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We can acknowledge what we don’t know

“When it comes to the big questions in local news maybe the safer bet is to admit that no matter how venerable our institutions or talented our people, none of us has the answers”

First let’s acknowledge up-front that when it comes to “saving” local news, none of us has any clue what we’re doing.

Not me. Not you. Not the boss with the biggest title. Or that slick presenter you saw at South By. Or the person who made the savvy investment, or spot-on prediction, or devastating tweet, that somehow convinced the rest of us they’re a genius.

If someone had the answer, I’d be out in the workshop chiseling their bust into marble. But they don’t. At best, we’re making educated guesses. At worst, we’re shooting in the dark.

Sounds obvious, I hope. Like blue sky and green grass. But knowing is different from believing, and I don’t think most of us yet truly feel this in our bones. Because if we did, I think we’d be be doing things a lot differently.

A year ago, I was lucky to be given an opportunity to take a job at my hometown newspaper, the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, after spending several years at The New York Times, where I managed teams working at the intersection of news and technology.

Those years in New York were invaluable for many reasons, but one was watching up close as The Times undertook some thoughtful (and at times very public) soul-searching about how to reboot itself for the digital age.

At least from my vantage point, that process was empathetic, vulnerable and evinced a remarkable self awareness. It identified clear weaknesses, questioned fundamental assumptions and killed sacred cows. It helped promote a cultural shift that encouraged seeking and testing over knowing all the answers — no small thing for a dignified institution whose traditions literally predate the invention of the telephone.

Directly or indirectly, I think many of the things we now celebrate about the place are at least in part a product of that shift: product and technology working alongside reporters and editors; new initiatives like the briefings; making reporters more human through the Reader Center; even headline shruggies.

Getting back into the metro news game for the first time in almost a decade, I’ve been thinking a lot about how local newsrooms can tap into that same spirit of continuous improvement and discovery. And the word I keep coming back to is humility.

Deep down in our lizard brains, I think a lot of us local newsroom leaders still think we know the way out of this mess. Launch the right product. Hire the right person. License the right tools. “Readers want this.” “Readers don’t want that.” Or just stick to our routines, do good journalism, and the rest will sort itself out.

But when it comes to the big questions in local news — sustaining public service journalism, driving subscriptions, creating a strong digital report — maybe the safer bet is to admit that no matter how venerable our institutions or talented our people, none of us has the answers.

If we believe that — and I mean really believe it — we can change the way we approach the problem:

We can encourage ideas to come from the bottom up, not the top down, and take deliberate steps (however small) to try them.

We can develop systems to rigorously test those ideas. Kill the ones that don’t work. Scale up the ones that do.

We can preach forgiveness, not permission, and create venues to celebrate and learn from our failures.

We can employ user testing and research to see how real people are interacting with our journalism.

We can acknowledge that just because we’re news experts doesn’t mean we’re product experts. (And while we’re at it, we can stop leaving business to the business side).

We can hire and promote from nontraditional places, to diversify the voices that make decisions and empower change agents who can make us uncomfortable.

We can show vulnerability to our readers and engage them with authenticity, rather than speaking to them from a remove.

We can build systems to counter our most unproductive impulses: our struggles to think long-term, our bias toward inertia, the incentives that discourage smart people from speaking up.

Ironically, by knowing what we don’t know, the better we can maximize the chance we’ll find the answers we’re looking for.

It’s my hope — though not necessarily my prediction — is that 2019 will be the year more of us move from simply understanding that to truly believing it.

Chase Davis is a senior digital editor at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis.

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