Knight Foundation expands into investment with an Enterprise Fund

Knight Foundation expands into investment with an Enterprise Fund: I missed this while on vacation last week, but as a sort of expansion of the Knight News Challenge, there’s now a 10 million dollar Knight Foundation fund to invest in for-profit companies. I continue to think this is a good idea.

Carnival of Journalism: An open email to Michael Maness, because no one writes letters anymore

This post is but one burning twig in the roaring campfire that is the rekindled Carnival of Journalism. This month’s two options both provide the carnibloggers an opportunity to give advice to organizations with a mandate to give away money and other resources for the sake of improving journalism. I’ve chosen the option that involves telling the Knight Foundation what to do as the five-year Knight News Challenge program winds down (or renews itself), and as Michael Maness steps up as the new VP for Journalism and Media Innovation.

Quick disclosures: Hey, I was a Knight News Challenge winner in 2008, and Michael and I worked for the same company for a few months, quite recently.

Hi Michael —

Ryan Sholin here. We’ve crossed paths once or twice at your previous gig, and had a good conversation or two about what you were up to back there.

Anyway, I wanted to write you to give you a bit of unsolicited advice about what to do about funding innovation in journalism and media at the Knight Foundation. (Well, OK, Dave Cohn solicited me, but he didn’t have to twist my arm or anything.)

A few ideas:

  1. Fund some for-profit companies. Startups. Take some equity. Focus on companies providing tools supporting new revenue streams and business models that support journalism. Alternatively, fund some disruptively innovative companies (Flipboard comes to mind) and point them in the direction of business models that support original, local journalism.
  2. When you do give out grants to journalists and not-for-profit innovators, include mandatory business sustainability training. Instead of asking grantees “How are you going to turn this into a sustainable project when your grant runs out,” make figuring that out part of your job from the beginning.
  3. It seems like the Knight News Challenge team has been working hard over the last two or three cycles to find grantees from outside the journalism world. Good idea, but make sure you don’t end up with a crop of edge case grantees building tools for edge cases. There are plenty of would-be innovators at small, unglamorous news organizations across the world. Do they know about the Knight News Challenge? They don’t read Nieman Lab or Romenesko or the Carnival of Journalism (not that there’s anything wrong with that). They just bust their tails 24/7 to put out a range of local news products, and when you look a little closer, you’ll often find they’re innovating their way around resource, technology, and even language issues to reach their community.
  4. Bring your IDEO-style innovation chops to Knight in full force. Send teams into underserved-by-journalism communities and find out what they need and want from local news sources. Then push grants, grantees, and programs in those directions.

That’s all for now. Eager to see what you do, and talk about it in person when we cross paths next.


Philadelphia and the pace of innovation

Exactly a year ago today, I worked my last day in corporate at a newspaper company and walked out the door to three days of technical unemployment before I started my new job at a startup on a Monday.

Of course, those three days of unemployment were highlighted by a Saturday spent in Philadelphia at Barcamp News Innovation.

An important Saturday, in fact, the culmination of a handful of regional BCNI meetups, all spawned with the idea that the Web Producers, Multimedia Shooters, Online Editors, faculty members, and journalists with boots on the ground and hands on the keyboard across the news business on a daily basis were probably a better group to get together to talk about the future of news than the CEOs of a bunch of newspaper companies.

The BCNI origin story, from my point of view, started with a closed-door “emergency summit” of newspaper CEOs in November 2008, hosted by the American Press Institute. Other than some diligent liveblogging from Chuck Peters and a few scattered blog posts from others, there wasn’t a lot of news out of it, except for the fact that the participants planned to reconvene six months later to continue the discussion.

Now, November 2008 was a long time ago, and these days I have friends at the API and a few more newspaper companies who might have been in the room at the time, so I’m not going to look back at this period through the same lens, but at the time, the reaction in what I’ll call the Practical News Innovation community was one of jaw-dropping disbelief that anyone thought they had six months to spare.

Blog posts were published, a wiki sprouted, and plans were made. Jason Kristufek took a lead role in getting things organized and inspired. Regional meetups were held, where anyone and everyone was welcome to an open, Barcamp-style discussion about the future of news. D.C., Chicago, Seattle, Cedar Rapids, Mizzou, Portland, others… and then a sort of national version at the end of the run, in April 2009 in Philadelphia.

