Posted on November 22nd, 2010 No comments
Some of you may have heard that I’m now running a startup called BookBrewer that makes it easy for people to create and publish eBooks that can be sold right next to John Grisham or Norah Jones. The project grew out of my Knight News Challenge Printcasting project. It has the same “anyone can be a publisher” message, but with a different output.
We also now power the eBook creation service for Borders called Borders Get Published: http://borders.bookbrewer.com.
Borders and BookBrewer are interested in promoting all quality content that comes through this co-branded service. Given my jouralism background, I’ve been telling Borders that news organizations have a a lot of good “bookable” content that people would buy if it were presented in eBook format, including:
- Multipart investigative news packages.
- Collections of stories and photos about major events, such as big disasters, elections, sports events and the like.
- “News you can use,” such as financial advice and car-buying tips.
- Columnists who have a following and/or blogs that could be brought together and sold as a book. I point to this collection of hiking guides from a former Boulder Daily Camera columnist as an example.
- Collections of celebrity interviews, biographies and even celebrity obituaries.
Borders is now promoting Get Published in e-mails that reach tens of millions each week, as well as on its Web site. One of my favorite things to be able to say about this job that I’ve created for myself is that I have the ability to recommend content for Borders to feature. They’re actually asking me for suggestions, but they want to know that it came through their Get Published service.
So I have two questions for journalists:
- What type of content are you aware of that newspapers or non-profit news organizations have that could be packaged and resold a book — especially an on-demand eBook?
- What specific news organization-provided content are you aware of that you would love to see as a book?
And then there’s the question that I’m NOT asking, which is the inevitable “Why would anyone buy content that’s available for free online?” That’s the wrong question to ask because the fact is that the eBook market is exploding right now. People are buying all kinds of content as books, even content from Twitter feeds like “Sh*t My Dad Says.” If you don’t believe me, here are the stats: http://www.idpf.org/doc_library/industrystats.htm
eBooks are a great opportunity for news organizations, and as a previous News Challenge winner nothing would make me happier than to see some news organizations and especially freelance writers use BookBrewer to fund their great journalism. It’s also a great opportunity to shift the paid-content debate away from paywalls (which I still think are a terrible idea) and toward a paid-content model that is already working. We have the power to harness the energy from that decade-long debate and refocus it on a proven model.
Posted on November 17th, 2010 No comments
On the eve of the University of Colorado’s expected recommendation to close its Journalism School (for which I’m an advisor), I just sent this letter to Provost Russell Moore and Exploratory Committee chair Merrill Lessley. I copied Chancellor Phil DiStefano.
Russ & Merrill,
I want to thank you for meeting with the CU Journalism School Advisory Board last week. It gave me a better idea of what the exploratory committee is thinking.
I was particularly happy to hear that you are not, in fact, proposing a faculty-only research institute — something I believe would be a tragedy if done at the expense of undergraduate and graduate education. A state-funded university should always be first and foremost about its students, and any research and development must also include students as much as possible.
You may remember me as the angry board member who spouted off about his discontent with the SJMC discontinuance / exploratory process at a public hearing, then expounded on my blog. I’m still dissatisfied with the process, but just to be clear, I am 100% in favor of the reinvention of journalism education — and then some — and I am still in favor of the school’s discontinuance.
More to the point, I’m passionate about the need to give CU students rich, interdisciplinary, project-based experience. Why? Because that is what I received from CU 16 years ago (more on that later).
What You Have to Gain
CU now has a unique opportunity to not only teach students about responsible and effective uses of digital publishing, but to help them “learn by doing” with other students from business, computer science, law and even art & design. These are the important roles in any startup, business and even non-profit, and the most novel innovations always come out of companies where people of such different and complementary backgrounds work together.
If you set up this new entity the right way, I think it’s likely that the next Google or Facebook will come out of CU — but with much more thought put into their desirable effects on society.
Why should you believe me? I have a unique background as a Boulder entrepreneur who attended the School of Engineering and College of Music for two years, then graduated from the School of Journalism. Think of me as someone who created his own ATLAS experience before ATLAS existed.
Since earning my CU degree, I have worked on the leading edge of user-contributed content and social networking at iconic brands like The Washington Post and Knight Ridder, as well as “pure-play” Internet companies like America Online and now my own Boulder-based startup, FeedBrewer.
Thinking back to my college days, it was interdisciplinary experiences with other students that best prepared me for my career. Through what was then called the Campus Press newspaper (now the CU Independent), I digitized all operations and put the “paper” online for the first time — quite literally stumbling about in the dark of Macky Auditorium and learning as I went along. This experience prepared me for a career in the digital operations of iconic news brands, and now my own startup company.
But thanks to my journalism classes, I was also well prepared for the responsibility side of providing digital news and information. My training in writing, research methods, accurate and fair reporting, ethics and media law gave me valuable skills that I use to this day. And while I didn’t take any advertising classes, what I learned about business while running the Campus Press — which under my watch was brought out of $50,000 in debt for the first time — gave me a good grounding in business and marketing.
What You Stand to Lose
So now let me get to the point of what I am most concerned about, which speaks to what Merrill Lessley means when he says that what’s at stake is the future of human society. And it speaks directly to the main reason I supported discontinuance.
As legacy media companies and “media forms” falter and fail, the core needs that they fill for communities are being taken up by entrepreneurial startups (both for- and non-profit). This is a great thing, but these organizations are in large part unequipped to deal with their new responsibility to society.
