Journalism needs a down and dirty revolution

A lot of businesses could benefit from the I like to call the down and dirty principles.

Down and dirty says you should never make something that your users don’t care about. Down and dirty means focusing on return on investment. It means admitting that we don’t have unlimited time, money or staff resources.

Once we realize that we have limited resources, we’ll focus on maximizing our resources to produce the best overall product. The core of down and dirty is incredibly simple: How can we maximize time, money and staff resources? Instead of saying, “If we only had more of X,” you’ll be saying, “this is how we can make the most with Y.”

And, perhaps most importantly, down and dirty abhors the idea of, “that’s how we’ve always done things.” Listen, if you don’t know why you’re doing something, you’re probably doing it wrong.

I ran BeatBlogging.Org on the down and dirty principles. We never made subjective changes to posts for the sake of making changes. Every edit we made had a clear purpose.

We also weren’t afraid of making changes or corrections to posts. Especially on the Web, the idea of finality doesn’t exist. We can publish content as the story unfolds. That’s really liberating.

We didn’t put monster production values into our podcasts (they are still better than most journalism podcasts, however). Rather, we focused on providing great content and we realized we couldn’t do it all. We knew that we weren’t going to be able to match broadcast level production values, but we also realized our users didn’t care.

Down and dirty means less overhead, less meetings and more of listening to users. If there was ever an industry that needed down and dirty, it is journalism today. Resources are being drastically cut, and the old bloated way of doing things doesn’t work anymore.

Here are some of the core principles of down and dirty:

  • Focus on ROI — With limited resources it’s all about getting the most out of what we have.
  • Balance quality with quantity — After you admit to yourself how much resources you have, you need to realistically figure out how much of something you can produce. From there, the quality will follow. You can’t put quality before quantity in a world of limited resources. If you don’t produce enough content on the Web, for instance, you’ll drastically hurt your ability to get page views, find users and build an audience. The next principle will help guide you further.
  • Good enough is usually good enough — With limited time and resources, our goal should be to produce a product that the vast majority of people consider to be quality. You can’t please everyone. It will never happen. If you try to, you’ll please no one.
  • Perfection is an enemy, not a friend — The problem with perfection is it’s an inherently nebulous concept that leads to subjective changes and wasted time. Journalism is inherently an imperfect business. We can make changes down the road. Perfection suggests finality. There isn’t a lot of finality in the world, so why should we strive to create it? The pursuit of perfection is more of a mental disorder than a sound management principle.
  • More content creators than managers — Journalism is all about content and products, not about managers, editors and meetings. A certain amount of managers and editors are needed, but most news organizations are very top heavy. You want to be bottom heavy. That’s called being down and dirty.
  • Beta is the new gold master — There is nothing wrong with creating a beta product. Even so-called shipping products have mistakes. Gold master software always has bugs. Cars always have defects. If mistakes happen anyway, why not embrace them? Why not say, we’ll put out what we can now, solicit feedback from users and then create a better product? In fact, there is rarely a greater sin than trying to create the perfect product without user input. You’ll usually find better results with creating a limited product, and then getting users involved to help improve the product. Same thing with reporting a story. Don’t wait for the perfect story. Get out there and report. Connect with users. Collaborate.
  • Don’t duplicate work — If someone else is already doing something, do not also do it. Link, embed or excerpt their content. If parents are taking pictures at a high school football game, for instance, it’s makes much more sense to work out a deal with them than to spend staff resources on taking pictures at said game. If another news organization already covered a story, link to it. If you have something new to add, add it to a post excerpting the other news organization, but under no circumstances should you ever re-report. Re-reporting is something newspapers did in the 1980s. Don’t be a fool.
  • Embrace open source — If someone else has already created a great piece of software, use that instead. Proprietary software is usually a money pit that quickly becomes outdated. Unless a proprietary CMS, for instance, is substantially better than Drupal, WordPress or Joomla, don’t invest in it. You’re wasting time and money for an inferior product (open source CMSs like Drupal are rapidly improving too). Open source also applies to processes and ways of conducting newsroom business. Learn from the best. Don’t reinvent the wheel.
  • Creative commons and social networks are your friends — There is a lot of good content available under Creative Commons licenses. There is also a lot of good content available on social networks like Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, etc. Utilize it.
  • Understand your audience – Every news organization has a slightly different audience. Different audiences prefer different content and different ways of covering content. Some audiences like long-form content, while others like serial blog posts and bullet point lists. You better understand which audience you have, because if you don’t, you’re wasting your time and your users time. Maybe your users would like podcasts. If they would, give them podcasts. If, on the other hand, your podcasts are flops, move on to something else.
  • Don’t follow the herd — News organizations constantly do this. Editors and publishers hear some buzzword (podcasts and Twitter) and they jump on it. Listen, everything you do should have a purpose. Maybe creating podcasts makes a lot of sense (this was a huge buzzword in journalism five years ago). For a lot of news organizations, podcasts were a huge mistake. Why? Most news organizations created radio-like crap, instead of trying to create a Web-friendly product like Buzz Out Loud. It ended up being a massive waste of time and money. If you’re going to create something, understand why you’re going to create it.
  • Let your users help — I’m a big gan of big photo galleries, but many journalists seem to think they’ll take forever to make. I mean, imagine writing 100 captions! Yeah, about that. Most people aren’t interested in reading 100 captions for one event. So don’t do it. Write one overview, and then allow users to tag and create their own captions for each photo. It will provide a better user experience and will save a lot of time. Note: I’m talking about big photo galleries, not short photo essays that rely on detailed captions. But the principle still stands.
  • Never turn down free labor — If users want to help, let them help. Maybe they’ll tag photos for you (this is how Facebook works). If people are taking photos and videos of events and uploading them to Flickr and YouTube, use them.
  • You can’t do it all — The day you realize this and go about your work realizing this, is the day you finally get what down and dirty is all about.
  • Light IT – Heavy IT usually equals big headaches and inferior productivity. IT should always help you do your job better, but Heavy IT leads to the IT department fighting people over changes. Instead, use Light IT and Web apps. I’d much rather go with Light IT and Google Apps, Zoho, wikis, Web-based e-mail, BaseCamp, WordPress, etc than rely on Heavy IT. How do you tell if you have Heavy or Light IT? Simple. Is your IT department about helping you figure out what’s possible or about telling you what’s not possible? Oh, and, Heavy IT is really expensive. If IT isn’t making you money, what is it doing exactly?
  • Throw crap at the wall — While everything should have a purpose, experimentation is needed. But there is a difference between good and bad experimentation. First, any experiment should be based on some research and logical thought process. “We should do X because it’s a better way to convey Y to readers.” But the other key to experimentation is to not be afraid to pull the plug. Experiment fast. Experiment cheap. Always experiment to make a better product.

