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What journalists can learn from engineers

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Journalists who are starting their own digital media should learn to think more like engineers and scientists. For them, solving a problem involves repeated trial and error. They view each step not as a failure, but as a learning experience.

Engineers and scientists were the heroes of "Apollo 13," both in the movie and in real life. They searched frantically against the clock to find ways to keep the damaged spacecraft's crew alive and return them safely to Earth.

They had to improvise solutions with the imperfect tools on board the spacecraft and experiment with processes they had never tried before. They had a goal but they weren't sure how to get there. So they tried and failed and kept trying.

Like them, journalists working in a startup will not have the ideal tools at hand nor all the money and time in the world to perfect their Web project. Many of the answers they need can be found only by getting their product into the hands of the intended audience. Test it on the audience. On the web, a new product is always in Beta.

10,000 failures and learning experiences

Thomas Edison, who perfected the incandescent light bulb, spent years trying to find the right design and materials. He is supposed to have said, "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work."

Listen to some experts on the topic of developing new products on the web:

Plant the seeds and watch what grows. Let the audience tell you what the product should be. -- Evan Williams, co-founder of Twitter

It´s cheaper and easier to try something than to debate about it. -- David Cohn, founder of spot.us

Instead of making strategic plans, you should experiment. -- Clay Shirky, author of "Here Comes Everybody"

The majority of new projects are going to fail, and so what? The cost of failure is low.
-- Dan Gillmor, author of "Mediactive"

You have the answers

When I have taught entrepreneurial journalism courses, many of the participants ask me questions such as, Should I do a blog or a web page? Should I allow anonymous comments or not? Should I use a three-column design or two columns? Is it better to promote this on Reddit or Facebook?

My answer is usually, Try it one way and see how it works. Measure the results. If you are not happy with the results, try something else. See what others have tried. Ask them about their experiences. But by all means, try something. Don't just stand there waiting for the answer to come to you.

Here is Robert Niles, author of "How to Make Money Publishing Community News Online": "Don't let 'paralysis by analysis' slow you when you're launching your site. Go with a design that you believe best expresses the tone and functionality you wish to deliver — a design that you think will connect well with your intended audience." He goes on to say that you should measure the results, and if they are not what you want, try something else.

The point is, there are no correct answers. You have to find the answers yourself by experimentation. That means you will make some mistakes along the way. To engineers and scientists, those are learning experiences.

This post originally appeared on News Entrepreneurs and was posted IJNet with permission.

James Breiner is co-director of the Global Business Journalism Program at Tsinghua University. He is a former Knight International Journalism Fellow who launched and directed the Center for Digital Journalism at the University of Guadalajara.

Visit his websites News Entrepreneurs and Periodismo Emprendedor en Iberoamérica and follow him on Twitter.

Photo CC-licensed on Flickr.

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