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 October 14th, 2007 No comments
My friend and former colleague Sam Ro shared this interesting chart showing AOL’s layoffs going back to 1996. Or maybe I should call it a morbidly interesting chart. In truth, it’s really disgusting and it brings back all kinds of bad feelings at a time when many people in AOL’s Dulles headquarters are expecting another round of layoffs in the wake of the decision to move its headquarters to New York.
It’s hard for those of us who worked at AOL in its glory days to explain how we feel seeing everything we built unravel, and all for reasons that had nothing to do with the value of the product. I could go on and on about some of the great pioneering initiatives at AOL, such as first mass-market instant messaging service, first mass-market dialup internet service (without which broadband could never have been justified), and in my humble opinion, first true mass-market community and social network — even if it consisted mostly of pieces that could have been tied together to be what MySpace and Facebook are today, but unfortunately weren’t.
Without revealing anything proprietary, I can tell you that many of the online services and features we all commonly use today were either first attempted, popularized or conceived at AOL or an AOL property like Netscape, CompuServe or ICQ. And if they didn’t happen there first, they were proposed by not one but several smart people who, despite their best efforts, could not get enough organizational support to move the rock up the bureaucratic mountain.
Things changed quickly though. A little over a year ago, thanks to the more rapid than expected shift from dialup packaged service to “bring your own access” broadband, AOL was forced to reckon with the inevitable by basically giving up its dialup service and making most of its content and services available for free on AOL.com to anyone with an AIM user name. The efforts of many people, including some of my own, made it possible for AOL to offer many services for free over the Web in a moment’s notice (a few examples: AOL Hometown, Journals (Blogs), You’ve Got Pictures, E-mail and AIM). The hope was that the growth of online advertising would replace those dial-up revenues. But replacing the revenues from tens of millions of people who pay a monthly fee with advertising isn’t something that can happen overnight.
So why am I even writing this, let alone on a blog that is normally about online newspapers and citizen / networked journalism? Because in that chart, I see a warning for other companies — in particular, mainstream media companies.
Mainstream media and AOL have a lot in common because both are, to use an intentionally disturbing analogy, “hooked on the crack” of a monolithic subscription business model that can’t scale for the future. And despite many noble efforts to break the addiction, it’s not something that can happen in a flash.
The problem with that is that sometimes changes in consumer behavior force transitions to happen too quickly for mainstream companies to react as gradually as they’re designed for. So first they panic by laying people off to trim operations, and if that doesn’t work they often end up laying off even more people just to pay the bills. And sometimes they go out of business, or are sold to the highest bidder. Newspaper companies have seen examples of all of the above in the last couple years.
Of course, this is exactly counter-intuitive to what they should be doing, which is to focus even more on where they need to be so that they don’t have to fire people to begin with. But tell this to countless CEOs who ultimately can’t control what individuals do day to day, other than hire and fire. When pushed into a corner what are their choices?
My hope is to provide enough warning and inspiration to leaders in the media industry to start laying the framework for radical change today so that when they face the kind of “tipping point” you see now at places like AOL (ironically, a company that was once seen as the poster child for the future), they’re able to gracefully switch to new models. Based on what we see in the newspaper industry, that could be 3-5 years away, and possibly even less.
I have no idea how many people will be let go from AOL in the coming weeks, but I have a sinking feeling that it will be one of the biggest cuts ever (and I hope I’m wrong).
There is another warning in that chart, and it has to do with morale. For reasons many of us never understood, AOL made regular layoffs a part of its culture, in both good times and bad. There were equally large firings in 1998 and 1999, with one of the biggest and most wrenching happening after AOL’s acquisition of Netscape. Remember that the Internet “dot bomb” didn’t start to happen until the middle of 2000.
I recall talking to some unnamed executives about this, and their explanation is disturbing to this day. They were happy to have regular layoffs even in good times, because they saw it as a form of social Darwinism that would weed out the weak and make room for younger, stronger, smarter employees. They liked having an excuse to get rid of troublesome people, especially what they called the “rest and vest” crowd (people who did nothing until their stock options vested).
I sort of understood this, but it never made sense to me how a company of 10,000 at the time could justify departing with 200-800 people so easily and feel like it was a good thing to be proud of. It grated on me and many others, and made us all paranoid. And just for the record, I was never laid off, and the people I most respected weren’t either. We all left of our own volition, partly because the layoff culture made us stop believing in the company. The idea that someone up above could so callously part with any of us in the interests of a twisted Darwinist ideal affected our morale in a serious way.
If you work at a mainstream media company today, consider it your solemn obligation to do everything within your power to help your CEO not get pushed into that corner. And if you’re a CEO, do everything you can to support the people who can move you into the future. And please, above all, don’t fall into the trap of thinking you can cut your way to success. Not only does it not work (look at that chart — it doesn’t lie!), but it destroys the confidence of the people who you most need to inspire at this time.
10/15 Update …
Latest reports call for 2,000 layoffs, with 750 of those in the Washington, D.C. area. That’s 1/5 of AOL’s remaining work force. So it’s not the biggest ever (that would be 5,000 last December), but it is among the biggest at headquarters.
aol, newspaper industry