Phillip Smith

Catalyzing news innovation: How would you do it?

I’m having an enjoyable back-and-forth with Geoff Samek – one of the smart folks behind the online news start-up Sacramento Press – about how to most effectively fund and catalyze “news innovation.” In the interest of engaging more opinions (and, heck, to have some fun), we’re taking the conversation public.

Here’s how it all started:

.@gsamek Wish there was more detail in your post "Knight, I know you can do it right" New pubs != easy wins.less than a minute ago via HootSuite Favorite Retweet Reply

<div class='bbpBox57892228990910464'><p class='bbpTweet'>@phillipadsmith What detail were you looking for? My point wasn’t that new pubs == easy wins. I’d love to chat more and elaborate further.less than a minute ago via web Favorite Retweet Reply</p></div>

Geoffrey’s was kind enough to kick things off with the post Knight, I know you can do it right, part deux.

My e-mail response follows. Feel free to jump in via the comments, twitter, or – better yet – on your own soapbox in the cloud.

Hey there Geoffrey,

It was fun re-reading your e-mail over coffee this morning. Good start to the week; got the juices flowing. The three central themes seem to be:

  1. Technology companies are more innovative than ‘traditional’ news organizations
  2. Knight funding to help ‘long-established media organizations’ results in “inch vs. mile” progress
  3. A TechCrunch-style event with $5M in funding could produce ‘better’ outcomes than Knight’s current investment approach

I’ll tackle the third point first.

From your comments, I get the sense that the idea behind Knight’s investment in Mozilla is not entirely clear. That is, no doubt, our fault for not explaining it well enough yet. We are working to address this.

When I consider the TechCrunch Disrupt idea, I don’t see a huge difference between that concept and what the Knight-Mozilla program is actually aiming to do. Specifically, the program sets out to do three things:

  • Generate great ideas: through design challenges & open conversations;
  • Train people: on taking ideas from concept to code;
  • Make software: demos & reference implementations of the best ideas and experiments.

We’ve looked at many models for doing this – from Mozilla’s own Labs experiments to YCombinator-type start-up acceleration programs to XPrize-style competitions – and this program attempts to mash-up the best elements of each.

On point number two, “inch vs. mile progress,” – again – I believe that we’ve not done a great job surfacing Mozilla’s goals for the “MoJo” (Mozilla + Journalism) initiative. Mozilla is interested in news for one reason, and one reason only: to advance its mission of protecting the open nature of the Internet. ‘Saving the news’ per se is not part of Mozilla’s mission broadly, or as part of this program.

Mozilla is interested in seeing the advancement of the same fundamentally-powerful ideas that make the Internet awesome – openness, generativity, co-creation, massive collaboration, “hacking” and MakerCulture, and so on – embedded and embraced by news organizations around the world. The theory of change is quite simple “The Web is changing, and we are changing with it.” Put another way, news organizations are changing the Web, and Mozilla wants to help ensure they change it for the better.

By working with the news partners that we’ve chosen this year, and those we’ll chose next year, we’re hoping for the broadest possible exposure of the new ideas that come from the fellowships, and we believe those ideas will be embraced by news organizations of all shapes and sizes, both ‘traditional’ and radically new.

The other thing we’re looking for in partners is their ability to host fellows effectively, which Nathan explains well here.

Point number one deserves an e-mail (or a blog post) on its own, because I largely disagree that tech companies are wholly more innovative or capable of producing the types of innovations that Mozilla is interested in. The shortest possible summary is: today’s current start-up frenzy is resulting in the “appification” of everything, which is reinforcing some negative trends: encroachment on user privacy, social silos, and – potentially – less focus on the creation free and open-source software. I believe that a technology-company-centric approaches can lead to market failure, i.e., why would a start-up company advocate for open data when they could instead lock it up and charge $9.95/month?

(This of course is not the case with newer ‘values-based’ start-ups like your own, or organizations like TheTyee – both are more like ‘public trusts’ than start-up companies.)

On the flip side, Knight-funded projects like Document Cloud are:

  1. Highly innovative with broad adoption in the news community,
  2. Born out of ‘long-established media organizations’ with ideas that come from newsroom experience,
  3. Producing re-usable, open-source software that benefits the Web as a whole.

Perhaps there are similar examples in the technology start-up space? If so, I would be appreciative of a pointer.

Update: on re-reading your post, Geoffrey, I note that you’re proposing to hold a TechCrunch disrupt-style event for only news/journalism/reporting start-ups. I do like that idea, and – admittedly – it doesn’t carry all of the same concerns that I’ve outlined above. However, in the case of news/journalism/reporting start-ups, I would swap out the ‘market failure’ with financial failure; I don’t get the sense that the news innovation community is short of ideas, but – most pressingly – the financial models that can sustain the ideas.


Hi, I'm Phillip Smith, a veteran digital publishing consultant, online advocacy specialist, and strategic convener. If you enjoyed reading this, find me on Twitter and I'll keep you updated.


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