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More newsrooms experiment their way to success

“As more news organizations do more with less, they must identify ways to fail smarter and prevent past failures from stifling the exploration of new ideas.”

The news industry is under immense pressure to develop new habits of achievement. As we in the news business strive to gain new readers, keep the ones we have, and earn their loyalty, we must fundamentally change the way we direct our efforts.

Having a healthy bias towards action is a great start. For a while, I believed in the “fail fast, fail often” approach — until the losses were so great that I didn’t. I watched momentum build around new ideas, only to fail. We were trying but weren’t finding success. Looking back, our attempts lacked a framework for capturing what we learned and a system for measuring results. As great as some ideas seemed, we forgot to center the user to begin with. In this way, it is important not to conflate an attempt with experimental design.

It was after learning the power of experimentation at the Lean LaunchPad at Stanford, that I became convinced that failing fast and often is in fact a great mantra. And if it’s insights that you’re after, the process of discovery can also be quite fun.

Failing is a core function of learning. Too often though, the greatest missed opportunities are the insights that fail to be realized. As more news organizations do more with less, they must identify ways to fail smarter and prevent past failures from stifling the exploration of new ideas. If you are looking for places to begin this work, “how might we” statements become opportunities to revisit past disappointments or look to new ideas.

The newsrooms that win in 2019 will be in search of better experiments to test. They will increase their volume of experiments, doing them fast and often. By committing to the careful process of testing their assumptions, they will iterate their way to precision and discover what works and what doesn’t before taking ideas to market. They will conduct tiny controlled experiments where there is no shame in failure, and constantly ask, “What did we learn?” And here’s the most important ingredient: They will place audience members at the center of their efforts and surface their most pressing needs.

Experiments that lead to insights are beginning to catch on. The Times Open Team, BBC News Labs, and NPR’s Hypothesis-Driven Design playbook are fine examples of large organizations creating space to exploit the power of experiments. But smaller organizations are also getting in on the action. My recent visit to The Shorenstein Center at the Harvard Kennedy School during the Single Subject News Project this winter with the Reveal engagement team confirmed this. The project aims to “discover best practices on how nonprofit, single-subject news sites can engage, grow and monetize their online audiences.” A cohort of nonprofits gathered to share successes, failures and insights gleaned from the experiments they were encouraged to try. It was the best example I have seen of smaller news organizations learning to hypothesize, design, test, and share what was learned.

Bernard Roth, a founder of the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford (known as the d.school), begins chapter 4 of his book, The Achievement Habit with a quote from Anthony Robbins. “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten.” I see our industry in this. We haven’t done the best job of exploring alternatives to old practices. This year, we get better.

Large budgets and large teams aren’t required. But well-designed experiments and well-rounded teams ready to discover the next insights that will drive the next prototype, are. Get started by creating an environment of creativity. As Steve Blank would say, “Get out of the building,” move beyond the analytics dashboards and start talking to real humans to figure out which of their problems you’d like to solve. Try your hand at a design sprint. Be lean, or as efficient and low-cost as possible. Learn to design great experiments you can test with humans.

The next great idea in publishing — one supported by evidence — is an experiment away. With the right fail-smart habits and reasonably tempered expectations, news organizations of all sizes can empower teams to be entrepreneurial and enjoy newfound success.

Michael Grant is cofounder of the Survival Kit for Journalists of Color and user experience design editor at Reveal for The Center for Investigative Reporting.

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