Posted on May 23rd, 2012 No comments
One of the great things about being an entrepreneur is its inherent unpredictability. While nerve-racking at times, the very fact that you don’t know exactly how things will unfold is precisely what makes it interesting and exciting. Every day is a new discovery.
Today is one of those moments as I announce something that is a direct result of over 18 years of digital innovation and entrepreneurship, but which I never saw coming. I’ve been offered the Chair in Journalism Innovation at the S.I. Newhouse school at Syracuse University — one of the top 10 journalism schools in the country — and I just accepted.
In this role, which is endowed by Newhouse alum and newspaper owner Peter A. Horvitz, I will teach new courses that “explore the intersection of journalism and technology” and “work collaboratively to develop new content models and new forms of storytelling” (from the original job posting).
I will also be a professor of practice, a unique designation at S.U. that allows professionals with unique practical experience to bring that into the university without all of the traditional requirements of academic professors. The assumption for a professor of practice is that your experience is tangential to that of a Masters or Ph.D., while still allowing you to work alongside and learn from colleagues who focus more on research. The two types of professors work closely with each other at Newhouse, which is partly what attracted me to the school compared to other universities that offer only academic paths.
Another thing that’s unique about this position is that just as with Google employees, it gives me 20% time to work on other projects in the field. In this capacity I will continue to run my BookBrewer startup, which I’m happy to say is gaining traction with journalists and news organizations, so it’s a good fit for my new role at Newhouse. I will talk more at a later date about how BookBrewer will change, but in a nutshell you can expect it to focus even more on news and information.
I’m deeply honored to accept this job and can’t wait to start teaching my first course in August. I hope to help aspiring young journalists get a leg up on the disruptive “digital now” long before they graduate, and in so doing bring about a new golden age for journalism.
When I look back on my college education I know I would have been able to run even faster after graduation if I’d had some hands-on experience with digital tools — most of which didn’t exist then. But when you look at the pace of change today, where a company like Facebook can take over our lives in the space of 5 years, you can expect everything to change in the blink of an eye — especially in media and journalism. Teaching students how to innovate will be essential to their survival.
I also see this as an opportunity to help students understand and hopefully avoid what Clayton Christensen called The Innovator’s Dilemma. I’ve lived it, and it’s not fun!
Let me explain. Nearly 18 years ago I started my career as a journalist right as the consumer Internet was born through what eventually became the Netscape Web browser. After just one year of serving as a feature writer at The Denver Post, I found myself leaving print behind forever to embrace a bold new future for journalism on the launch team of Digital Ink, which we quickly relaunched as Washingtonpost.com.
A few years later I left the Post for America Online along with a band of others feeling confident in the bright digital future for journalism, feeling we’d gotten it off to a good start. And then something terribly sad happened, or rather didn’t happen. The Post, along with most newspaper companies, failed to innovate in the most important area of all: its core business model. Everything was and still is based on print advertising even as print subscribership plummeted, and the result is a shrinking workforce and weakened brand.
I then learned that disruption was about more than just replacing print with ones and zeroes. I saw it happen again after six years at the purely-digital AOL, which went from being Wall Street’s Internet darling to it pariah. The reason was the same: failure of the organization to innovate and adapt to change as people moved from dial-up to broadband Internet. I can tell you as an insider that this was not from lack of trying. Rather, it was because AOL’s bread and butter business model held the organization back from making hard decisions.
When I saw it happen a third time with The Bakersfield Californian, I started to see this as an inevitable pattern of creative destruction that plagues all industries. During an intense 6-year period, I and a small group of people on a New Products team pushed the envelope of how a local newspaper could serve its audience and advertisers online, bringing all kinds of new ideas like social networking and citizen journalism into the newspaper industry. In that time our social networks and associated print products increased the total audience the Californian reached by 100,000 new people, all in a town of just 300,000. But despite our success in growing new audiences, many of these initiatives ceased or were pared back when the real estate collapse of 2007 and subsequent global recession robbed the paper of revenues it had set aside for innovation.
