It’s been a long six months, but I’m finally dusting off my keyboard and re-starting my blog here. First things first, a disclaimer: I don’t graduate until May, so it’s safe to say that I still don’t know what I’m talking about. My hands, however, are a little dirtier than before thanks to folks at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette who graciously hired me as intern. This experience has made me all the more hopeful about the future of news organizations, and I would like to rattle through a few thoughts inspired by my time there so far.

The Spirit of Innovation Lives Strong

I have to start by commenting on the number of good and, maybe more importantly, innovative ideas that are being considered and pursued at the Post-Gazette. From day one it was exciting to see the plans that were already in motion. Put bluntly: many of the people at the Post-Gazette get it. They understand what the Internet is about and the potential that it brings for them and the communities they serve. Better yet, they even have some great homegrown ideas about to how to take advantage of that understanding.

I’m betting that they aren’t the only ones, and if that bet is any good then neither the Post-Gazette nor the industry is suffering from a shortage of creativity, an inability to understand the potential of new technologies, or unwillingness to try new things. Yet if you look at the web sites of a lot of these papers, (yep, even the PP-G’s), you would probably think that my previous claims of support were just an embarrassing attempt to kiss up.

You’ll have to trust me when I say I’m telling the truth… Now the question is: what is preventing the changes from happening?

Some Major Disadvantages

Everyone reading this knows that newspapers are in a pretty uncomfortable position. Even after ignoring fiscal concerns they are under pressure to add substantial new features along with new processes and they can’t afford to wait until precedents are set (since by then it could be too late). To make matters worse, they have to publish a paper every day.

In other words, they face almost all of the problems that tech startups have to tackle with a few added bonuses:

  • Minimized Flexibility – Assuming the org already has a web presence it isn’t working with a clean slate. The existing “legacy” system – be it in an in-house creation or some kind of purchased software – represents a past investment and provides vital functionality. The problem is that it also constrains improvement. Realistically this means that any new stuff will probably include awkward workarounds, an inability to integrate smoothly, or blatant loss of functionality.
  • Doubly Limited Resources – From what I hear, software development is costly when you don’t do it as a hobby, especially when you are trying to be cutting edge. This is restrictive enough, but it becomes even worse when these costs, combined with a tight budget, force shortcuts. For instance, having to buy existing software that only gets you part way there (and can’t be easily extended), or creating one-time widgets instead of being able to spend extra time to make something reusable.
  • Newspaper Overhead – It’s easy for me to forget that papers don’t exist to innovate; they exist to report the news and in doing so serve their community. As a result, tech people have to spend a lot of time on more mundane day-to-day support tasks instead of designing and developing big changes. Constantly looming newsroom deadlines also make it difficult to fully incorporate some aspects of good software design that require stakeholder (i.e. non-programmer) participation, such as focus groups, feedback sessions, and user tests.

Is There Hope?

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. Despite these hurdles and the ones I’m not mentioning, papers actually have some pretty epic things going for them. For the same reason they have legacy systems, they also have legacy assets. Here are some things that money can’t buy:

  • Established Audience – I was told that the phrase “If you build it they will come” doesn’t apply to the Internet. This is absolutely true for Dan the Programmer, but if you are a mainstream Newspaper you have the power to direct readers to check out new features. You get that all important shot at injecting life into a new-born system. In other words, if you build it they will come (that doesn’t mean they will stay, of course).
  • Community Allies – If a paper has played a positive role in their community for any significant period of time, it is not a lonely island. Local groups are out there that would love to join in on a mutually beneficial, innovative relationship. This means that if there is a new community service that the paper wants to provide, it can surely get some help.
  • Content and Knowledge – Content may not sell, but it certainly adds value. Furthermore, papers have a tacit and deep knowledge of the communities they serve; something that stupid Facebook will never be able to snag. Since “know thy audience” is just as much a tenant for software design as it is for journalism, this is quite an advantage.
  • A Very Dedicated Work Force – Newspapers are one of the few kinds of organizations that are literally awake 24/7. This speaks to the extent that the people there care about the paper’s mission. Since the technological success of the paper is now a part of that mission, they presumably care about that too. Reporters and editors may not be able to program (which is perfectly fine, I might add), but that doesn’t mean that they can’t be involved in the improvement of the paper’s online presence.

Some Final Thoughts

I’m curious to know what other disadvantages and advantages people see for papers – be it from experience or speculation. Please throw your $0.02 in the comments!

I’ll wrap up with some random pieces of general advice, in no particular order:

1. Get feedback from everyone. If any significant development is made without actively soliciting feedback from everyone on staff, before, during, AND after implementation, then the paper is missing out on hugely important insights.
2. A great idea can fail miserably with a bad interface. You might have the best idea ever for a participatory system, but if the implemented U.I. isn’t easy to use or is hard to find, then it will never reach full potential.
3. Find someone that has an eye for good on-screen visual design and do lots of user tests before releasing. This role could probably even be filled by a few current employees instead of an outside hire. Just remember, even if you think the product looks and feels amazing, chances are it is unattractive and difficult to use.
4. If you invest in out of the box software, make sure it can be easily extended to do what you want it to do. If it can’t then you are doomed to either come short of your goals or spend more time finding a work around than it would have taken to code everything from scratch.
5. Open source doesn’t mean inferior. I’ll say it again: open source doesn’t mean inferior. Part of the reason for this is that open source products often have awesome support and development communities by definition.
6. Don’t let programming languages or similar concerns prevent you from adopting a better technology. Make your techies learn something new. The week or so that it takes for them to ride the learning curve will cost far less than a bad decision.