Initially, the Nieman Journalism Lab’s look at how several highly touted innovation projects from 2006 fared, as part of the Newspaper Next project (more on that can be found here, but it’s a 2008 post), depressed me a little bit. As the Nieman post notes, of the seven projects, only three saw the light of day (including one by MG’s own Richmond Times-Dispatch — conducting market research to find out what local businesses wanted) and all three were not really started as a result of Newspaper Next. Others either never launched or petered out — a common factor seems to be aiming higher than your resources allow you to get. Also, some of the people involved at the outset moved on, so it wouldn’t be surprising if whatever urgency an innovation project had moved on with them.
So I was stewing a bit in mild despair about the industry’s ability to change. After all, these seven projects got national attention; these organizations raised their hands and volunteered to climb that stage, so you might have expected a serious push to have been made on all seven. The best that came out of any of them was an internal change in thinking and culture. That’s no small accomplishment for a newspaper company, but it’s pretty far short of what anyone hoped for five years ago.
But after thinking about it a while, I had to change my mind. Looking at my computer screen, with the TweetDeck symbol in the status bar and the word “Facebook” on one of the browser tabs, reminded me of a few of the changes that have crept through newsrooms since 2006. What the still-growing acceptance of Facebook and Twitter in newsrooms have in common with the Newspaper Next projects is an internal change in thinking and culture. Like experiments a few newsrooms have tried in opening their daily news budgeting process to varying degrees of public scrutiny (most recently rolled out in several Journal Register newsrooms), the idea of using social media to open the news process to public view initially strikes news people like it probably would strike a sausage maker if you suggested setting up webcams so people could watch the hog in live video all the way from the farm to the deli counter. A few years ago, it was not a popular concept at all. In some quarters, it remains highly unpopular.
But things changed. Those weren’t the only changes. Video, mobile, chat, website analytics – you could make a list of things that in many newsrooms now are part of the daily flow of conversation and (we hope) planning. The sum total of change from 2001 to 2011 in newsrooms is significant, but most of the individual changes were small and somewhat unheralded.
So I end up in a better place psychologically on this Friday afternoon than I had been a couple of hours ago. Incremental, internal change, as the Nieman Lab post notes, may be harder to notice and measure at the time. From Nieman’s interview with Tom Silvestri, publisher of the Times-Dispatch: “What happens is there’s no parade or Outlook invitation,” he said. “You don’t even get a cake with candles. But something happens.”