The importance – for experiment – of not being embarrassed

catAs news media have to re-think much of what they do by experiment, popular media should be making use of one big, built-in advantage. They don’t embarrass easily.

Hidden away in this account of experiments at the Swedish mid-market tabloid Expressen is a clue. The paper’s head of mobile, Johann Hedenbro, was mostly busy talking to a MediaBriefing conference about the efforts they made to build their own version of Upworthy and how they are trying to make money from mobile users.

He makes the point that with small screens, it is more natural to split editorial material up into specialised streams. And he mentions, in passing, their “new, embarrassing site likeanimals.se”. The site is apparently so embarrassing that I can’t even find it either on my PC or phone (maybe I’m just not looking right: if you find it please tell me). Let’s assume it’s yet more pictures of cute and cuddly cats. And let’s also assume that Mr Hedenbro isn’t really embarrassed by it.

This says something about how experiment works. If you’re afraid of being laughed at for being trivial and not serious about journalism, you will limit your experiments. The quality of experiments lies partly in pushing them right out to the limits and sometimes beyond.

For most of the 20th century and with only a handful of exceptions, American print journalists frowned on vigorous popular reporting which made full use of bad taste, flippancy and sex. It was an odd change because American editors of the 19th century had, ignoring the inhibitions of embarrassment, used these techniques with great success. Among other things, they had invented “the interview”, daring to send reporters to ask questions of people face-to-face. Their British counterparts thought this an intolerably impertinent invention, until they realised that it worked.

And with digital disruption in the 21st century, what occurred in American journalism? A fresh eruption of snarky, sharp, funny “tabloid” reporting led by Gawker and Buzzfeed. Were they restrained in their experiments by embarrassment? They were not.

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