Lest you think this post is about blaming past employers (it’s not — I respect all of those places), I can also point squarely at myself. Even after getting an $837,000 Knight News Challenge grant to build Printcasting, a new way of creating local print publications, I and my team were unable to innovate around that particular model after our funding ended. We didn’t stop, and instead used our own funds to morph the product into the BookBrewer eBook service. After two years BookBrewer is showing promise with journalists and news organizations such as The Denver Post and Atlanta Journal-Constitution, who are using it to sell collections of stories as eBooks.
I will be the first to say that my resumé looks frenetic or, as one hiring manager once said, that I’ve taken my own path. But from another perspective, if you look at my story you can see the common threads that are independent of any one company or initiative. This is true of every innovator I’ve had the privilege of meeting over the years. The ability to embrace constant change as the norm — even when it means completely shutting something down and launching something else that’s better thanks to past mistakes — is the key to innovation. This is what I most hope to impart to Newhouse students.
But don’t be fooled. Innovation and entrepreneurship are hard, and the odds are stacked against you.
When put that way, you may be tempted to think “to hell with innovation – it’s too risky!” And that’s true about the risk. But what I have also learned is that you never know where your innovation ends and someone else’s begins. It’s the tapestry of innovation that is most important, and we need to see more of that in the journalism field.
I received my biggest lesson around this in 2007 when I was invited to talk about innovation at a Grupo de Diarios América (GDA) summit in San Jose, Costa Rica. During my presentation I talked about Bakotopia.com, the youth-centric social network and brand I started for The Bakersfield Californian, which I’m happy to say is still running strong. This was one of the first social networking experiments at a newspaper. Launched in 2004, it even predated the modern Facebook, which was still only accessible to college students at that time.
After I finished a big-eyed Brazilian journalist rushed up to me and said, “Oh my God, I can’t believe you’re the Bakotopia guy! We love Bakotopia!” He then explained how his newspaper, Zero Hora, in Porto Alegre, Brazil had been so inspired by Bakotopia that it created its own version focused on youth soccer. The idea that one little experiment in the central valley of California could inspire a parallel product on another continent was amazing to me.
This happened again a year later when the publisher of El Nuevo Día in Puerto Rico approached me at a conference saying that The Bakersfield Californian’s new products had been an inspiration for them. This was particularly gratifying because my grandmother read that paper every day from her home in Puerto Nuevo, Puerto Rico.
I continue to encounter people like this who were inspired by something innovative that I did in the past, and I know that the path doesn’t end with me. Their inspiring projects also serve as the models for others. In this way, every journalism innovator – or Journovator as I call them – serves as something like a neuron in what my old colleague Tim Repsher calls “a dreaming brain” that is constantly reimagining the future of journalism.
But if I could change one thing for future journalism innovators, it would be to lower the risk of failure, which can only happen through practice and experience.
Effective innovation is now a matter of survival, and that’s more true in journalism than in any other field. In 2010 alone more than 1,000 journalists lost their jobs, according to Pew. At the same time, enrollment in journalism schools across the country has been higher than ever. This is a good thing, but not if those students are getting trained for industries that are dying or dead. Just like any digital startup, they need to be trained to think outside the box with content and revenue, and to understand not just how their products will inform communities of interest, but how they will pay for themselves.
So how do you teach the skills needed to be an innovator? I don’t have a pat answer to that, and to be honest I think the approach itself will require constant experimentation and innovation before we know how. But I do know how I learned it: by doing it. The process of trying, failing, trying again, getting some things right, getting other things wrong, failing and getting back up is the real-life school of innovation. There’s no better time to start that process than in college, when the stakes are far lower than when you have a house, possibly a spouse, kids and a dog.
I’ve taught a lot of seminars over the years, including some with “journalism innovation” in the title, but I know this will be a new role for me. I’m looking forward to learning how to teach. Most of all, I’m looking forward to shepherding a new class of journalism innovators who will teach me by all the cool stuff they will dream up.
Posted on April 25th, 2012 No comments
There are some interesting thoughts in this New York Times opinion piece about a class at Stanford taught by Peter Thiel, the founder of PayPal.
