Journalists need to make web innovation pay
“What do we need to spark and support the innovation journalism so badly needs? I wish I knew”
Monday August 13, 2007
Whenever I visit my media colleagues in the UK, I come away energised after watching the race for innovation there at the Guardian, the Telegraph, the Times and the BBC. Their inventions are a product of both need – the news industry is doomed without such change – and also of feisty competition. If ever I write that my co-workers at the Guardian did something new first, my friends at the Telegraph will protest that they were there before. But if it’s a good idea, they will duplicate each other’s innovations anyway, and they’re all the better for it. I only wish I saw this sort of creative contest in the US.
Last March, while in London, I saw the Economist enter the innovation race with its Project Red Stripe. They took six of their brightest and gave them six months, Â£100,000, outside offices and a simple assignment – to invent something innovative and of the web. They talked with many others, blogging openly about their ideas and soliciting more inspiration from the public.
Sadly, Project Red Stripe has fizzled. The thinktank thought up an idea called Lughenjo, a social network that would have enabled NGOs and charities worldwide to get help from Economist readers. The company decided not to start it – wisely, I’d say.
Their business model? Advertising, what else? Or was this really about business? It felt to me more like a bit of do-gooding. Mind you, I have nothing against doing good. But I don’t think that’s the sort of innovation the Economist – and the news industry – need. We need new and innovative journalistic products and companies with sustainable (read profitable) business models. We need to pay for journalism.
This means that journalists need to take responsibility for their economic fate. But that’s not the way most of us were brought up in the trade. I was instructed to stay far away from business – and the people who did it. But, of course, with the internet, that has changed. Now the news industry is desperate for new products and new business models. But journalists often do not have the knowledge of business required to build sustainable enterprises. Indeed, their culture is famously resistant to change and to business.
So I wonder whether and how innovation can spring from within. This autumn, I’m teaching a course in entrepreneurial journalism in which each student will develop a new news product. Learning from the Economist’s experience, I have made one requirement clear: whatever they invent must be sustainable as a business. They also need to solve a problem, which was consultant Suw Charman’s advice to the Economist’s project. “If you don’t experience the problem you are solving,” Charman blogged, “you are unlikely to solve it in an innovative way. Locking six people up in a room for six months with Â£100,000 isn’t giving them much of an opportunity to experience problems.”
I have applied for a grant to give the best of my students’ business plans seed money to nurture their fledgling businesses. We need to demonstrate to the industry the need to invest in the future and not just protect the past. Will it work? I’ll report back in a year or two.
One day last week, I took my 15-year-old son, webmaster and Facebook application programmer Jake around New York to meet with a just-funded company founder and programmer who is barely older than he is, a newspaper executive in charge of innovation, and a venture capitalist who funds invention. I was merely the chauffeur; they wanted to meet Jake – and for good reason. Facebook, Digg.com’s social news service, WordPress blogging software – all come from young people, in their twenties, who do not worry about resisting change within organisations, bucking traditions, or cannibalising legacies.
So what do we need to spark and support the innovation journalism so badly needs: task forces with problems to solve? People working outside the organisation, or inside? Young people? Independent entrepreneurs? I wish I knew. But we won’t learn – we won’t survive – without trying. So I do hope the Economist takes its lessons learned and tries again. They must.