When giving gifts to people working in news, I find that friends have done their required reading. I forgo Katherine Graham’s book Personal History, Susan Tiftt’s The Trustabout the Sulzberger family, and even Lynsey Addario’s It’s What I Do. I’ve found a gift of a more service-oriented tome like Danny Meyer’s Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business to be a useful addition. Yes, Meyer is the restaurateur behind Gramercy Tavern and Shake Shack, and what his guidance has to do with the news business is…everything.
More news publishing staff and freelancers are becoming curious about the lessons to be learned outside of our industry. This is a good and useful change. Researchers find that inquiries into “analogous spaces” can be enlightening in unexpected ways. I saw this at The New York Times when taking members of our newsroom research and development team to talk with non-obvious experts about how to best show our own archival coverage. We interviewed a bookstore owner and a DJ who specialized in remixing seemingly dated tracks, among others. Hearing how the staff at busy SoHo shop McNally Jackson plans which books to display on its highest traffic tables offered a deep dive on the topics of curation and fostering a feeling of urgency. We learned more from the theories and experiences they shared than we might have in talking to the same number or more of our peers about the topic.
Next year, more of us in news will immerse ourselves in alternate but highly relevant spaces. Many membership and editorial teams, including those from Chicago’s City Bureau and the regional Texas Tribune, are hungry for this intel. Consider it a chance for an injection of fresh thinking. Talking to others who are thinking about financial sustainability (including people in fundraising, impact investing, and medicine) is a humble acknowledgement that solid ideas can come from spaces beyond our own. A few friends who work in news strategy have found volunteering with the ocean cleanup organization Surfrider Foundation to be a welcome relief from discussing deadlines — and sometimes a surprise opportunity for insights when talking to fellow members who work in architecture and other fields.
We’re not the first people to look outside ourselves for relevant expertise (as Melody Kramer wrote several years ago in exploring what motorcycle manufacturing might teach news), but it does require some initial suspension of disbelief. Seeking out companies like Stitch Fix might not initially seem like a 1-to-1 comparison, but it might behoove us to ask about the principles and practices that that clothing subscription service has learned on their way to their IPO. Some considerations are unique to our industry, but working in a deadline-driven business with tight margins is surprisingly universal.
We’ll study more organizations that provide services their users consider invaluable — Amazon Prime, Planned Parenthood, and hyperlocal weather app Dark Sky — and seek out their power users, too. What do they do fantastically well? What has the organization started offering, then scrapped, and why? (Even if you use these or other analogous services personally, talk to other people who don’t think about products and delivery all day long. We’re not designing for ourselves, as tempting as that may be.)
Jesse Littlewood, digital director of democratic action network Common Cause, told a group of publishers this week that “we are less used to telling the story of impactthan the story of the work. [People in news are] less likely to be braggadocios than some folks in this world.” This is usually seen as a virtue, but raises another question: Who might we seek out who can teach us about authentic promotions? Think music producers, documentary filmmakers, and more — and please share what you learn.
I’m hopeful that we’ll include more experts from other spaces at our conferences — and that we seek them out personally, too. Perhaps we could substitute some of our time spent wringing our hands about Facebook’s News Feed algorithm (a valid concern, but an exhausting one) with talking to people who can expand our ideas about creativity in business. Less navel-gazing, more possibilities.