The Importance of Asking the Right Question

This week I start a new job: Head of Content Innovation at KPCC/ Southern California Public Radio.

It’s a brand new position for the station and if you’re scratching your head trying to figure out what it means, you aren’t alone. Almost everyone I’ve talked to has had a different idea of what “innovation” means for a public radio newsroom. Will there be different kinds of programming? New podcasts? A greater emphasis on our social media channels?

They’re excellent questions that I plan to address from the moment I start. I will not, however, be in any hurry to answer them.

As journalists, we’re trained to seek answers as quickly as possible. We all want to be the one who lands the key interview or crafts the ‘BREAKING’ tweet. In a news landscape undergoing massive technological disruption, this emphasis on speed has become even more pronounced. But in the race to be first, it can be harder to find the time and space to think about what we are are doing and who we are doing it for.

So instead of looking for the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers that allow us to rush from problem to solution, I plan to spend a lot of time helping my insanely talented colleagues frame better questions.

“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask… for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”- Albert Einstein

This isn’t an idea that originated with me — at Stanford University, where I’ve just wrapped up a year-long John S Knight (JSK) Fellowship, they call it “framestorming.” Rather than building practices around predetermined solutions, framestorming is an effort to create better questions by generating dozens of different ways to ask those questions from multiple points of view. It’s an ethos that pervades the campus, from its d.school to the work being done by instructors like Tina Seelig, Michael Barry and Tran Ha.

I believe that emphasizing the way we frame questions will help KPCC do a better job of creating content that is useful and relevant to an evolving listener base. There is an ocean of difference between asking “What stories should we put in the morning newscast?” and “How might we be of use to our audience in the morning?” Answers to the first question are narrowly defined by the question itself — there will be stories in the newscast. Answers to the second question are limitless and could spark a variety of new ways to think about the informational needs of our community of listeners.

(a ‘framestorming’ session captured on a white board at Stanford University)

It’s easy to spend hours framestorming when you are in a class at Stanford’s spectacular campus. It’s another matter entirely when you’re in the middle of a busy newsroom, surrounded by people covering the sprawl of Southern California. So now comes the hard part — translating what I’ve learned in academia into the real world.

How will I do it?

I will ask “why?” A LOT. The answers will help us gain insight into what people need, not what we think they want.

I will encourage risk and, yes, celebrate failure. Journalists are expected to get everything right as often as humanly possible. So taking a leap to think about new ways to present information requires an awful lot of courage. Penalties for failure can discourage people from taking chances. So instead of hanging our head in shame over the ideas that don’t work, we will celebrate the process that affords us the best opportunity to find new ways to service the needs of our audience.

I will look for multiple, diverse points of view. I will talk to our super fans and to people who have never heard of public radio. I will spend time talking to people who don’t work in media.

Finally, I plan to be as transparent as possible in the hopes of getting valuable input from people like you. The more minds we have thinking about what’s working and what isn’t, the higher the quality of our ideas. I hope that you’ll tell us when we’ve succeeded and when we’ve made mistakes (because we WILL make mistakes) so that we can do better the next time around.

Watch this space…