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Local news fails — in a good way

“If local newsrooms are going to achieve digital sustainability, we must try new things. That means getting out of our own way and taking risks, while knowing some attempts will fail.”

I like to believe I have a growth mindset. When my kids fail at something, I help them step back and evaluate what they learned. I’m not above quoting Einstein — “anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new” — or invoking superheroes to make my point.

But that message is a much harder sell in a local newsroom.

Some of that stems from the way we’ve been trained. There’s simply no room for failure when it comes to reporting the facts. You’re taught to get it right the first time, or else.

Also, local newsrooms are strapped for resources and don’t have the time or money that could allow for experimentation and, in turn, failures.

But if local newsrooms are going to achieve digital sustainability, we must try new things. We need to experiment with different approaches to coverage and revenue. We have to deepen the relationship we have with existing audiences and start designing for new ones, without sacrificing fairness and accuracy. That means getting out of our own way and taking risks, while knowing some attempts will fail.

Failing may be the easy part. We’ll need to be careful how we communicate what worked and what didn’t. Creating a culture of experimentation means sharing those lessons widely, not just within a team. Success can be even harder because it may require tough decisions about what you need to stop doing in order to start something else.

I’m encouraged by the increasing number of local, legacy newsrooms that are taking a structured approach to experimentation and failure (looking at you, Sacramento Bee). They are designing for audience’s shared interests, testing different kinds of coverage and failing quickly. They are squarely focused on growing their local and loyal digital audience and kill activities that don’t connect to that goal. These newsrooms will learn what works and what doesn’t way faster than those who aren’t even trying.

As more attention is paid to the crisis in local news, it’s critical that more journalists embrace failure, and share their mistakes as they go. The Table Stakes program is leading the way, highlighting case studies of experiments at the local level.

My new year’s resolution is to practice more of what I preach to my kids (not everything, though, because if given the chance I will always eat dessert first) and find a way to incentivize experimentation. The future of local news depends on it.

Kristen Muller is chief content officer at KPCC.

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