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.

The limits of cloud-based services

My Internet connection has been anything but “Comcastic” the last few days. I’ve been treated to frequent outages, slowness and, in general, a horrible experience. (Maybe Comcastic means craptastic?) Yesterday was even worse when my power went out for three hours while I was trying to work.

Both of these issues point to two inherent limitations with cloud-based services (software and storage that reside on the Internet, not on your hard drive). I use Gmail for e-mail, Google Docs for writing documents, DropBox for backing up my files, etc.

Well, when your Internet is not working and your power is out, cloud-based services don’t work. I was unable to write anything yesterday because I couldn’t access Google Docs. (While I could write in offline mode, I needed the Internet to get to my notes and files that I needed for my work. I also have a nasty habit of keeping some notes in my e-mail.) And while I could check my e-mail on my iPhone, I was unable to do any heavy duty e-mail writing, especially e-mails that contained attachments.

Don’t get me wrong, I love cloud storage and cloud applications. It allows me to work from any computer with a modern Web browser and an Internet connection. If one of my computers breaks, I can simply switch to another and continue working. My fortunes aren’t tied to a single machine.

But when the Internet is wonky or the power is out, local storage starts to look really good. I’ll have to work on a better solution that allows me to work better when I’m not online.

Today is the day for change in your newsroom

You don’t need a fancy new CMS, a new editor in chief, new business model or prayer to start innovating today.

This month’s Carnival of Journalism, hosted by Will Sullivan over at Journerdism, asks a very pragmatic question:

What are small, incremental steps one can make to fuel change in their media organization?

Pragmatic questions need pragmatic answers.

Stop wasting money on software and IT you don’t need:

Times are tight, right? Then why does every one of your employees have a copy of the full Microsoft Office Suite? A lot of those people probably hardly ever touch it, and those that do use the software could probably get away with a much cheaper software solution.

Don’t waste money on IT spending that you don’t need to spend, especially on software that makes you less productive. Most of your employees could do everything they need to from Google Docs. Google Docs is either free or cheap ($50 a seat for the premium version per year), and it allows for powerful collaboration.

News organizations are now trying to cater to different audiences — print, Web and mobile. It’s hard to properly disseminate content to those different streams without good collaboration.

Google Docs has fantastic collaboration built in. It could save a lot of time spent sending e-mails back and forth, and even — gasp — time spent in e-mail. Teams can share documents for specific projects. 

I use Google Docs for everything I do on BeatBlogging.Org. I love how no matter what computer I’m on, I can have access to all my documents. I love how easy it is to share documents with people. I love the simplicity. 

When I worked at Stars and Stripes, I had a full copy of Microsoft Office. There is nothing that I ever did there that I couldn’t do with Google Docs. In fact, I still used Google Docs when I wanted to share documents with other employees.

Yes, some of your employees probably need Office because it does have features that Google Docs doesn’t have, but the vast majority of your employees don’t need it. Regardless, Google Docs will help with work flow. 

Create a culture of learning, everyday:

This isn’t as far out as it sounds. Sign up for Lynda.com and similar sites. Purchase books on HTML, CSS, Flash and other tools. Encourage your employees to subscribe to RSS feeds of sites like This Week in Django.

Have your employees sign up for free blogging accounts at WordPress.com or a similar site. Have them sign up for Twitter, Facebook and other social networking sites. The only way to understand social networking is to get out there and do it.

Allocate a few hours each week when employees are expected to spend time learning new skills and tools. Encourage your employees to spend their down time at work learning. Allow your employees to take courses while they are at home.

Let’s make it easy for our employees to get wired, and let’s get everyone on Wired Journalists.

Have seminars and classes every week:

This again, isn’t that crazy of an idea. These seminars and classes can be led by employees. Many newsroom already host weekly classes where blogging, Twitter, HTML, social networking, video, etc are discussed. 

