovation to have long lead times. As Yoni Greenabum wrote, “We need to be more nimble, more aggressive; we need to be quicker to act and even quicker [...]

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