Thiel says most capitalism is just competition. While competition gets people to create better and better mousetraps, it usually doesn’t lead to anything that’s truly creative or innovative. Only those who choose to play a different game and move into an obscure area, then create and dominate a new market, are innovating. (This is just my paraphrase, which I’m sure is inadequate. A student named Blake Masters posted an essay from his notes if you want to delve in further.)
From my perspective this is why most innovations are first seen as trivial and even laughed at. Only when a technology or service has dominated a new market does everyone change their tune and herald it as an innovation.
The best example of this is Twitter, which spearheaded and later dominated the trend of microblogging. Be honest. When you first saw Twitter, did you imagine that it could completely disrupt the way people received information about major news stories, or do a better job at it than blogging — another technology / movement that was initially laughed at? I know I didn’t. My first thought was that nobody could possibly share enough meaningful information in 140 characters to make a difference.
Was I ever wrong there! After the Arab Spring uprisings, we all see Twitter for what it is: a democratized, distributed media platform that’s often more effective than CNN. So much quality information is being shared as tweets amidst so much noise that a new class of companies are creating a journalistic / curation layer on top of it. Storify, FlipBoard and Zite are three of my favorites.
What does this mean for entrepreneurs or innovators within existing companies or organizations? First, we need to think differently about innovation. Are we stretching far enough to find truly new and innovative solutions to real problems, or just being 10% better than what’s already out there?
Second, we need to be comfortable with the prospect of our ideas being initially dismissed, or even laughed at. Once I started my own company I realized how much easier this is when you don’t have to constantly promote and defend your ideas with coworkers. You have to do that in the marketplace — which takes even more work — but the psychological effect of being ridiculed by a complete stranger isn’t quite as daunting as it is from someone you work with every day.
And third, we need to redefine the concept of failure. A failure is only real if you give up when one approach doesn’t work. This isn’t to say that failures in quality should be tolerated or encouraged, but in the effort to drive adoption among a target market and reach profitability, there are always course corrections that need to be made.
It’s an organic process that in most cases doesn’t result in world domination, but you learn a lot in the effort to get there. Eventually maybe you’ll even create the next PayPal — something Peter Thiel did only after he got off the competition bandwagon.
Posted on July 7th, 2008 No comments
At a time when everyone is doubling down to find new ways to engage audiences and grow revenues, it’s good to remember that some of the biggest innovations in history were either accidents, or discovered while working on something completely different.
Robert Austin, Lee Devin and Erin Sullivan of The Wall Street Journal interviewed innovators in fields from manufacturing and fine art and came up with these recommendations for how to encourage accidents that may lead to future innovations. Their prescription includes periodically mixing things up between seemingly unrelated projects, making experimentation (and resulting accidents) cheaper, and my favorite, encouraging people to collect what appears to be random junk if they find it interesting.
If something interests you, they say, squirrel it away into your messy filing cabinet of random ideas and periodically stumble through it. You never know when it may pop into your mind at the right moment, and even change the world. We all owe a debt of gratitude to Edward Jenner, who remembered a milkmaid telling him that she would never get smallpox because she had cowpox. That simple idea lead him to discover a vaccine for smallpox.
Posted on June 30th, 2008 No comments
Steve Yelvington has an amusing post today titled “Dan Drinks the Kool-Aid,” a reference to my decision to build our Printcasting tools on the Drupal framework. In the inside-baseball game that is the blogosphere, there’s a story behind this that I think other media innovators can learn from, and in my opinion it’s all about how important keeping an open mind is to building a culture of innovation.
Ever since the Californian started experimenting with social media after the launch of The Northwest Voice and Bakotopia, we’ve stayed in close contact with Yelvington and his team at Morris Communications. Very early on, people at both companies noticed that we had similar ideas and approaches to engaging audiences. The differences between the consumer experiences on the Voice, Bakotopia.com and Morris’ Blufftontoday.com are very slight.
But there are some very large differences in our back-end technical approaches. Very early on, Yelvington’s team started building its social media sites on the open-source Drupal platform. The Californian started its sites first with a vendor, and then partly out of the frustration of that experience, moved in the other direction and began building our own stuff.
