What You Don’t Know Can’t Hurt You…Unless You Don’t Ask

We were talking with a respected INN member during the Nerds’ open office hours last week. While asking a question about how to do something on his site, he said a couple of times that he doesn’t know much about website coding. But it struck me that he clearly does know a lot, he just didn’t know the answer to this particular question.

I have seen this behavior in many other people, and also in myself. When talking with people we believe know much more than us about a given topic, we sometimes minimize our knowledge up front.

I suspect we do this because we have learned from past experience that people sometimes use their status as experts to belittle us. This kind of behavior is common, especially in technical fields. Saying “I don’t know much” is a smart strategy if we suspect the expert will act like a jerk in response to our question. For many of us it's a defense reflex.

I can safely say that none of the INN Nerds will ever treat you this way. We welcome questions from all members and constituents from any level of technical knowledge, and it’s in our DNA to not act like jerks.

Not acting like a jerk is also hard-coded in the INN technology team manifesto, which outlines how and why we work. We hold ourselves accountable to this, and you should, too. Here are a few excerpts:

  • We’ll invest in education: creating curriculum and training for members, investing in our apprentices/students, and pursuing continuing education opportunities for ourselves.
  • We will be open to new tools and processes, resisting the stale comfort of “this is how we’ve always done it.”
  • We won't use snark or pedantry to exclude people from conversations.
  • We’ll never judge you or shame you for not knowing something.
  • We won’t feign surprise or jump into conversations with Well, actually...
  • In emergencies, we will send pie.

Because news technology is changing so rapidly, there are many reasons for each of us to feel we don’t know as much as we should. The pace of change is also precisely why we should ask many questions, even at the risk of exposing what we don’t know. Our guest during office hours did exactly that, and deserves to have his question (and his many other contributions as a professional) treated with respect. We will always do that.

When it comes to the web and digital technology, each of us is somewhere on the learning curve. The value of a community like the one we’ve got is that we can help each other gain the knowledge we need to improve and sustain our work. At a time like this, we should make extra efforts to communicate and collaborate.

So please use the Largo Help Desk for any site problems or requests, email us at nerds@inn.org for anything general, and sign up any time for open office hours. We’ll never shame you for not knowing something, and might even have some dumb questions ourselves.

Nobody Said This Would Be Easy

Allow me to introduce myself: I’m the idiot who joined the INN tech team and thought he could be on top of things right away.

OK not totally on top of things, but how hard could it be? I spent the past 28 years working for public broadcasting in a variety of roles, most recently as New Media director at Illinois Public Media. I’ve designed and coded dozens of websites, set up and run Content Management Systems, and provided training, documentation, and support for staff and public users of Illinois Public Media’s websites and digital services. Prior to the web I produced lots of radio using tape decks and razor blades, learned the ropes in television production, and got caught up in on-air hosting for a while. As digital technology came along I migrated from tape to computers, file systems and servers, and I had to learn about this thing called data. I edited our first websites using Netscape Communicator, and started posting broadcast archives online as RealMedia. After 28 years I knew everything about our operation, what the work was, and how to do it.

Now I’m completing my first week at INN as your new manager of support, training, and documentation, and suddenly I’m working with about 110 different news organizations. Each of these has different needs, and relies on INN for a variety of mission-critical services. There’s a whole new INN technology stack developed by people smarter than me, and a different way of working than anything I’ve experienced. (Although, lots fewer meetings!) The INN team has a pace that is both more intense and somehow more relaxed than I’m used to.

These people know what they’re doing, and it’s clear to me I don’t yet. This is a very uncomfortable feeling, and it causes me to question if I have what it takes.

But wait: This feeling is familiar, it’s just that I haven’t experienced it for a long time. I’ve been doing the same work in the same ways for at least 15 years, with lots of incremental change but no seismic shifts.

If you have worked in news for the past 20 years, odds are good that you have also experienced  a feeling of deep anxiety and displacement in the digital age. As change in technology and audience behavior has accelerated, the ground has shifted under our feet and we find ourselves in a strange new landscape. We don’t know the rules, the skills, or even the roles required for effective digital journalism. I’ve seen this in many of the people I’ve worked with, and it can lead to stress, conflict, and even organizational failure.

We are seasoned news professionals who have won many awards, and deserve our sense of accomplishment. Acknowledging this doesn’t change the fact that the technology, business,  and social base of our industry has changed, and that change will continue.

So my first week at INN was a bit of a wake-up call, which I pretty much knew was coming. It would have been much easier to stay where I was, doing the same things I had long been doing. It would be much more comfortable for us veterans of the news business to pretend change isn’t happening, and that we can keep doing our business as usual. But none of us can afford that illusion, and we owe it to our communities and stakeholders to take the next steps in the evolution of news.

I’m not sure how we do that comfortably, without stress and anxiety. Speaking for myself, I am aware once again that I have much to learn and this will take some hard work. It definitely helps that my teammates at INN have also experienced this seismic shift, and understand that we’re all in this together. As I was tempted to panic this week, they reminded me that I actually do have what it takes.

And here’s the best part: so does the nonprofit news industry, and INN is here to help.