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Making time for creativity

Last issue, Peter Preston persuasively pointed out that productivity alone isn’t enough in today’s world of content creation. “A newsroom ruled by the clicks regime will never do something different,” he says. Robyn Bechelet considers the challenge he lays out in finding ‘creative room to breathe’ during the digital revolution.

By Robyn Bechelet

Data will underpin decision-making in the world of content creation, of that there is no doubt. Data doesn’t always have the answers; it always raises questions like: ‘Why exactly is that?’

Putting time in, to understand what the numbers are telling you will reap its own rewards.

Sakichi Toyoda, industrialist, inventor and founder of Toyota Industries asked ‘why?’ And, in so doing, inspiring the development of a manufacturing technique popular in the 1970s.

‘Gemba’ simply refers to the place where value is created.

Toyota still uses Gemba Kaizen to reduce waste and continuously improve quality and efficiency by enhancing processes. Unused tools are put away.

Toyota’s “go and see” philosophy means decision making is based upon an in-depth understanding of the processes and conditions on the shop floor where the work is done.

Understanding processes, easing out the waste-of-effort tasks, by looking at what we are trying to achieve is enlightening for all.

It demands publishing teamwork and sometimes patience while the arising changes are agreed, scoped and made. Recording every system interaction end-to-end is only one part of understanding what is right to change.

Time on certain tasks may shift to another department after changes are operational so the end-to-end processes must be walked though and agreed with training plans drawn up to avoid conflicting with publishing cycles.

What is the opportunity-cost of keeping tiresome tasks with creative people? If you gave people at work time – what would be the best possible thing they could do with it?

The ‘5 Whys’ technique is most effective when the answers come from people who have hands-on experience of the process being examined. It is soothingly simple: when a problem occurs, you uncover its nature and source by asking “why” no fewer than five times to get to the root cause and then ask more questions to understand the correct way to fix it.

Right thought, right action

Curious minds will find connections in the engagement analytics and want to share the news. They will want to know the impact of their reporting, they will surely want to know why does a story perform online in the way it did?

Those journalists will use the same skills in understanding audience engagement analytics as they would in getting behind the meaning of any story which is told in figures.

They could decide to ask ‘why’ five times and discover a root cause they may not expect which accounts for peaks and troughs in traffic.

Test, test and test again to find out what these hidden traffic indicators mean and decide what should we do. Then go again.

Trying out new ideas is faster online, the feedback is pretty instant, refinements can be made without stopping a press and there is no expensive ink to waste.

There are plenty of ways to encourage the most useful type of audience feedback to feed forward to influence decisions on follow up.

Go and see. For journalists, it is natural to go to where the story is and ask eye witnesses for information. It’s the reporter’s instinct. The purpose being to understand what the situation means and how we got here.

Often, a look at the traffic supports long-in-the-tooth editorial judgment, and confirms what experienced journalists know in their bones will work.

Then ask: How could it have performed even better? Experiment.

Follow up methods can be influenced by different tools to hand in the digital world, interactive polls, graphics and comments as the audience takes the news into their own heads, hearts and hands.

Hunches that came off also build confidence and will lead to shared understanding and learning as time marches on.

Keeping a constant eye on the numbers can also quickly puncture any pre-conceived ideas about what audiences ‘should’ be consuming. Opinion about what will work is quickly tested.

Audiences don’t ‘should’ do anything anymore. They choose their news.

‘Burger man sells burger’ is a story if it is lunchtime, you are hungry, and the newest style of burger is in town.

Especially for anyone in the audience who happens to be recording the consumption of their entire life for social media and want to be ‘first with the news’. Ice cream sundaes look scrumptious on Instagram and Pinterest.

Mason jars filled with ice cream may not be a scoop in our sense but it is for those who like ice cream and are they the audience you want?

Does analysis prove your brand is attracting the right audience for long term growth and to gain response for your advertisers?

True, fast news has become commoditised like fast food, in this case for a news-hungry nation. That won’t change, nor will giving consumers ‘what’s good for them’ necessarily work. A healthy diet isn’t appetising to all.

To change any behaviour (like consuming fast news), it helps to understand what feels ‘right’ about it. Would it feel right to gulp down a gourmet meal? Perhaps if you are eating it out of a takeaway container?

Brand marketing adds the secret sauce loved by people in the audience who appreciate the experience and environment you are offering.

Give them what they want

And what about the idea that robot-created content and analytics mean people will not whip up anything different? Eric Ries took the opposite view of product development in his book The Lean Startup.

He looked at several industries. “It is about testing your vision, continuously adapting and adjusting before it’s too late.”

Yes, ‘before it’s too late’ – that is the stomach churner.

Good news: No need to wait for the next print edition when you are writing for online and publishing with live analytics running. Creativity may be, in this case, around thinking digitally about a print story which in the newspaper print world would ‘normally’ not need an update for several hours, if at all.

Paraphrasing Ries: reduce online story ‘failures’ by bringing structure and science to what is usually ‘informal and an art’.

Our job, I suggest, is to begin to understand where the creativity is best placed and build workflows accordingly (they are just the list of jobs after all) so journalists add value where best. And ‘best’ may depend on the audience goals.

Editorial judgement is applied in the area of deciding the quantity of new content vs nuancing existing content. And Google counts an article as being at least 150 words.

Call me old-fashioned but I am wanting more of what I want, not just more.

Unless a disciplined approach to deciding the news agenda is taken, nuancing can also be a waste of effort. However, rules-of-thumb divined from the dashboard can start to be useful in making decisions about updating stories.

We can be heroes

So what then is the right measure of progress? Only the publishers’ vision and strategy can answer that question.

Here’s where it can be interesting to think outside the publishing box.

Billy Beane did it for sport. Reinventing his baseball team on a budget, the Oakland A’s general manager needed to outsmart the richer teams. He signed undervalued players who the scouts would never have picked, and back in the 90’s, he used predictive analytics – the number of times a player got on base influenced scoring runs and winning games. Getting ‘on base’ was his measure to predict success.

The ‘little guy’ discarded old wisdom and got the edge over big money.

Michael Lewis wrote Billy’s story in his book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game.

Later made into a movie starring Brad Pitt, it is an inspiring tale of an innovative leader who made heroes of his team.

Space the final frontier

Time can be released in other ways. Are people sitting in the right physical place to be creative? Is it worth casting a fresh eye by walking through the publishing process on the floor. How long did it take? Sometimes people do need to physically move themselves or items for meetings and get-togethers, it can be time consuming.

How do you make more time for innovative creativity? Make the process of noting where it has worked well part of the work (as newsdesks always have). Get into the detail as Billy did. Prove to an inexperienced soul that a few seconds more thought on a web headline wins more views.

Scale up winning more views, monetise the views and make a case for investment with fresh data-informed insights on what is likely to work.

What’s stopping creativity?

Time is the old enemy, so prioritising effort is the only way without an endless budget. The tea-leaves of data will start to reveal the value of effort and where fortunes lie.

Thinking time can be built into the process.

Evaluate early signals from the market and stop with the content that isn’t being consumed. Start work in a different place in the process, by looking at live performance. Continuously evaluate feedback, share learnings.

Agree points to pivot or persevere, get sustainable efficiency in action and start to initiate and manage growth from what is in people’s bones and on the dashboard.

Keep the practicalities of change simple and as frictionless as possible to release more time to produce successful stories.

Work with the audience’s way of thinking in mind from the clues in the data and start to feel what they want in your bones. That’s when creativity soars.