But if you don’t have qualified employees in some of these areas, bring in outside people. The last thing you need is for your employees to learn the wrong ideas and techniques or get discouraged when their teachers doesn’t really know what they are talking about.

We can’t honestly expect all of our employees to be up-to-date on the latest trends if we don’t even talk about what those trends are and how we can use the newest technology to produce better journalism. Remember, some trends aren’t worth our time. They have to help us produce better journalism and connect better with our readers. 

I’d also have every one of your beat reporters and editors reading BeatBlogging.Org for great ideas on how to incorporate social media.

Work flow says a lot about your organization:

Organizations with modern work flows are often more innovative. Now, maybe you can’t change your whole newsroom work flow overnight, but you can at least change how your team works. Maybe just your team adopts Google Docs to share ideas, but it will still make your team more efficient and allow you to produce better results.

I’d strongly consider project management software like Basecamp. Basecamp combined with Google Docs can help transform a newsroom into a modern, efficient organization. Many Web teams especially don’t have software to help manage projects and work flow.

Basecamp is the kind of modern IT spending that makes sense. Why newsrooms still blow money on Office or even Exchange e-mail makes no sense to me. Microsoft programs are terrible for collaboration, and they’re expensive. 

I think any small news organization would be crazy to spend money on Outlook/Exchange. A bigger organization can spread the cost around to more employees, but a smaller organization has to pay a lot of money for software, servers and people to maintain both.

And Outlook/Exchange that doesn’t really allow employees to be efficient because of its 20th-century mindset. Google Apps and GMAIL is a great solution for many newsrooms (if you’re a small paper like a weekly, you’d be crazy to use anything else).

E-mail is not a project management tool:

How many of your news organizations send out e-mails about mandatory meetings? How many of your organizations also send out reminders about said meetings? Now how many of your organizations how a calendar system like Outlook?

Well, why don’t your news organizations just place these mandatory meetings on your calendar? People need to stop living out of their inboxes. Your inbox is not where you should go to find out what to do each day.

That’s what your calendar is for. Many companies all over the world have created a culture in which e-mail is the main productivity tool. But using e-mail for anything more than it is intended for makes everyone less productive.

There really is no excuse for employees to be CCed and BCCed on every little e-mail. Frankly, it’s embarrassing when many employees get hundreds of e-mails a day. A lot of those e-mails should be IMs or on another, more relevant communication platform.

Outlook/Google Calendar, Google Docs, Wikis, Basecamp, etc will all make your news organization more efficient. We all have less resources today. Let’s put those resources to better use.

Outlook/Exchange vs. GMAIL

Will Sullivan, myself and others have argued that newsrooms should consider switching to GMAIL because of its interface, search capabilities, advanced filtering and tagging and other features.

Honestly, I am much more productive with my GMAIL and Google Apps e-mail (used with @patthorntonfiles.com addresses) than I am with my work e-mail at Stripes that runs off an Exchange server. And if I was forming a start-up, it would be a no-brainer to go with the cheaper, more Web-friendly e-mail client.

GMAIL just works better. But there are reasons why Outlook/Exchange are so popular in corporate environments.

I’m going to write some posts weighing the pros and cons of a newsroom making a switch from Outlook to GMAIL, but before I do, I wanted to harness the wisdom of my blog readers. What are the advantages of Outlook over GMAIL, especially in a professional environment?

A few that I can think of are:

  • Push e-mail – Exchange has it and it works well. Is there a way to rig this up for GMAIL?
  • I can’t imagine it being easy to transfer years worth of Exchange e-mail to GMAIL. A lot of newsrooms want through headaches when they went from Lotus Notes to Exchange.
  • LDAP support. GMAIL has a really cool contact manager that remembers everyone you have ever contacted, but I’m not sure it supports a company wide contact list. I know GMAIL does support CSV files, and each employee could manually upload a CSV file of contacts, but this seems less elegant than using LDAP.

Please leave information, suggestions and comments in the comments section of this post. Your help would be greatly appreciated.