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.

  • Greg0658

    Jeff says – “give smart people money to play with”

    I think ALL people with something worth protecting will work to protect it.

    I know where your coming from, drugies and alchies don’t need hand outs … but I wonder if they were fashioned outta a earlier miss.

  • Greg0658

    more on title subject – maybe it’s just me

    but advertising revenue needs a replacement system because at 49 I’ve trained myself thru a sharp eye and a remote control to scan right over the clutter of ads

    I want the folks at the prints and the stations to make it and I’d like to thank the businesses for doing the bidding … but I wish there was another way, less wasteful of my time and paper and can’t forget to mention the cost of living

  • Jeff, You are fighting against a cultural divide. In the Old Media model, news consumers are not “customers,” they are “citizens.” The suits in the corner offices are unfortunate necessities who, at all costs, must be kept from contaminating the news. And journalists are public servants — the discovers, gatherers, and distributors of “the truth.” If your program is drawing students who think like Old Media, you will have trouble converting them, especially since every other member of your faculty will be telling them the opposite. Perhaps you ought to run your class as a joint program with the B-school. (Steve Boriss, The Future of News)

  • Tim

    Jeff….typo in your Project Red Stripe link…..

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  • Jeff…journalists not only have to sully themselves with filthy lucre, but they also have to *gasp* interact with the masses! Yes, that’s what “community” is about. And there are certain skills that come from working with community–as community, not as constituency nor as consumers–that help loads when working with any new online venture….

    Remember, we’re in an era of “social” media. “Social” usually implies dealing with people in ways that go beyond subject/object.

  • Profits drive investment. Investment drives innovation. (We could quibble over the meaning of investment and profits as not necessarily being monetary, but in broad strokes both mean money.)

    Without a profit motive, it isn’t really innovation.

    Without profit, it isn’t really business.

    Sure, there are exceptions, but profits make the world go round. Profits create jobs and make altruism possible.

    Without profits, there would be no such thing as journalism.

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  • Profitable = sustainable. YES! Great idea Jeff!. In fact, focus on bottom line profitability is WHY, more than anything else, capitalism is more sustainable, and thus successful, than any other system.

    Product: combined paper to be published AND web site of info / blogs / articles

    Top line revenue comes mostly from advertising.
    Advertisers want to know that eyeballs are getting exposed to the ads they are paying for. Audience must be measured in a way that ad companies buy.

    Costs: initial capital startup, very limited McDonald’s level of salary for editors plus “profit sharing”, plus limited opinion publishing.
    [Yes — hire people who accept being “paid” by having their opinions published, with 3 main editors/ ad sellers deciding on who gets published primarily based on quality]

    Content: news. Community news gatherers (like OhMy News ), including uploads of pictures and videos. Plus analysis and summary of analyses.

    Focus on clearly noting what are the facts — which are the content really worth paying for; but look for bright, humorous, thoughtful analysis of what the facts mean. Or what they might mean, along with why some analysis prediction / speculation might be totally wrong.

    Such a paper needs to be published and distributed for free at hotels, but sold (cheap) at Newstands, with almost free costs to the sellers (highest margin for them?).
    Color pictures on the front page? Look for “free” fotos (eg Rick Lee) and get permission for mini-profit sharing agreements.
    Look for publishing … the “Best of what’s free”.
    The job is choosing what’s the best.

    e.g. Get agreements from Kos and Instapundit to run most of their stuff for “free advertising” byline. The best of unpaid bloggers is likely not much worse than of other journalists — and certain to be cheaper.

    Fame, not cash. (Personal advertisements?)

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  • A meaningful quotation on leadership in these political times comes from Ken Blanchard who said “In the past a leader was a boss. Today’s leaders must be partners with their people.. they no longer can lead solely based on positional power.” Important to remember.

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