There are some good reasons behind this. Compared to Morris, which has 13 daily newspapers, 33 radio stations and magazines in multiple states, the Californian is tiny. When my boss Mary Lou Fulton started the Voice, the Californian didn’t have a single software programmer or system administrator on staff. Our complete lack of dedicated technical support staff made modifying an open-source tool difficult. We couldn’t do anything on our own and had to rely on vendors and outside contractors to guide many of our decisions.
When I started in 2004, before the Californian had any niche products or technology to speak of, I wasn’t satisfied with using vendors and I started playing around with various open source tools. We launched Bakotopia on an open-source platform called Noah’s Classifieds. It was a great one-trick-pony platform for simple Craigslist-list style listings, but we wanted to do a lot more than that. In the end we saw that it had to be modified so much that we faced two choices: build a bunch of new functionality around a core to make it do something it wasn’t designed to do, or spend an extra month building a new core that was a better fit for our long-term needs.
Before investing in a fully custom solution, we looked at other open-source tools, including Drupal. I liked the way it was structured, but found that it had stability issues and just wasn’t all there yet (I used it on my blog for a good 4 months before it crashed and took all of my postings with it). The Californian couldn’t wait for the perfect open-source solution to emerge and I didn’t want to risk staking the future of this 140-year-old media company on a promising, but at the time still adolescent, technology.
So we started “rolling our own” and, to our amazement, ended up with the award-winning Bakomatic platform. That was the right thing to do at the time, and we will continue to use and enhance the system. It still has some unique functionality and experiences that don’t exist in Drupal — for example, the Inside Guide business directory and a Facebook-like Personal Inbox. And in some respects we can innovate faster with it because we don’t have any external dependencies on other projects.
However, we don’t have any strong religion about proprietary technology, or any technology for that matter. Whenever a new need comes up we think first about the end-user and specific business goals, and then see how different technology solutions meet those needs. We’re technology agnostics.
Printcasting is unique for us in that it needs to work really well in Bakersfield, then be quickly adopted by partners in five other cities, and finally made available to anyone under an open-source license (read more about the three phases of the project).
Building the features on our own proprietary platform was one solution that would have required releasing some or all of our code to the open source community. We briefly considered doing that, but then realized that technology was only half of the picture. We also needed an open-source community. We decided that the project would have a bigger overall impact if it was connected to an existing open-source movement versus trying to start our own competing movement.
Four years after our initial evalutation, Drupal is well out of its adolescence and is an ideal launching pad for almost any social media tool. By making modules for the consumer-facing pieces and tying them into PDF generation on the back end (which by the way would not be done by Drupal, but the end-user will never know or care), we know that thousands of existing Drupal sites, and many more thousands to come, will experiment with what we build. Not only that, they will take what we do and make it better. That’s perfectly aligned with the goals of the Knight News Challenge.
Will the Californian use Drupal for more projects? Maybe, or maybe not, depending on the project. We’re also now using Ning sites as a low-cost way to serve smaller niche audiences. If they show promise, we invest more resources and move them into our larger network. If not, it’s really easy to shut down a Ning site. Ning didn’t even exist when we started down the path of social media. In another four years who knows what else will be out there?
Drupal is looking really good now based on our current needs, and it may continue to look good in another four years. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that innovation relies on flexibility and open-mindedness. The minute you put a stake in the ground, you’re cutting off your options and your rate of innovation slows down.
One thing that has bothered me since I re-entered the newspaper industry after nearly 7 years away is how it’s always looking for one silver bullet. Perhaps that’s because the industry relied on one solution (the daily printed newspaper) for its entire existence up until now. But times have changed, and one solution to every problem is no longer feasible.
Innovation requires the opposite of silver-bullet thinking. It’s an ever-evolving process that requires constant experimentation, evaluation and change.
Posted on January 5th, 2008 No comments
There’s a great interview in today’s Wall Street Journal with the king of all wacky successful entrepreneurs, Virgin’s Richard Branson.