In May 2009, the six-month clock on the emergency summit ticked by unnoticed, and as far as we know, there was no organized follow-up meeting. (I’d welcome my friends at the API to comment on what was/wasn’t planned and what happened, naturally.)

That brings me back to Philadelphia.

It’s time for BCNI Philly again, tomorrow, and I want to share some of the principles I walked in with last year:

  1. You should lead a session. If you’re planning to show up, you’re probably passionate about something. Talk about it, plug your laptop into the projector, and share some stories, successes, failures, or inspiration.
  2. As David Cohn often reminds us, trying something  is often cheaper than deciding whether or not to try something. If there’s an opportunity to build a prototype on the spot for an idea that brews in the room, do it. As Matt Waite would say, demos-not-memos. There will be Web developers present. And people with ideas. Put them together.
  3. If you find a session getting derailed by an argument from 2005, such as “are bloggers journalists” or “can citizens ever really be journalists,” etc., politely shut down that thread of conversation and move on. Instead of talking about theoretical issues, talk about practical issues. Rather than making blanket statements about, for example, whether newspapers should moderate all comments or require real identities, share stories about practical ways your news organization has solved or failed to solve this problem.
  4. Practical solutions should outrank blanket generalizations at every turn. If you find yourself uttering the words “newspapers should,” pause for a moment and think about which newspapers you’re talking about. Be specific. Someone in the room likely has specific experience to share which can inform your ideas.
  5. Make new friends. This should be obvious, but in a Barcamp setting, it can be easy to just go watch your current friends give their talks and lead discussions. Instead, make an effort to try at least one new thing. If you’ve never heard anyone talk about a category like “mobile,” for example, do so.

(An hour or so after writing this list, it seems obvious and self-evident. I know I don’t have to tell you these things, but I’ll just leave it here on the off chance that it helps frame the day for two or three people.)

Innovation doesn’t happen in a vacuum, in your office with the Internet shut off in front of a blank whiteboard. (Although that sounds mildly pleasant, doesn’t it?)

Innovation happens when you put together a group of brilliant minds with real-world knowledge of the ingredients in play. That’s what I think Barcamp News Innovation is all about.

I’m posting this today to encourage you to go, and to share what I learned last year, but also to send my regrets — I’m not going to make it up to Philly this year, thanks to a lot of really fun domestic responsibilities here at home. Essentially, between moving into a new house and having a baby due in a few weeks, every weekend day is a precious commodity around here. So be sure to give Sean Blanda a hard time on behalf of me, and make a lot of jokes about the Phillies losing to the Yankees in last year’s World Series. I’d appreciate it.

IdeaLab: Q&A 2.0

Over at the PBS IdeaLab blog, I wrote something earlier this week about what I think of as Q&A 2.0, the recent string of modern, general purpose question & answer sites exploring different ways to gather, filter, and deliver information.

And that’s the right way to think about it: Gather, filter, and deliver information. That’s a basic function of journalism, right?

Here’s one of my takeaways from a short tour of a few Q&A 2.0 spots:

“From Quora, we learn the value of frictionless real-time interfaces. Don’t assume your application has to follow patterns generated by its predecessors. You’re building next year’s tools, not last year’s.”

That’s a critical idea for anyone building user interfaces these days, isn’t it? Learn from best practices if you’re building, say, a hyperlocal news site, but you shouldn’t feel obliged to assume you need all the same pieces every other news site in history has ever had. It’s fine to emulate success, and well-designed presentations, but if you’re not trying anything new, the odds are long that you’re building something innovative, something that’s moving the needle ahead, something with a chance at mass, transformative appeal.

In other words, it’s OK to have new ideas. But I don’t need to tell you that, right?


Innovation is easy: Hand the camera to the stuntman

So the wife and I were watching Bourne Ultimatum this weekend on DVD.

(Yes, yes, I know, a few of you still know me as the former film student who was inspired to make movies because I knew I could do better than Lethal Weapon 2, but I still like a good action flick, OK?)

Anyway, good chase scenes.  Not mind-blowing, but good.  Except for this one shot

Matt Damon is racing across the rooftops of Tangier when he finally gets an angle on the bad guy.  He leaps across the alley and through the window — and the camera follows his character through the air, right up to the point when he hits the glass. (The shot in the trailer, linked above, might not be the exact same shot, or it’s from a different take, or my short-term memory that involves the glass breaking is faulty.)

