Sustaining journalism through innovation

I have to say that I was disappointed with the Economist’s Project Red Stripe — in the idea they ended up with and in the fact that it is not yielding a product, as Paid Content reports.

But I hope I can learn some lessons about managing innovation as I bring together a conference on networked journalism for our News Innovation Project at CUNY on Oct. 10 and as I start teaching a course this fall in entrepreneurial journalism — a course that is supposed to yield specific, sustainable, practical ideas for new and innovative journalistic products or businesses.

The Economist had split off a half-dozen of its smartest people — and there, that’s really saying something — who had to audition for the team with their ideas and determination. They were sent off to separate offices and given $200,000 to create something with only two requirements: It had to be of the web and it had to be innovative. They also decided to make the process open and talked to lots of folks, like me, discussing and even inviting ideas publicly on their blog.

But then they went opaque because they believed transparency would have affected the business; I’m still not sure how. And they ended up, I think, not so much with a business but with a way to improve the world. Their idea, “Lughenjo,” was described in PaidContent as “a community connecting Economist with non-governmental organizations needing help – ‘a Facebook for the Economist Group’s audience.’ ” It wasn’t intended to be fully altruistic; they thought there was a business here in advertising to these people, maybe. But still, it was about helping the world. And therein lies the danger.

I saw this same phenomenon in action when, as a dry run for my entrepreneurial course, I asked my students at the end of last term what they would do with a few million dollars to create something new in journalism. Many of them came up with ways to improve the world: giving away PCs to the other side of the digital divide, for example. Fine. But then the money’s gone and there’s not a new journalist product to carry on.

This gives me hope for the essential character of mankind: Give smart people play money and they’ll use it to improve the lots of others. Mind you, I’m all for improving the world. We all should give it a try.

But we also need to improve the lot of journalism. And one crucial way we’re going to do that is to create new, successful, ongoing businesses that maintain and grow journalism. We need profit to do that.

So I would have thrown another requirement on Project Red Stripe or any media company’s innovation incubator: that they start a sustainable — that is, profitable — business. I have now added that requirement in our entrepreneurial class. I didn’t outlaw projects that may get some help from foundations to get going (and I may live to regret that). I’m also bringing in business executives and even venture capitalists to help the students think about how they are investing in the future of journalism. It’s a business. It needs to be a business to survive.

So it’s also important for journalists to think about the business side of the industry as well. As journalists, we were brought up not to sully our pretty little heads with filthy commerce; that was someone else’s job — the guy on the other side of that church-state wall. But now the business of journalism is every journalist’s business.

I believe I will see students leave our class to go start new products and new businesses that improve the future of journalism, that sustain it. That’s the hope.

: LATER: Neil McIntosh says that news organizations shouldn’t insist that innovations need to be revolutions. Sometimes, he says, the change comes in small steps. Yes, if the steps are big enough given the needs. Small steps may not be big enough for news organizations now.

Neil also quibbles with my call for profitabllity. I’ll still say that we need to make sustainability our standard and that means journalism has to pay for itself and, in most cases, that means it needs to be profitable. Too much of journalism is becoming unsustainable and that’s my fear.