Innovation key to sustainability in journalism

It’s all still settling in, but my experience last week in Berlin has caused my outlook on the future of journalism to go from one of great concern to one of great promise.

I was honored to take part in what we have come to call Hacktoberfest, a five day hackathon sponsored by the Knight Mozilla News Technology Partnership or MoJo (Mozilla Journalism).

Twenty developers and journalists joined a bunch of Mozilla folks and members from five participating news organizations (Boston Globe, The Guardian, Zeit Online, Al Jazeera English and BBC).

What transpired was an incredible “mosh pit of brains.” I may be misquoting someone on that, but you get the idea. (also not to be confused with a Bad Brain Mosh Pit)

I learned a lot.  I learned about Wiener Sausages and German beer, for sure, but also about the sausage making necessary for news innovation. The collaboration which ensued turned good ideas into great ones and even spawned completely new projects out of common desires and needs. It was the fellowship of the thing.

But it wasn’t just academic discussion about futuristic dreams. We addressed questions like “how can we fix the broken comments model on news sites and the web in general?” And, “How can we pay for investigative journalism when sites rely on a page-view model?”

In fact, sustainability and business model ideas permeated the discussions that surrounded the hacking. All of those ideas seemed to accept that innovation was a key part of building a successful news business, both now and in the future. It’s hard to believe we still need to beat that drum in 2011, but we do. More of the same will not cut it, even if it is more profitable in the short term.

The most recognizable feature of the Berlin skyline is The Fernsehturm, or television tower. It was built in the late sixties to symbolize the the power of the German Democratic Republic. As I wandered the streets beneath it, I couldn’t help but think that this metaphor for Communist Berlin had a lesson for news industry.

It can either use its resources to convince the world from high up that it is strong, necessary and omnipresent, or it can join the democratic revolution of news happening on the ground. Because, for better or worse, it’s happening. The metro has left the station.

I’m reminded of a scene in Citizen Kane that serves as a lesson for what stagnation can do to a company, and that there are those who would rather just let things wind down naturally.

You’re right,” says Charles Foster Kane,  “I did lose a million dollars last year. I expect to lose a million dollars this year. I expect to lose a million dollars next year. You know, Mr. Thatcher, at the rate of a million dollars a year, I’ll have to close this place in  . . . 60 years.”

Unfortunately most newspapers don’t have that luxury.

But that shouldn’t make them short-sighted. It’s a cold but undeniable truth that news companies have two paths.

One is to slowly decline, maintaining as many of the employees that rely on the print product for as long as possible.

The other is to make a bet on the future, which may hasten the termination of some employees but will enable those companies to garner a stake in the future of both journalism and marketing on the web.

I choose the latter.

It’s not margins that will save these companies but innovation.

Newsroom challenges in the Digital First era

I’ve written a lot about the challenges within newsrooms in regards to embracing the digital era.

Most stemmed from first hand frustrations which is always part of being an agent of change within a company.

I was interested to see that Shazna Nessa, during a Knight Mozilla News Learning Lab lecture, felt the same. Shazna is Director of Interactive at the Associated Press in New York. Since AP has no conflicting print product, and the transfer of information over wires for that organization goes back to the telegraph, I was surprised to hear of her frustrations.

Or maybe not.

Change is hard in any organization, digital or not. Imagine the resistance that occurred at Microsoft when someone suggested that they give a web based text editor away for free, despite that fact that Word was still a healthy part of their revenue. It’s not just newsrooms that are confronted with these issues.

Jeff Jarvis brought the subject up as well, pointing out John Paton‘s “Digital First” approach at the Journal Register Company and making it clear that this wasn’t purely about getting a print article on the web before it hit the presses.

No, it’s about doing what is right for the web first, and making all other parts of the business an afterthought. That includes parts of the business that are currently bringing in more revenue than the web.

If it sounds like you are putting yourself out of business, you are. If you don’t put yourself out of business, someone else will.

In the chat room during Jeff’s lecture, I mentioned the conflict of interest that goes with the fact that print revenue pays most Publisher’s salaries. It’s not clear that those salaries are part of a digital only model.

And Jeff pointed out another thing I’ve known for a while and that’s the  fact that Newspaper companies think in terms of quarters, not years. That’s fine for a mature industry but not okay for a startup.

Imagine a startup like Twitter cutting off user adoption by trying to monetize this quarter. In fact, that’s exactly why I think MySpace went under. And it coincided with a buyout from a company with a newspaper mentality, News Corp.

It takes  a lot of balls to think like a startup, especially when existing salaries are riding on success or failure. It’s much safer to decline gradually. Less painful.

Well, that’s not for me. Pull the band-aid off fast and lets breath some air into the news business.

That’s where success lies.