This Month’s Carnival of Journalism Question: What qualities should awards like the Online Journalism Awards endorse in an era of such tremendous change in the news industry?
I recently had a chance to help out the Nieman Lab crew when they were prepping their Future of News Encyclo for launch and one thing struck me: How few of the wildly-hyped news launches ever did much for very long. Many of them held one or more of ambition, pedigree or money, and not unusually had all three. Sometimes the founders would make off quite well, particularly when AOL was involved, even as their innovations would die, fallow on the vine.
It gets you thinking, and it certainly got me thinking about what’s worthwhile in the online news arena. And so I humbly (with much to be humble about) present the categories and runners up for what awards I would suggest the industry should be giving out:
A media curmudgeon recently wrote, as he was making his transition from print to web, that little of sustained value was produced on the web. On its face the statement is clearly rubbish but I thought it could possibly be resuscitated into a slightly more useful discussion: How can we ensure that we’re building not just news for today, but a valuable asset for tomorrow, next year and next decade?
YouTube and Hulu embeds, for example, look great in our quick hit blog posts, but they slowly fall victim to widget rot (with Hulu in particular, given studio’s byzantine licensing rules), tearing apart archives slowly and surely as moths in a linens closet. Go through the CNN archives and the pages are static HTML copies of what CNN looked like 10 years ago. Non-semantic markup, the embrace of widgetization and other live-for-today web strategies are undercutting long-term value and even survivability of media.
The sustainability award would go towards media that exemplify and lead in planning for long-term success, both editorially and on the business side. Innovative funding strategies that are showing real promise (i.e., not spending buck fifty to make a buck) would also be eligible.
Runner Up: Still Kicking
When I worked at the New York Daily News, a lot of the veteran reporters had little stickers, holdovers from the lengthy strike that almost killed the paper: Too tough to die.
Sometimes, that’s what it takes: The simple refusal to quit. Whether it’s a one-woman operation or a collaborative project that extends continents, some projects deserve recognition not because of a sexy new profitable model but simple because they have paved a path on how to balance passionate projects with the realities of modern life. These are typically privately owned by the founders rather than venture-backed or corporately-owned, but there are many variations on the theme of the news projects that just refuse to quit, steadily staking out a quiet claim in the news landscape of yesterday, today and tomorrow.
The online media landscape is littered with journonerd All Stars, rightfully recognized for excellent one-off projects. Much rarer however are models for, year in and year out, providing consistent access, coverage or analysis of issues. PolitiFact is one, but projects that regularly and consistently update databases, news guides and other ambitious projects show a committment not just to exciting launches, which are arguably the easy part, but supporting them for the long-term, creating a deeper relationship between online news organizations and the readers that can come back and now what they’re getting.
Journalists are, on the one hand, often told to be impartial scribes, the impartial scribes of the first draft of history. On the other hand, I’ve rarely seen a paper resist, upon the resignation of a scandal-plagued politician, gleefully injecting the fall was “as a result of allegations first reported by …”.
I think the rush of new analytics has somewhat obscured other, more traditional if less “hard” data points as well as other new potential data that could be analyzed and used as goal markers of “success”. Forget, for a minute, the page views and imagine there was a Google Analytics that could measure anything you wanted: Corruption exposed in dollars, civic engagement per page view, reduced childhood obesity, or any other metric.
Let’s look more holistically at these sorts of impacts, and reward the innovators.
Bad artists copy, great artists steal. Let’s acknowledge the great masters who came before. Sometimes the sites might be obscured by time and the hype cycle of new, new, new, but before Reddit (was big) there was Digg, and before Digg, Slashdot, and before Slashdot …
Who are the other progenitors? While the print canon is, I believe, fairly well understood, I think the collective memory of online news would be well served by enshrining and remember those who came before, even as many of them still linger or even thrive, quietly, in their own corner of the Net (See Sustainability). Too often, I think there’s a very real lack of “canon” in terms of what people know about the history of their own craft, although projects like Encylo and CJR’s news frontier database are helpful.
Runner Up: Falling (And Failing) With Style
A regular feature of my journalism talks these days is embracing a culture of productive failure. New initiatives should generally be mapped out: What will this cost if we succeed? What will it cost if we fail? And how can we benefit and grow from either scenario?
One thing I’ve taken from heading out to a few Lean Startup meetings is to treat initiatives like hypothesis. For MuckRock, that hypothesis might be that news organizations are under more pressure to produce more with less, and outsourcing menial investigative reporting tasks is a valuable proposition. Another is that applying public pressure can help reform open records compliance.
But like a good scientist, a good online news organization should be fully prepared to make as much use, or even more, use of a negative finding than of a positive one. How are news organizations taking gambles where they have a Heads I Win/Tails You Lose Scenario? These examples should be highlighted to help foster low-cost, sustainable innovation throughout the industry.
What other awards would you like to see created, and more importantly who would you grant these awards to? Leave your thoughts in the comments, or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.