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Seeing our blind spots

“We in the news industry are notoriously bad at good business practices. Management, training, and company culture. Learning and implementing new processes for getting things done. Testing. Communicating internally. You know, acting like we’re professionals.”

This year, more newsrooms will recognize and address their blind spots. We’ve all got ’em, and if you think you don’t, you’re walking around with toilet paper stuck to your shoe. Here are three categories of blind spots I have and am working on.

First are your red-hot, urgent, and obvious blind spots. Pew has reported once again that journalism gets an F in representation. If we want a C-minus, we have to start immediately — and don’t skip this section if you don’t have any open positions right now, because the work starts well before you’re actually hiring. One million years ago, the inimitable Lam Thuy Vo wrote this guide to building a diverse newsroom. Here’s a CJR one from only half a million years ago.

Why will newsrooms do this in 2019? Maybe because they didn’t do it in 2017 or in 2018. But having a diverse newsroom is part of how you get an honest look at the world, and that’s theoretically what we’re doing here in the news business.

More pressingly (or depressingly), newsrooms will get on it because there’s building public pressure, and because it’s increasingly plain that representation is a huge issue. Do you have any idea how embarrassing it’ll be if the Oscars figure out the importance of diversity before newsrooms do? Come on. Click the guides above! Start now! The Oscars are in March and there’s no telling what they’ll do!

Better reason to start now: It takes time and effort. It took me a couple of years of active work in this department before results started catching up to my intentions.

Then there are your slow-burn, death-by-dogma blind spots — newsrooms have been proudly divorced from their economic engines forever, and much has already been written about this, too. But getting to build a membership program for my newsroom and understanding how and why it worked gave me a new feeling of agency and accomplishment. I was able to align the money with the mission. But first I had to be involved.

More newspaper reporters are tweeting about why people should subscribe. This is a good start, because it’s a first step into the larger world of a more active role in the business model. Whether your newsroom is subscription-based or donation-based, for-profit or nonprofit, you should be following things like the Membership Puzzle Project and the American Press Institute’s research on why people pay for news. Then do what journalists do — combine research and curiosity with determination and civic-mindedness to make an impact.

Why will newsrooms do this in 2019? Well, the other option is going out of business. And that’s gotta go out of style at some point, right?

And there are important blind spots people don’t talk about as much. We in the news industry are notoriously bad at good business practices. Management, training, and company culture. Learning and implementing new processes for getting things done. Testing. Communicating internally.

You know, acting like we’re professionals.

We’ve learned over the years to file right at deadline, then hop to the next story or project. We’re missing processes that should start before and after projects. I should thank media design genius Hong Qu for pointing me to Steve Krug’s Rocket Surgery Made Easy, which was my own first step into learning how and why Denverite’s products worked and didn’t work for our readers. New York Times/Texas Tribune veteran Tim Griggs recommended Amy Jo Kim’s Game Thinking, which is giving me a lot to think about as I try to make our products better for readers and members.

(Reminder: I’m an editor! This advice is for everybody in the newsroom!)

And my colleague Brian Boyer recommended Start With Why by Simon Sinek and Radical Focus by Christina Wodtke. Both have improved the way I think about communicating with my team, making sure we’re working on stuff that is rewarding, building toward a sustainable future and putting colleagues in a position to succeed.

These books, it has to be said, are the kinds of things that most journalists I know recoil from. They’re not written for us, generally speaking. But neither is basically anything you FOIA. Get over it. Get into it.

Why do I think newsrooms will work on all of these things in 2019? I lied! I predict most won’t. Frankly, I bet a lot of people clicked away somewhere in the representation section. But if your newsroom takes action now, I predict it’ll outperform those that don’t.

Dave Burdick is the editor of Denverite.

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