Reinventing the Newsroom

The Hand-to-Forehead Sound

Posted in Cultural Change, Digital Experiments by reinventingthenewsroom on November 19, 2009

I’ve always thought that one way you know you’re learning is you’re surprised a lot. If I’m right about that, I’ve learned quite a bit in the last few weeks.

There was the moment I got Twitter lists by seeing what the Texas Tribune was up to with Tweetwire — a moment that was equal parts “A-ha!” and whatever sound your hand makes impacting your forehead in frustration. I’d gotten used to Twitter as a way of delivering news and to it as a way of promoting a brand (whether personal or corporate), but it hadn’t occurred to me that a news organization ould use Twitter lists as simple but powerful aggregation, putting together a mix of sources from its own ranks, other news organizations, bloggers, readers and public figures/organizations and sharing that as a real-time news feed. That was exactly what I did with Twitter as a user, but I missed the simple idea that a news organization could do it to. Hand to forehead.

Then there was the moment the light went on while I was reading the Abernathy/Foster report, with their note that print papers defined community (and prepared content accordingly) based largely on geographical and political boundaries, while the Web’s aggregators define the boundaries by special interests. That was interesting; soon after that came their advice that newspapers rebuild around specialized audiences and communities, including hyperlocal. It was that last part that really made me sit up. I’d been talking up hyperlocal because I’m keenly interested in the increasing intersection of the global Web with real-time information and locations, and in what newspapers can do to reclaim a more vital role in civic life. But in focusing on hyperlocal so specifically, I’d lost sight of the fact that it’s a kind of specialized audience. Hyperlocal’s very important — we all live somewhere — but it’s not necessarily the only way to build community, and in some situations it might not be the best way. Hand to forehead once again.

I think this is why I had such a strong reaction to the dust-up over the Columbia Journalism Review’s critique of the Spot.Us garbage-patch story: I thought some of the early criticism was defensive and dogmatic. That’s never good, and it’s particularly unfortunate given how new all the digital-journalism initiatives are. We can’t be closing ranks behind the merits of alternating current or direct current when we’re still just trying to keep a fragile carbon filament lit. We’re experimenting, and that means ruthlessly poking and prodding and questioning and critiquing, iterating and borrowing and discarding. Strong opinions are productive and essential; orthodoxies are counterproductive and distracting.

I’ve learned an enormous amount, and it’s embarrassing to look back and realize how stuck I was in a certain well-worn groove when I wrote something, or how I didn’t see you could do something slightly differently at the start and get a very different result. But given the tumult all around us, it would be worse to look back and find my opinions are exactly the same as they were when I started writing this blog, or three months ago, or even a month ago. So I hope I keep hearing that hand-to-forehead sound, even if the slap sometimes hurts.

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I conduct periodic Web chats with my friend David Baker of EidosMedia. Here’s our latest back-and-forth, looking at Web metrics and publishers’ changing expectations about audiences and scale.

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