Triggering journalism’s immune system

Posted on December 07, 2010 by Janet Coats

With a son in kindergarten this year, I’ve had plenty of occasion to think about immune systems. Any parent knows that the first year your child is in school, your home will become a laboratory for every virus that passes through the 5-year-old population. Even if you are a normally healthy adult, your body will likely spend that first year on red alert, your immune system triggered and ready to fight.

Organizations have immune systems, too. And I’ve been thinking about how change triggers the immune system of journalism organizations, fighting off what is perceived to be a threat. But like a human immune system run amuck, these organizational immune systems are fighting the invaders that might just be able to help save them.

Consider an example that’s drawn a lot of attention because of the parties involved, Allbritton Communication’s TBD project in Washington, D.C. Allbritton already had achieved success on the topic of national politics with Politico; TBD would focus on the local news space. gained plenty of anticipatory buzz, largely due to some of the site’s key players. Even before the local news site for metropolitan Washington launched earlier this year, those who follow journalism innovation were intensely interested in the philosophy outlined by TBD General Manager Jim Brady.

Brady, who has long been considered by those who follow online journalism to be one of the craft’s chief innovators and bright lights, was touting an approach focused on creating a site “that’s of the web, not just on it,’’ to use his words. That meant actively using social media to engage in dialogue with the community. And it meant a strong aggregation strategy that would rely on building a deep network of local blogs and community new sites.

The approach Brady outlined recognized the real power of journalism on the web: the ability to create a conversation that is both deep and broad. It is a strategy that recognizes that value lies not just in creating original content – although that is important – but in building connections and networks that reveal layers of local information and dialogue.

Beyond that, TBD would be an integrated newsroom bringing together both a newly created online news team and the television staff of two stations Allbritton owns, including the ABC affiliate for Washington. And that’s where the rub comes – bringing together a visionary approach to journalism that is of the web, not just on it, with a traditional media organization that can still see the web as foreign, an invader.

Speaking as someone who led the integration of a print newsroom, a television newsroom and an online newsroom in Tampa, I can testify to the enormous difficulties in blending those cultures into one that is truly interactive and web-first. An attempt to do so triggers the immune system of those legacy newsrooms, and they will resist, trying to hold on to practices and traditions that made sense in another time but lack currency today.

Just a year, a after joining Allbritton to birth TBD, Brady is gone, resigning in what both he and his employers said was a mutual decision. In an interview with Sarah Hartley of The Guardian in London, Brady described an organization whose immune system had definitely been triggered. Fighting that immune system no longer interests him, Brady said, and he now is engaged in consulting work while considering his next steps.

In general, people in an organization don’t resist change out of some evil intent. In fact, in today’s media environment, most front-line journalists are looking for someone to lead them into the future. Most know things need to change, and that those changes, while painful, are necessary for journalism to both survive these tough economic times and flourish in the future. Fear may cause them to cling to old ways; purposeful leadership helps them turn loose and embrace change.

Challenging the immune system requires vision and more than a little leadership bravery. In my next blog post, I’ll focus some more on what those qualities look like – and how legacy news organizations aren’t the only ones who need to worry about an overactive immune system.

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