Subverting newsroom culture

One of the partially useful things the Knight-Mozilla challenge has done thus far is start a list serv where the bulk of the conversation focuses on legacy culture and technology, and how to change them. Obviously, the context is supposed to be one of three challenges. In the course of addressing those questions, I think valuable background knowledge is introduced (and I wish I could link to individual emails).

Last week, I said:

I think I’ve solved journalism. Based on my experience as a newsroom & J-School developer who’s had repeat experience with crappy vendor software, this Knight-Mozilla challenge needs to do to crappy CMSes & support ticketing software what Google Chrome Frame has done to IE6,7,8. We must subvert corporate IT like nobody’s business.

Initially a semi-sarcastic remark, this comment started an off-list conversation that I’d like to bring public again, at least on my side. I do believe ground-up subversion can be an effective way of getting things improved when legacy culture presents such a formidable challenge. Here are a few things we’re doing at the J-School:

One: Everyone that works with me on a project has to use Basecamp. Email is not a collaboration tool, nor is it a project management tool. If a new collaborator haven’t used Basecamp, I give them a short introduction during the kick-off meeting and follow up with written documentation. I’ve had almost 100% success in shifting project conversations to Basecamp, but only about 50% success with getting people to check off tasks and milestones. Baby steps. The rest of IT has more or less adopted it, and there are a few people who have expressed using Basecamp in other contexts. Most of the core faculty have accounts now too. A summer goal is to introduce ways in which they can use it for fall courses.

Two: We’re writing documentation for everything. Use of new technology is dropped if the user gets frustrated with it, or forgets or doesn’t know how to use certain pieces of it. As such, we’re trying to prepare a piece of documentation for every support ticket we handle. Users should be empowered to learn for themselves. Technologists’ roles should focus on creating environments where experimentation by non-technologists is easy.

Three: Support requests are funneled through our (terrible) help desk software. If a user needs help, the current culture is either to email or go try and find the person they think can help them. I can’t even tell you how many questions I’ve gotten about Flash because I’m the “internet guy.” And I’m still reminding three or more people per day to file a support request instead of interrupting me while I’m in the zone. We’ll be a lot more effective at answering questions if we can instill a new culture that leverages technology to find people and resources (e.g. “go to Russell instead of me for Flash questions” and “the answer to your question is available on the tech website“)

Four: I’m pushing for more accountability. Use of project management software like Basecamp and collaboratively creating meeting notes in Google Docs are two ways of ensuring everything is written down. The sheer number of things that simply aren’t done because of miscommunication, poor planning, or lack of accountability has surprised me significantly.

When I use the word “subversive” in this context, I really mean “just do it. Have a vision for what you want your future to be, and hack the people and technology systems necessary to make it a reality. Pad next year’s budget by 10% so you can hire the contractor you need for that neat, untested idea. You don’t need anyone’s approval.


jake bayless May 23, 2011 Reply

Glad you put this down, Daniel. At my organization I like to call this subversion thing the “beg for forgiveness” model… I love it when it rubs off. I just wish I could pad it by 10%. 🙂

As I sit here and think about this… I can’t help but express that the missing link so far in the MoJo discussions is the concept of timeline. If the “story” metadata existed in the context of a timeline, and everything was selectively exposable to a public/anonymous site, then all we have left is filling in the database tables with names & definitions.

hmm. ponderous. Great threads.

Ian Hill May 24, 2011 Reply

You had me until “Pad next year’s budget by 10% so you can hire the contractor you need for that neat, untested idea. You don’t need anyone’s approval.”
That just won’t fly in the real world. You can’t just pad budgets at legacy, for-profit media organizations any more and expect that it will go unnoticed. And I’d have a helluva time convincing myself that spending money on a contractor was the right thing to do when my staff of content producers has been so decimated by layoffs that I can’t even provide basic coverage of my community.
I’m all for subverting the system, provided you’re willing to take the heat when you get busted (and you will get busted, and even if you’re successful, they won’t understand.) But realistically, it will need to be done for free.

Daniel Bachhuber May 24, 2011 Reply

Er, don’t take that too literally. Padding the budget may work for me this year or it may not. Also, I’m trying to go from 0 to 1 contractor instead of downsizing, so I think it’s a different situation. Ultimately, my goal is to implement more of the projects we have lined up simply because we have more manpower available. I have to be, uh, resourceful about how I get that extra manpower though.

albert May 24, 2011 Reply

Careful… you’re starting down a path that eventually takes you to enterprise project management hell. That’s a place where every minor change requires a form, opening a ticket, and a dozen people across three different teams with acronym names.

There are lots of parts of newsroom culture that are good and should be preserved.

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