Friday, December 23, 2011

Online journalism needs '20 percent time.'

Sometimes I ask myself if there's really any creativity left in online journalism.

Let's face it: innovation in online publishing is awfully hard to come by these days. It may be because we're so busy looking at everyone else's work 24/7 that we can't wall the assault off and think for ourselves. But it may also be because we are, in this endless and boundless news cycle, without the structure that forces us to think.

In the magazine world, the format dictates idea incubation. A lead time and a firm publication date helps drive hard but reasonable deadlines. The inability to publish sooner insulates the a person's ideas from escaping unbaked. The structure forces them to think; the same applies to broadcast television and radio.

But online, the beta culture that persistently urges to get-it-up-right-now-and-move-on reinforces a reactive, not proactive, stance. Investigative journalism, pensive features and other hallmarks of quality content are, like the process of drug withdrawal, difficult to confront when the easy way out presents itself at every turn, every second.

The "hair of the dog" would not exist without the hangover; shoddy -- OK, perhaps just superficial -- journalism would not be so pervasive if it were more difficult to publish it. The burden then rests entirely on an editor's shoulders to build this structure, often in direct opposition to the data-driven interests of his superiors.

Google made headlines early in its corporate life by publicizing that it gave engineers "20 percent time" -- that is, one day a week to work on whatever the hell they wanted, so long as it would benefit the company in some abstract way.

Why don't we have this at media companies?

For an industry that must reinvent itself constantly, I'm kind of baffled by this. Sure, editorial meetings serve as a sort of forced innovation, but they only provide narrow results: find a new story for this, a surprising source, a new theme for a forthcoming issue. Ideas about coverage get bounced around, but no one's rethinking how the business works.

Online, where editorial people need to find a new feature and product people need to rethink how they present content and engineers need to rethink how they build the systems that lie beneath, this matters. Media companies can't just give their engineers a day to daydream; they need to do the same with marketing, editorial, communications, product and sales teams.

Because if you're not innovating, you're dying. And too many publications are already dead.

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