hope for the future

Thornburg – fertile failure

Ryan Thornburg makes the case that universities can be the “fertile failure” ground for news organizations. I’m not so sure on some levels. Here’s the college media-specific quote:

Campus news organizations should also be a natural place for professional news organizations to test crazy ideas that run the risk of damaging their brand. Not that campus news organizations are all dying to damage their brands, but their transitory audience makes small failures much less costly over the long run — failure artifacts don’t aggregate at campus news organizations the way they aggregate at professional news organizations.

Now, campus news organizations don’t always operate under the same profit-driven motives as their “professional” counterparts, but there’s more to the story here.

Campus news operations *do* operate under some profit motives. They aren’t *exactly* the same as the professional industry, but there are a lot of college news media advisers who are sweating the same advertising problems as their professional counterparts.

A couple of questions:

What is a “small” failure? Thornburg posits the “transitory” audience as a justification for letting college media take these hits while the professional media don’t. I don’t see that as a positive. College media do not have the same operating margins. They operate with volunteer staff. They fight all the time with campus people who would cut their funding, deny them access to necessary information, and the like. Why should they be the people stepping up to the plate for failure?

A necessary correlate: Why won’t the people who are going to *make the money* put up the money? 99 percent of college newspapers are non-profit. Their mission is both to inform and to educate future journalists. Why should these organizations, who must straddle a very difficult fence, be the people who bear the burden of failure? To prove that it can be done?

I’m not getting it. Where is the benefit for the college news org?

Granted, if something goes right, then the college news org can crow about its success, but are professional news orgs going to give back to the college news orgs who blazed the trail? Somehow, I’m doubting that.

Finally, I doubt the ability of most college news organizations to generate the manpower to go into these types of “fertile failure” experiments. I’ve been following college media online for over three years, and see a distressing lack of such experimentation to engender the type of confidence Ryan seems to have. There are a few great web editors, and some really awesome multimedia journalists, but the sad fact is that college media still hasn’t figured out the key anymore than their professional counterparts – precisely because so many college journalists are still living in the 20th century.

Maybe I’m wrong. I wrote a long time ago that I thought college journalism programs could be the engines of innovation. Now, I’m not so sure. I’d love for someone to prove me wrong.

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