An end to the tweaking

Posted on December 09, 2010 by Janet Coats

In my last post, I talked about how the threat of change can trigger any organization’s immune system, and how news organizations have been paralyzed by that reaction at the time they most need to be bold.

Some of the folks who responded to that post had this reaction: Same old story, nothing new here. When, they asked, will fear of extinction trump the desire to hold onto the old ways?

The answer for some, unfortunately, may be never. Too many news organizations are run by people who have a deep investment in the way things were. Look at the top of traditional organizations: Many are run by people who are closing out a career, or whose background is in the manufacturing and distribution end of the business – the very parts of legacy operations that have the least value and relevance going forward.

So what does it take to make the leap? It takes a willingness to call out those who would keep us in the past. It takes a willingness to challenge every assumption, to invest both thinking and financial power with those who are focused on a digital future instead of living in a legacy past.

That’s what the Journal Register Co. is doing, and their story is a very interesting one. I’ve spent most of this week reading and re-reading a presentation Journal Register CEO John Paton gave at the INMA Transformation of News Summit and then posted to his blog. You can find it here and I highly recommend spending time with it.

Paton talks about the thinking behind the Journal Register’s approach and some of the tactics they are using to bring that thinking to life. Many of the ideas are familiar to those of us who labored in legacy media these last few years: the need to slay the production god, to put the emphasis on the parts of the company that have future value instead of reinforcing old behaviors, the absolute imperative of putting folks who understand digital thinking in the position to run things.

I think two points he makes are important not just for legacy media organizations, but for the startup organizations and entrepreneurs who are trying to create a new future of journalism.

First, we have to stop trying to be “on’’ the web and focus on being “of’’ the web. There is no doubt that legacy organizations have not invested the time and energy in really understanding digital media. They view it as a distribution channel, when it truly is a completely different medium with different values, different currencies, different behaviors that need to be understood and then internalized.

But having been around a few startup operations in the last several months, I think some of those entrepreneurs should consider that advice as well. Many are focused on maintaining a strong website. They aren’t looking at what being “of’’ the web means in a mobile, social, geolocative age. Spending time thinking about that will be an important piece of avoiding the obsolescence some print journalists fear.

But the section of Paton’s presentation I keep coming back to is this one:

“You don’t transfer from broken. You don’t tinker or tweak. You start again – anew.’’

Legacy newsrooms have been tweaking around the edges for years. I know – I was quite the accomplished tweaker myself. But you can’t build a future out of the broken shards of the past. You have to let go. You have to jump.

I think this is an important phase for the entrepreneurs to keep in mind as well. I’ve said before that it takes no time at all for today’s radical idea to become tomorrow’s orthodoxy. We do not live in an information world where a single answer, an lasting solution is coming. We live in a world where one radical change will be subsumed by the next.

To survive and thrive in that age, we need to keep asking ourselves if we’re tweaking or innovating. We have to honestly look at what we think we know and ask if that knowledge still applies – or is it broken?

That’s true for all of us. Legacy journalist or entrepreneur.

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