Experiments are hard to transition: a Philly public media example


Organization-wide experiments can often be tougher to launch than learn from or reorient around. Once staff is brought on and workflows established, changing anything may be more challenging than ever launching the project to start. That’s when bold leadership is most needed.

That’s been on my mind recently when I’ve thought about the wonderful progress that has come with NewsWorks.org, the online news home for WHYY, the Philadelphia region’s public media outfit. Let’s look at its three-year history and its future and use it as an example for being bold enough to experiment and then knowing when to act on that experiment.

[Full Disclosure: I have friendships and close relationships with nearly a dozen people at WHYY and also sit on their community advisory board, but, while surely that insight informs my perspective, these conclusions are my own and don’t incorporate anything more than what is already public.]

In April 2010, I was excited to share that WHYY was aiming to greatly expand its local reporting, led in no small part to its very determined news director Chris Satullo, whom I’ve long admired. When it launched later that year, it was clear it was a big experiment for a previously very-sleepy news organization. That’s why choosing to start a brand from scratch made some sense: whenever a legacy organization is trying something new, there are going to be those who are fearful the experiment could take everyone down with them.

A year after that launch, we heard from Satullo during an Online News Association event and he was triumphant. People wanted a bigger local reporting presence from WHYY and, he said, it could be a vehicle for fundraising and member support. If a growth in Newsworks-branded programing is any sign, the success continues:

  • In the time since, NewsWorks has rolled out a daily half-hour of drive-time local radio news program
  • and recently tested a weekly hour-long health and science show.
  • Its northwest Philly hyperlocal effort hasn’t expanded, which Satullo had said would happen if they reached a level of sustainability, so if that isn’t having financial success, it does appear to have gained a level of respect.

But if I’ve shared big ideas that I’d love to come out of NewsWorks, it seems now, as the experiment nears its third anniversary, that the hard work of learning and reorienting is now. It’s time to focus, which means I’d expect to see a clearer integration of the NewsWorks experiment and the WHYY organization. Why the difference any more at all?

  • Do the hard work of integrating the staffing and strategic goals of the organization and its various media.
  • Create an WHYY.org homepage that can answer your radio and TV user needs, but that integrates all the station’s media, rather than isolate them. Having an online news ghetto makes little sense for the longterm merging of content types.
  • Use the beautifully redesign NewsWorks.org homepage as the WHYY news home.
  • Stop creating new projects and focus on improving, integrating and growing what you have. (Except for what I always feel is most ignored over there: experimentation with programming that might someday syndicate widely enough to replace revenue from Fresh Air with Terry Gross.)

Let me underscore that I can’t even begin to understand how difficult this is. It’s clear the vast majority of funding for a public media organization like this is coming from its existing TV viewership, which is rapidly aging, so prioritizing an online strategy is difficult to swallow.

That’s why the experiment made sense. But at some point, experiments end — you learn, incorporate and move on. Continuing to add new projects and brand names and directions does little but confuse and distract.

Innovation through experimentation requires bold thinking — often from the creative mind. Focus takes incredible leadership and is often far harder to transition.

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