Mediactive

Failing, and Learning

This post is part of the Carnival of Journalism, a monthly collection of blog posts on a related topic curated by David Cohn. Our assignment this month was to talk about a failure, in our personal or professional lives, for which we are responsible and from which we learned lessons.

Only one? There have been so many…

However, in this context — the emergence of a 21st Century journalism culture — this is a pretty easy call. I’m resurrecting a 2006 letter I wrote to an online community that didn’t work out. It was called Bayosphere, and its demise was a fairly high profile event at the time, for all kinds of reasons. (The site is off the air, though a friend and I are working to resurrect at least part of it, so that it exists for anyone who might want to see it even now.)

It was a difficult letter to write, but it had to be written. The main reason was that the people who’d been part of that project — almost all volunteers — deserved to know what had happened. The other main reason was the recognition that entrepreneurship is about many things, but above all, as my friend and colleague CJ Cornell says, it’s about owning the process and the outcome.

Here’s that letter, dated January 24, 2006 (with updates at the end):

A little over a year ago, I left the San Jose Mercury News to pursue my passion for what we’ve come to call “citizen media” — the idea that anyone with something to say could use increasingly powerful and decreasingly expensive tools to say it, potentially for a global audience.

I left what I considered one of the two or three best gigs in the entire newspaper industry. But having published We the Media — and seeing first-hand the application of bottom-up communications in all kinds of arenas, especially journalism — I knew it was time to devote my full energies to this emergent phenomenon.

I learned some things last year, about media, about citizens, about myself. Although citizen media, broadly defined, was taking the world by storm, the experiment with Bayosphere didn’t turn out the way I had hoped. Many fewer citizens participated, they were less interested in collaborating with one another, and the response to our initiatives was underwhelming. I would do things differently if I was starting over.

I erred, in retrospect, by taking the standard Silicon Valley route. I was trying to figure out how to make this new phenomenon pay its own way out of the gate, just as the traditional, still deep-pocketed media, super-energized entrepreneurs and legions of talented “amateurs” — a word I use in the most positive sense here — were starting to jump seriously into the fray.

In February, Michael Goff joined Grassroots Media as my business partner. Michael is smart, energetic and creative, and had a long track record in the media business including founding Out magazine, launching Microsoft’s Sidewalk city guides, leading MSN as general manager, and as CEO of a tech investment partnership and a wireless company. He’d just finished leading the volunteer team in Haiti for Bill Clinton’s AIDS Initiative.

We talked constantly about what might work with all the changes in the media sphere, and within the company’s specific mission to support citizen journalism as a viable business while providing for its investors and employees. We blocked out the options and considered, among other things:

  • Consulting for newspapers and media entities;
  • Trade publishing for journalists and editors making the transition;
  • Publishing our own citizen media-driven sites;
  • Running conferences and education programs;
  • Creating an advertising network;
  • Creating an affiliated network of blogs and bloggers;
  • Selling “picks and shovels” — a platform of tools for citizen journalist collaboration;
  • Creating a self-tagging system for bloggers to use in disclosing bias and tracking stories.

In the end, we opted for publishing. One reason was that I was keenest on the basic journalism mission. Another was that we figured we could best leverage our strengths, including my already successful blog. We decided to put up a site that would serve effectively as a test bed, to see if it would work and, perhaps, become a model for other things of its kind.

We envisioned Bayosphere as a place where people in the San Francisco Bay Area community could learn about and discuss the regional scene, with a focus on technology, the main economic driver. My tech and policy blogging would be an anchor, hopefully attracting some readers and, crucially, some self-selected citizen journalists who’d join a wider conversation.

The evidence strongly suggested early on that this was not likely to be a viable publishing venture for some considerable period without partnerships to bring in both readers and contributors. But long discussions with potential partners — including several whose participation would have been game-changing in a journalistic and business-model sense — didn’t pan out. (It will be an exciting day when one or more of those folks tries a citizen-driven media venture.)

Even so, Bayosphere attracted quite a bit of traffic, and some heartening effort on the part of some citizen journalists. I’m grateful to them for trying. But as is obvious to anyone who’s paid attention, the site didn’t take off — in large part, no question about it, because of my own miscues and shortcomings. My friend Esther Dyson says, wisely, “Always make new mistakes.” Did I ever. But I learned from them, and from what did work. Here are some of the lessons:

