Can you think of any group of professionals who spend more time fretting over the future than journalists? On any day, in some clattering corner of a typical newsroom, you’ll find a confab of writers, editors and owners, desperately trying to predict, outrun and hack the future. Did someone say more apps? Paywalls are the answer! Maybe “engagement” will save us?
It’s an understandable inclination, of course. In the last decade the media has gone through more upheavals and overhauls than just about any other sector. And all the signs indicate the industry is in a death spiral. A recent Business Insider tally put the number of media-related layoffs at more than 7200 this year alone.
Some of this vexation also has to do with our journalistic DNA. Good newsfolk are serious skeptics, dedicated dissenters, top-notch nay-sayers. We question the conventional wisdom, and it’s a laudable instinct. So when we’re handed a the-future-of-news-is-bleak-so-just-get-out-now narrative, our reaction is to try to get answers. But we are rarely asking the right question. When we fret about the future of journalism, what are we arguing about, exactly? Sure, readership is down. But people are still thinking. Some of them may even hope to form the odd opinion one day. Facts aren’t going away, just our ability to, you know, survive by presenting them.
Then there is the media’s infatuation with introspection. Again, the instinct is worthy. Journalists make mistakes. Doozies. And we should recognize them and correct them promptly and purposefully. At any reputable news organization, mistakes should yield to self-correction. But how much correction is enough? Our industry is wedded to soul-searching like no other. Politicians talk all the time about a broken system, but reject any notion that a problem might exist within their own house. And when was the last time a group of Too Big To Fail bank executives took the latest financial scandal as a chance to blow up their shared business model?
So how do journalists avoid the paralysis that comes with too much prognosticating and navel-gazing? Well, some recent insights may offer a way forward. I’m enrolled in the Social Journalism program at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. This week we tried incorporating Design Thinking into our plans for how to deliver better journalism. Design Thinking is a systematic, iterative problem-solving process that encourages organizations to focus on the people they’re creating for. Design Thinking has some overlap with the “fail fast, fail often, fail early” ethos of Big Tech. The idea is, just get your idea out. A journalist using Design Thinking to decide how to document rising crime in a neighborhood might decide citizens are best served by a podcast. Another journalist might tackle a story of incarceration by holding a series of comedy shows in prison. Maybe these are fantastic ideas. Or not. Design Thinking encourages you to just put your ideas on the table, and then try to break them. If they break, which is likely, try again. It’s a kind of Scientific Method for storytelling.
I did well, in that I failed. I proposed a series of street actions to bring attention to the law surrounding loft housing in NYC. It was a terrible idea. So I quickly corrected course and presented my new idea; an app that would shed light on the issue. Also terrible, but less so! I monkeyed around with the idea and presented it again. See a pattern? Here’s the thing, though. While I was busy failing, I wasn’t wringing my hands about whether this was the right path to take, or whether the results would be exactly perfect. I was just doing. And re-doing. It felt good.
All Hail Failure. At least its progress.