Misunderstanding Innovation and Fearing Failure

In what has now become a widely circulated blog post by Patrick Pexton, the ombudsman of The Washington Post, Pexton asks, “Is The Post innovating too fast?” Here is a smattering of points from the conclusion of his article:

 “I know from talking to folks in the newsroom that all the change may be exhausting the staff, too. Many of these innovations require considerable staff time, as well as more time from editors and reporters to monitor them… Staffers say that sometimes they feel as if the innovations are just tossed against a wall to see what sticks, without careful thought as to which of them will enhance and shore up The Post’s reputation and brand… I want The Post to continue to innovate. It’s important for the publication’s survival. Many of these changes are working… But there’s a time to press on the accelerator, and a time to ease off. Substance, clarity and direction will be more important in the long run than buzz. Take a breather lap, Post.”

I don’t know Pexton and I don’t know the inner-workings of the WaPo newsroom, but most of the people in my Twitter stream viewed Pexton’s post as at best bizarre and at worst a troubling sign for the Post’s long term relevance. However, it’s worth noting, Pexton does root his analysis in the concerns he is hearing from readers, and a news organization – whether it is innovating or stagnating – should listen to its readers.

But in this case, I don’t think the diagnosis, nor how it was delivered, fit the symptoms.

In the end, I don’t think the ombudsman’s comments show a stubborn resistance to innovation as much as a misunderstanding of how innovation works, and a rigid unwillingness to allow for failure (and the learning that goes along with it). This fear of failure is antithetical to the start-up and maker culture that is emerging amidst digital journalists in and outside of newsrooms, and is evident even in the metaphor Pexton chooses.

When he looks at innovation he doesn’t see a potential network of roads forward, he sees a potential car crash. Thus, for Pexton it is better to “ease off” the accelerator. In this scenario, innovating too fast is a threat – in this case it is a threat to the basics, the fundamentals of journalism.

If innovation is in part about exploring the path less taken, then we should not expect clear road signs.  Pexton’s post never discusses what might be the appropriate speed for innovation, or how a newsroom, an audience, or an ombudsman might measure that speed.

This isn’t so much a critique of Pexton, as much as a critique of a point of view that I see repeated over and over again in discussions about the future of journalism. It is a point of view that resides in unhelpful dichotomies like new vs. old, online vs. print, innovation vs. fundamentals. Thinking in dichotomies like this suggests that these things cannot co-exist, or even perhaps strengthen each other (and it is not just “the print guys” who reinforce these dichotomies at times).

An ombudsman has a unique opportunity at a time of radical transformation in the media landscape, to help news organizations navigate new changes and challenges while fostering new connections and collaborations with their community. If Pexton believes, as he says briefly in his post, that when trying new things, “some will be successful, some won’t,” then his response should not be to tell The Post to hit the brakes, but rather to look at what’s working, what’s not, and what’s there to be learned.

Instead of suggesting journalists stop innovating, help make that innovation more effective. Help journalists and technologists ensure that innovation serves the public and you will help foster the “substance, clarity and direction” you seek.


Note: The day after I published this post, Jay Rosen posted a very good interview with Pexton about his views on innovation which digs much deeper into these issues and helps clarify some of Pexton’s points. I’ll add some follow-up to my post in light of Jay’s discussion with Pexton soon, but for now go read the interview here.

Below I have collected some of the responses to the Pexton’s post (the embedding feature is adding all connected tweets to the one I featured, working on making this more readable):











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