  • Citizen journalism is, in a significant way, about owning your own words. That implies responsibilities as well as freedom. We asked people to read and agree to a “pledge” that briefly explained what we believed it meant to be a citizen journalist — including principles such as thoroughness, fairness, accuracy and transparency. Although some cynics hooted that this was at best naive, we’re convinced it was at least useful.
  • Limiting participation is not necessarily a bad idea. By asking for a valid e-mail address simply in order to post comments, you reduce the pool of commenters considerably, but you increase the quality of the postings. And by asking for real names and contact information, as we did with the citizen journalists, you reduce the pool by several orders of magnitude. Again, however, there appears to be a correlation between willingness to stand behind one’s own words and the overall quality of what’s said.
  • Citizen journalists need and deserve active collaboration and assistance. They want some direction and a framework, including a clear understanding of what the site’s purpose is and what tasks are required. (I didn’t do nearly a good enough job in this area.)
  • A framework doesn’t mean a rigid structure, where the citizen journalist is only doing rote work such as filling in boxes.
  • The tools available today are interesting and surprisingly robust. But they remain largely aimed at people with serious technical skills — which means too ornate and frequently incomprehensible to almost everyone else. Our tech expert, Jay Campbell, did a heroic job of trying to wrestle the software into submission to our goals. We still felt frustrated by the missing links.
  • Tools matter, but they’re no substitute for community building. (This is a special skill that I’m only beginning to understand even now.)
  • Though not so much a lesson — we were very clear on this going in — it bears repeating that a business model can’t say, “You do all the work and we’ll take all the money, thank you very much.” There must be clear incentives for participation, and genuine incentives require resources.
  • On several occasions, PR people offered to brief me on upcoming products or events that they hoped I’d cover in my capacity as a tech journalist, but were happy to give the slot to our citizen journalists. This testifies to a growing recognition among more clued-in PR folks that citizen journalism is here to stay.
  • Although the participants — citizen journalists and commenters — are essential, it’s even more important to remember that publishing is about the audience in the end. Most people who come to the site are not participants. They’re looking for the proverbial “clean, well-lighted place” where they can learn or be entertained, or both.
  • If you don’t already have a thick skin, grow one.

A more personal lesson also emerged: As an entrepreneur, let’s just say I wasn’t in my element. The relentless focus on a single, limited project for long periods of time, combined with the inevitable compromises inherent in for-profit decision-making, turned out not to be my best skills. For almost 25 years I’d thrived on the constant deadlines and competition of journalism. So I assumed I’d easily handle the pressures of trying to create a business from scratch while also keeping my reporting and writing skills intact and helping other people join in. In reality, I was unprepared for what proved to be an entirely different kind of pressure, and didn’t handle it nearly as well as I’d expected. I allowed myself to get distracted, moreover, by matters that were not directly relevant to the project.

During the summer, Michael and I realized that it was unlikely that we would land a key distribution deal in the immediate future, and without that we weren’t finding the kind of business model for Bayosphere that justified raising more money beyond the seed financing. We had business ideas that might well have been funded, but they were not first and foremost aimed at boosting the citizen-journalism field, which was and remains my overriding goal. In September, we stopped spending our investors’ money, and sustained Bayosphere ourselves on a relatively bare-bones budget from our own funds, putting in our own time.

We’ve never lost sight of this, however: A more democratized media is crucial our common future — grassroots ideas, energy and talent. I believe this more than ever, as do Mitch Kapor and the folks at the Omidyar Network, who provided seed funding for the project. Their work is changing the world for the better, and I admire them.

As the Bayosphere project was playing out last fall, I concluded that I could do more for the citizen journalism movement by forming a nonprofit enterprise, a “Center for Citizen Media” where I could put my skills and passion for the genre to better use — looking at lots of disparate elements and connecting the dots. (And as a friend accurately remarked when I told him not long ago about my planned shift toward the nonprofit arena, “Well, you’ve always struck me a more of a dot-org kind of guy than the dot-com kind.”)

As mentioned, the dots I’m connecting include Bayosphere. We are talking with several folks who are interested in bringing the site under their own wings, as part of operations whose proprietors Michael and I respect. No promises here: But if we can keep Bayosphere going in a good way we’ll work hard to make that happen.

I share the disappointment of some of our citizen journalists. And I respect their skepticism; we encouraged it, after all. It’s definitely no fun to have disappointed folks (starting with Michael and our investors, and myself). Still, I owe those of you who participated and visited my thanks for being part of the experiment.

The shift in how we communicate and collaborate, how we learn what’s going on in our world, has barely begun. Predicting the future is for other people, but I’m optimistic that we’ll collectively figure this out. So now it’s back to work, with the help of old and new friends and colleagues. What could be better than that?

Looking back at this letter, I have several updates. First, the Center for Citizen Media existed primarily during my three-plus year fellowship at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet & Society. While I was there, and also teaching part-time at UC-Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, I understood that the citizen-media phenomenon was racing ahead in fabulous ways and that the real leaders of that movement should be the people doing it day to day.

Second, the tools are getting vastly better and easier to use. A startup in this arena is no longer as much as hostage to opaque software and technical skills; with many projects, you can do 90 percent of what you need with off-the-shelf tools. Still, even though you don’t need to be a programmer to work on a digital media startup, you absolutely need to know how to have a conversation with a programmer, because that last 10 percent can be the difference between things working or flopping.

Third, the value of community is even clearer now — and community building skills are one of the least common and most valuable assets for any startup in this space.

Most important in a personal sense, I didn’t end up forsaking entrepreneurship, after all. I’ve invested in and advised a number of new-media startups. I was a fortunate co-founder of another, Dopplr, which Nokia acquired several years ago. (Of course, the startup that failed is the one where I had direct operational responsibility, and the one that didn’t fail was run brilliantly by other co-founders; there may be, ahem, a correlation.) And, of course, I’ve been working to seed entrepreneurship into the academic world in an experiment at Arizona State University.

I count the failure of Bayosphere as one of the most important learning experiences in my life — so far, at any rate. It was not fun. But things turned out for the best, in all kinds of ways.