As we start a new year — and possibly a new era of optimistic change, as expressed in Thursday’s Iowa Caucus surprise embrace of Washington outsiders Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee — I think this interview contains some good reminders of how true innovators push for transformative change in both good and bad times, and always look for ways to turn seemingly intractable problems into paradigm-shifting, positive solutions. This is good for Americans, and really all world citizens, to keep in mind as we deal with a shifting economy made worse by a global credit crisis. One person’s problem is another person’s opportunity, and Branson is the ultimate opportunist.
I have to admit that I’ve been a fan of the guy ever since he showed up nearly naked in Times Square for a publicity stunt to promote Virgin Mobile. I thought, “that guy is nuts!” and I couldn’t believe the leader of any major company would act that way (he regularly kite-surfs, too). So of course I had to see what he was going to do next.
Later, I watched every episode of The Rebel Billionaire reality TV show, in which Branson-like executives competed to take over his job at Virgin. They’d come up with business plans one day, then climb onto the top of an airborne hot air balloon to have tea with him the next to show that they were serious about taking risks.
Soon after that show Branson started Virgin Galactic, which plans to be the first commercial tourism venture, using the SpaceShip One spaceplane that was tested in Kern County, not far from Bakersfield. And now he’s working to make his Virgin airline companies (there are three) more environmentally friendly by running on butanol instead of traditional jet fuel to improve their efficiency and reduce their impact on the environment.
Branson’s embrace of environmentally friendly technologies is about more than just good will. You can tell that he’s also thinking about how it can make him, and many others, lots of money. There’s no way like profit to get people to jump on a bandwagon. Some other things in the interview that caught my eye:
- Necker Island, the Caribbean island that he owns and calls home, will be 100% carbon neutral in six months by using energy from windmills and the sun. And it’s not all for environmental reasons. He claims it’s going to save him $500,000 a year. (I’ve been on a boat next to that island, and I can tell you that it’s really sunny and often windy, so I can see how this would make sense).
- He points to the folly of America’s new official embrace of corn-based ethanol not for completely environmental reasons, but also because it’s not as efficient as sugar-based ethanol, which means lower profits. He says:
“Sugar-based ethanol is seven times more efficient than corn-based ethanol, so every acre of land can create seven times the volume of fuel.”
Hmm, maybe we’ll all be filling our cars with “Virgin Sugary Ethanol” one day?
- And as the ultimate example of the glass-half-full mindset, he’s already thinking about how to literally turn rising sea levels into something positive. From the interview:
“If the sea levels are going to rise, why don’t we create some massive inland lakes in Africa and Asia? Instead of having all the cities flooded all over the world, the inland lakes can help take the brunt of it. At the same time, you would have this cool water, which would help cool the earth down. The water itself would help fertilize deserts, which would then grow trees. So we’re trying to think of biggish schemes that would help counter the problem.”
Would that last idea even work? I have no idea, and I bet neither does he. But this is exactly the kind of brainstorming that needs to happen in times of great need and change.
As his fellow Brits would say, Branson is a bit of a “nutter,” but you have to respect his relentless drive, optimism, and even pragmatism (even his craziest ideas have solid business plans, and most succeed). Underneath his 1980s-esque hard rock / “stoner” look, there are signs of someone who can see into the future like nobody else simply because he refuses to limit his thinking. And that’s also why he lives on his own private island while the rest of the world wonders how to keep from going into mortgage default due to sub-prime mortgages gone bad.
Since I work for a newspaper and usually blog about things that impact media, you may be wondering why I’m going on and on about someone who runs an airline, is building a spaceport and previously ran a record company.
That right there shows the connection. Branson doesn’t think about anything in terms of just one industry, but rather looks for opportunities where his company can solve problems for people in new ways — and make a buck. As the latest example, Virgin is even trying to buy a British bank that’s on the verge of insolvency thanks to bad mortgages. His justification: “In times of strife, there are certainly opportunities.”
Richard Branson shows how sometimes you have to start with the “it’s so crazy is just might work” type of ideas, and then work down from there, versus starting only with what you think you can accomplish with current resources. That’s something that’s important to any industry. At this time in the newspaper and media industries generally, we all need to be more like Richard Branson.