Journalists are the worst kind of risk takers, says Joi Ito of MIT Media Lab

JoiIto“When you’re sinking, you have two ways to go: You can bet the house on something, go all in, or you can try to become smaller and smaller until you disappear” – Joi Ito

I posed a question in a recent post asking how newspapers should respond to the rise of startup-inspired metrics that encourage staff to risk failure, espoused by among others, the Telegraph’s new chief content officer Jason Seiken.

Seiken, speaking to staff at his former company PBS, reportedly set down a metric for success stating effectively that staff who don’t fail often – ie who don’t take enough risks – will be looked on less kindly under his regime.

I mused over how that ethos could be transmitted to editorial teams who have done the same thing for decades, if not centuries – not to mention who are working right to the bone just to keep the paper serving its print subscribers.

From my own experience of newsrooms, bringing a start-up mindset to editorial will be a huge challenge. Without going too deeply into the reasons, which range from church vs state to the individualistic nature of the profession, I was pleased to see a provocative point of view this week on this very subject from Joi Ito, pictured above, the head of MIT’s Media Lab.

So what gives Ito the right to critique hacks? Apart from the fact that it’s not any old chump who gets to head MIT’s Media Lab, Ito straddles the worlds of technology, civic activism, and media, with a strong track record investing in companies such as Twitter and Kickstarter. And he sits on the board of The New York Times Company, Creative Commons, and Knight Foundation.

Ito shared his perspective of the problems journalists face with innovation during a Boston meeting of Hacks/Hackers, reported on by Justin Ellis of Nieman Lab. In conversation with Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, Ito suggested that journalists face even greater challenges than other industries facing digital disruption.

“The problem with journalists, I find, and lawyers, is they understand risk very well. But they’ve never taken it. Lawyers and journalists are so protected from personal risks that they make the worst kind of risk takers.”

He suggests that one reason journalists struggle with experimenting with their job is that too much is at stake. Ito says journalists have become “trained to be so good at what they do that the cost of not doing it is very high”, Ellis writes.

Confirming my own half-formed thoughts on this issue, Ito sees innovation most likely coming from small teams within big organisations which only go official with the idea or new product once it has taken proper shape.

“I do think that — and this is generally true about innovating in large organizations — it’s a small number of people who understand enough about what needs to be done and go off and just do it.”

As Ellis concludes:

Zuckerman wondered if acquisitions, a method favored in the tech world, is the answer for media companies. Companies like Twitter, Facebook, and Google regularly buy or raid smaller companies with the talent or technology they need. But by and large, that doesn’t happen in media, in part because media companies lack the cash or high-flying stock values needed. Media companies could also be hard pressed to integrate managers from an outside company fully into a newspaper’s leadership team. In the world of tech companies, those outsiders can rise to the top of their new firm — but in a newspaper? “You don’t get to be the editor-in-chief of The Boston Globe by starting Homicide Watch,” Zuckerman said.

While there is plenty the world of media could learn from Silicon Valley and other parts of the tech world, Ito said a purely financial orientation should not be one of them. Tech companies can be relentless in their pursuit of profits, but newspapers and other media organizations, have a mission beyond money, he said. The concept of a double bottom line — meeting the civic needs of readers as well as the fiscal ones of investors — needs to remain important to media companies, even in times of shallow growth and slim profits, Ito said.

So journalists have to learn how to take risks while watching the double bottom line? That’s cleared it up then.

In any case, Ito’s thesis has its problems. I believe that journalists are some of the smartest people out there who at their best run rings around most of the professions. If anything, the constraints of the daily grind of churning out news don’t leave room for much ‘blue-sky’ thinking, If the managers who run that editorial floor were to have the courage to free up the space and time for their staff to share ideas – even to be incentivised with rewards –  I suspect they might be surprised at just how innovative hacks can be. They might just rouse a slumbering giant.

Check out the video of Ito’s interview here.

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