In future posts we’ll look at examples of down and dirty work in journalism, as well of examples of the opposite.

  • http://www.twitter.com/duncankinney Duncan Kinney

    Great blog post. Thank you for writing it. If you liked this I’d recommend reading Getting Real – A book by 37signals – http://gettingreal.37signals.com/

    While it’s about agile web development you can apply it to anything you want. Journalism would benefit greatly from getting real and getting down and dirty.

  • http://johntedesco.net John Tedesco

    Easily the best thing I read all day.

  • http://www.greaterfalls.com david

    DAMN RIGHT. If someone was building a newsroom from scratch today – whether print, broadcast, online (or any combination) – this would be an excellent template for creating it. Well done.

  • http://almightylink.ksablan.com/ Kevin Sablan

    Thank you. This totally reminds me of Chirs Brogan’s pirate ship mentality. “They took whatever floated and could carry cannons and men, and they lobbed themselves at targets.”

    The question brought up probably applies to most news organizations: “Can an enterprise do that? Can they lob themselves at targets without worrying about their infrastructure? ”

    More reporters are reading blogs like this one everyday, but I get the feeling that not too most executives (decision makers) will ever see this comment.

    I wonder if, and hope that, the rank-and-file editorial crew can work as tugboats to collectively nudge the big enterprise ships so that they can can see how important it is to be part of this down and dirty revolution that “journalism” will carry out with or without them.

  • http://russellcavanagh.wordpress.com Russell

    A good template for just about any business. Nice one.

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  • http://www.hypercrit.net Michael Becker

    I don’t think it can be put much more directly or usefully. I’m heading into a new job as a Web editor with more or less complete control over the online news that leaves that place. I’m going to bookmark this post and put it above my new desk and send it to the other editors. Everybody should read this.

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  • http://www.lectroid.net Marc Matteo

    Be careful, mate. Lots of your rules, taken out of context, will be far more fatal than not following them in the first place.

    I can’t tell you the times I’ve been told to make it “good enough”. The problem is, if the person who is defining what “good enough” is does not have that focus on the ROI, the focus on the long term or an idea of what the audience expects then “good enough” won’t be.

    And then you’re left in the dirt, fighting for funding.

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