Foundational Thinking

in his latest “Carnival of Journalism” roundup — blog posts by various folks ruminating on a journalism-related topic — our friend David Cohn wonders what the major foundations should do to push innovation in the field. His work at is funded by one of them, the Knight Foundation, and he’s currently a Fellow in a program sponsored by the Reynolds Foundation at the University of Missouri, so he has a more than average interest in this topic. A few thoughts:

First, a disclosure: The Knight News Challenge has been a key funder of a major portion of my work in the past several years. I wasn’t the applicant for the grant that paid part of my salary, but as a two-time rejectee for ideas of my own that I’ve put into the News Challenge hopper, I feel safe to say that the program resembles a lot of startups: It’s ambitious, ambiguous, chaotic, and constantly evolving.

If I were to change any single element of the News Challenge it would be this: I’d put at least half of the money not into grants but into equity investments in for-profit companies. To make this happen, the foundation would partner with a small group of highly qualified angel investors — people who cared at least as much about the future of news as returns on investment. Together we’d raise a fund that could offer seed and angel capital to digital media entrepreneurs whose projects showed the kind of promise that could lead to serious returns.

Knight, Reynolds or any other foundation that cares about the future of journalism could also to more to make sense of the landscape, and to connect innovators with people who can use the innovations. Here’s what I believe we need in that regard, as I discussed in Chapter 11 of Mediactive: a small but highly targeted think tank.

Corporate R&D operations try to pick winners while making relatively “safe” bets. This is the inverse.

Imagine a small team of, for lack of a better word, “connectors.” They’ll identify interesting ideas, technologies and techniques—business models as well as editorial innovations. Then they’ll connect these projects with people who can help make them part of tomorrow’s journalistic ecosystem.

Where will these projects come from? Everywhere: universities, corporate labs, open-source repositories, startups, basements, you and me.

Part of this is about connecting dots. I take it for granted—based on my own experiences and observations over three decades—that a large percentage of those journalistically valuable ideas, technologies and techniques will come from projects whose creators have no journalistic intent. The experiments are taking place inside and outside of companies, inside and outside the news industry (mostly outside), in Silicon Valley and out in the larger world.

Who can help the connectors spread innovation into the larger ecosystem? Among others:

  • Traditional news organizations. This isn’t to suggest they should not invest in some internal R&D (though most do little, if any). However, I would suggest that they devote a bigger part of that spending to buy or license other people’s innovations.
  • Investors outside the journalism business. Angel investors and venture capitalists think “entertainment” when they think about media. They may be willing to place some of their high-risk, high-reward bets on projects that meet community information needs if they can be persuaded that they are based on serious business models.
  • Non-media enterprises. More and more corporations and non-profits of all stripes are creating media. If they can help support innovations that also serve journalistic purposes, everyone wins. If they can be persuaded of the value of applying journalistic principles to what they produce, so much the better.
  • Foundations. Some are spending a great deal of money now on new projects, but they’d get even more leverage by supporting the connectors.
  • Individual (or small-team) media creators who can invest only their time. An essential part of the connectors’ role would be to identify open-source and other such projects that regular folks or small teams can put to good community-information use.

What distinguishes the connectors?

First, they’ll understand technology at a reasonably deep level. It’s not necessary to be a programmer, but it’s vital to know how to a) ask the right questions of the right people, b) recognize cool technology when they see it, and c) have a sound sense of the difference between cool and useful.

Second, they’ll need to appreciate journalism’s essential role in society, and how the craft is changing. This means understanding fundamental principles, of course, but also the need to turn journalism from the lecture mode of the past to the conversational mode it needs to become.

Third, they’ll need a broad array of contacts in the technology, business, education, philanthropic, investor and other sectors—and the ability to have intelligent conversations with any of them.

Finally, they’ll need to be evangelists, selling all these people not just on the need to combine great ideas with journalism, but also the need to take risks in new areas.

The catalyzing opportunities here are fairly amazing, if we pull this off. It’ll require a team effort in the end, but it’s definitely worth the effort—because the payoff for journalism could easily dwarf the investment.

Note: I pitched this idea to Knight some years ago, and didn’t even get to first base.

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