I personally feel a sense of guilt about this, because at AOL and now even at my BookBrewer.com startup, I fanned the flames that allow anyone to publish to a community of interest — something that not that long ago was only possible for a newspaper, magazine, TV or radio station.
I firmly believe that digital self-publishing is the purest expression of Democracy and I’m proud of what I’ve helped happen, but where our society is gaining in some ways, it’s losing in others. People are increasingly getting their news from ideologically filtered sources, and even from commercial brands like consumer packaged goods (yes, now even Tide is a source of news and information!)
These new types of organizations and companies need the same basic training in truth, accuracy, fairness, research, and good writing that are taught in journalism schools — and currently ONLY journalism schools. And how will they get these skills? From their university.
This is About Society, Not Industry
Where I probably differ from some is that I really don’t care what happens to legacy media companies anymore, or the “news industry” as it is currently organized. Despite a lot of attempts (including by me) to help these companies innovate from within, I now feel that most are destined to disappear. Their problems go beyond their ability to embrace technology, and go straight to how these companies are managed and the business models upon which they’re built. Most will fail because they simply cannot save themselves.
Realize that this is quite a statement from someone who only a few years ago receive a “20 Under 40″ award from the Newspaper Association of America. It’s not that I dislike newspapers — I just don’t think their organizations have been able to change quickly enough.
This makes training the individuals and startups that are already replacing these organizations all the more urgent. As a society, it’s in all of our best interest to ensure that the next generation of “journalists” however that is defined are trained in the most important values that the news industry has fostered for centuries.
The Path Ahead
In closing, I urge you to think hard about how to provide the right mix of journalism education along with ample opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students of many disciplines to collaborate and learn together. If CU can graduate seniors who have hands-on experience working on projects — or even developing products — in conjunction with students who have different backgrounds and expertise (software engineering, business, content, community, and even entertainment) they will be the most sought-after graduates in the country. And society will be all the better for it.
If, however, you kill your journalism school and create a faculty-only research institute (an expensive playground), you will be part of society’s problems and not their solutions. Please choose the right path!
Posted on November 10th, 2010 No comments
It’s been nearly eight months since I co-founded FeedBrewer, Inc., and five months since drawing a traditional salary.
In the days leading up to the company’s formation, and especially before leaving the comfort of having someone else paying me, I’ve learned that I was actually better prepared than I thought. I should have started my own company a long time ago. But I’ll never forget the sleepless nights in the early days when I would wake up in a cold sweat, heart thumping, wondering if I was making a big mistake for myself and my family.
A good friend just moved to Boulder, and I’ve been telling him that he’s a startup waiting to happen. After he shared some of his fears with me I sent him the following in an e-mail. I’m sharing this more broadly in the hopes that others will benefit (but with personal information removed.
Are You Ready for Your Own Startup?
If you’ve always dreamed of running your own startup company, your temptation will be to think that you’re not ready. After 8 months I’ve learned that you’re ready if the following are true:
- You have planned ahead financially, which means having savings to draw on and reducing your expenses. Every true startup has to go through the “ramen phase.” No real startup is sustained on steak dinners. (The 1990s were an aberration in that regard).
- Your family and support network is on board. If they’re not you need to either get them on board (which can take a while), or change course. This can take time. Looking back, while my wife was supportive of my startup, I can’t say that she was necessarily excited about it. Something changed after a few months and she started to see that I was making traction. She started coming up with ideas, then asked to be involved. Then other friends, family and even neighbors did the same. This is the biggest factor in my startup’s success that I never considered in the early stages, but now consider essential.
- You’re passionate about what you’re trying to do. Your startup has to be something that makes you get up every day with a smile on your face because you know you’re building meaning, and because it makes you proud. Note that I didn’t say anything about money here. The promise of making a lot of money has to come second in my opinion, because otherwise the ramen doesn’t taste so good.
- You are passionate about building something that you own and fully control, and you’re comfortable with taking responsibility for its successes and failures.
- You want true personal freedom and financial independence. Someone once told me “Money is stored up choices.” If you think of money that way, you know that all the time and sacrifice you put into a startup will pay off one day with freedom. You can look forward to not feeling like you have to do certain things just to maintain your lifestyle, whatever it may be. My personal financial goal is to one day be able to focus my energies solely on things that I feel are making a positive difference in the world and/or are just fun. Everything else is secondary to that.
- You have a Plan B if your startup doesn’t work out on a predetermined timeframe. If my startup were to fail (and I seriously doubt that now based on recent developments), my plan has always been to create so much heat and light during its existence that it makes me infinitely more employable should I need to go back to work for a traditional company. Nobody ever faults someone for giving something their best, and every noble effort is experience that you can put on your resume.
I suspect most future entrepreneurs reading this will be able to say yes to 80% of the conditions above. The trick is to get past 1) and 2), and that takes planning and time. But in my experience, if you’re truly passionate about what you’re trying to do, you will do it. Maybe not today, but when you and those around you are ready.
And my last message to my friend was this: “When you’re ready I will be right down there in the trenches with you cheering you on and helping you any way I can!”
I will do this for any entrepreneur who I know and respect. Why? Because so many others have done it for me. I never understood the value of community to entrepreneurship and small business until I ran my own startup. Giving back to other newbies is my way to pay back what I received from the Karma bank.