My spring Serendipity hour: Dew, new and news

A few times a year, everyone in Digital Media gets a day or so to work on any idea they feel might help NPR. No meetings are held. Everyone pushes themselves in different directions. There is a prize given for biggest failure.

We call it Serendipity Day. For the first one, I chased new CMS ideas. For the second, I explored a type of human-centered design. In the third, I taught myself some PHP and API coding. For the fourth Serendipity Day, this time around, things ran off the rails a bit. The period collided with a major project launch, and several of us lost most of our Serendipity time. 

The project was worth it, no doubt. But missing out on awesome creative think time was a bummer. So, I made the best of the free hour I had. For my three-minute demo (we present to each other at the end), I talked. 

Life has been busy recently. Lots of projects, emails, meetings. I didn’t have much time the past couple days to get Serendipitous.

So, unhappy yesterday morning, I picked up a book from my coffee table that I hadn’t read before. I opened it to a random page and promised myself I’d talk about whatever that page taught me about what we do at NPR.

The page had a poem.

Kay Ryan, “Dew”

As neatly as peas
in their green canoe,
as discreetly as beads
strung in a row,
sit drops of dew
along a blade of grass.
But unattached and
subject to their weight,
they slip if they accumulate.
Down the green tongue
out of the morning sun
into the general damp,
they’re gone.

What the poem made me think about was the way our digital stories meet the world.

Consider how dew forms. In spring, the sun heats Earth’s surfaces. At night, the surfaces release heat in the form of water vapor. The vapor condenses, and dew drops form on the grass.

Eventually, the sun comes up. The drops evaporate. The cycle repeats.

News storytelling is similar.

NPR takes in the world’s heat. Our journalism warms until we find the right moment to release. We get cooler than the rest of the world. Our reporting hits the air, and stories form on the surfaces around us. The stories are noticeable for a while. Then the day burns them away.

Or they slip into the general damp.

If you buy this comparison, you start thinking. About the heat of information, about publishing, about the delicacy of a new story.

Our expectation for newness these days is low.

Discovery is fierce competition. We acquiesce to the idea that everything we see someone else has seen before. We give up on “new.” We settle for “new-to-me.”

But this problem is a good challenge for NPR. Even if someone else has seen an NPR story before you, how do we imbue that story with a newness that sticks?

We’re off to a decent start. New is clean. We love white space. New is different. We cover stories no one else covers, a newness that creates engagement and pageviews.

But we also have work to do. New is pure. We’ve only begun to simplify our layouts. New is fresh. We’re slow on trending topics. New is dewy. We can be dry.

That’s what I’m taking away today — the work of newness ahead here at NPR. But also that new is unburdened. New doesn’t have projects.

New doesn’t have emails and tickets. New doesn’t have a backlog. In order to preserve new for others, to remind our audience of what new feels like, we have preserve it for ourselves.

We have to remind ourselves, even if busyness takes over just about all of our Serendipity Day, to pick up a book on our coffee table, open to a random page and turn the spring heat into something new.

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