While we watched it, that shot felt a little weird — the visual style of the film is really loose, handheld, crazy frenetic stuff, so it should have been felt normal, but it seemed at the time like a wild angle — a camera on a crane wouldn’t have been able to get right behind the leaping stuntman, and doing that shot in a studio up against a greenscreen would have been wrong and obvious.

So what did the filmmakers do to get the shot?

They explain it in the DVD’s special features, and as I search around for more details, this clearly went out in the press kit for the DVD release — and maybe the theatrical release itself, as it’s in many ledes of many reviews, and in more technology-focused stories about Second Unit Director Dan Bradley and his stunt/chase work.

I’m still not clear on whether the camera crew was unable or unwilling to leap behind the Damon double, Arri 235 in hand, but the bottom line is that a second stuntman operated the camera for that shot, rigged up to a wire just like the Damon double.

Keeping in mind that I worked on union and non-union productions with no budget and with millions of dollars back in my day as a lighting and rigging technician on movies and television, here are some the questions the filmmakers obviously either answered or shrugged off on the day in Tangier when they had to get their shot, the climax of the foot chase/race:

  • Is the camera insured if the stunt guy operates it?
  • Is the stuntman insured if he’s operating a camera?
  • Does this break the rules of either the camera crew’s union or the stuntman’s union?
  • Is there a bond company stooge on set, and how long will it take to convince him or her that this is a good idea, covered by the production’s insurance?

The point is this:  The status quo, the expectations, the rules and regulations, the conventions did not get in the way of getting the shot and telling the story.  Yes, there are reasons for the rules, but there are often good reasons to break them, too.

So, look around your newsroom.  Is there a stuntman who can hold a camera?  Is there someone with innovative ideas willing to hook their harness up and leap into the void?  What if it’s not their job?  What if it’s not what the budget says they’re supposed to do?  What if you get the shot?  What if you don’t?  What does failure mean if you don’t try to do something new?

Hand the stuntman a camera.  Find out.

Quick interview for BCNIPhilly

Sean Blanda hit me up today for a quick attendee interview for BCNIPhilly — that’s BarCamp NewsInnovation for the uninitiated, and you should show up to tell everyone about that cool project you’ve been busting your butt on for the last N days, weeks, or months.

Here’s the tough last question from Sean:

“Final question, and its an impossible task. With one word, finish this sentence: What the news industry really needs is ___.”

Anyone care to answer that?  It took me two words.

And then I expanded.

Notes on getting serious about staffing for online news

Mark Potts on what it takes to shift a news organization’s focus from print to Web:

“How many newspapers have a sizable staff responsible for managing print circulation? All of them of course. Now, how many have even one staff member responsible for managing online distribution via RSS, e-mail or Facebook? Damn few.

How many newspapers have a department devoted to fixing and painting news boxes? Just about all newspapers of any size. Now, how many have any staff devoted to thinking about how to optimize their site’s placement in Web searches? Not many.

How many newspapers have an advertising production staff that can churn out a good-looking ad for any advertiser? It’s essential, of course. Now, how many have anybody thinking about new forms of Web advertising that take advantage of tools like search, widgets, Flash, interactivity, data-mining, etc.? Very few.”

Read the whole thing at Recovering Journalist.

BarCamp: NewsInnovation

Jason Kristufek has opened up a wiki for BarCamp / NewsInnovation:

“The idea is to get energetic, tech-savvy, open-minded individuals who embrace the chaos in the media industry because the ability to do really cool things still exist. We also need find those people outside of our industry who love to consume news and information and are great thinkers and innovators.”

Will you be there?

BarCamp / newsinnovation

Let’s go BARcamp on the API CEO meetup

Know what Foo Camp is?  Know what BarCamp is?

OK, now that we have that out of the way, Jason Kristufek is calling for a “summit” of future-of-news hotshots/thinkers as a counterpoint to the recent American Press Institute mostly-executives meeting of the minds.

Sounds like a BarCamp to me.  Like Jason, I’m not entirely sure we can wait six months until the API 50 meet again. [UPDATE: One CEO says the plan is to meet again much sooner than that.]

Here’s what I think should happen at this sort of gathering:

  1. Talk about what’s working in your organization, whether it’s a tool, a story form, or a way of getting reporters, editors, or ad salespeople to use new tools and story forms.
  2. Talk about what’s missing in your organization, what you need help with, what you wish were easier.
  3. Break into birds-of-a-feather groups based on those first two data points, where the haves help the have-nots.
  4. Ideally, build prototypes to show off back home.  If what you need is a niche social network, you should walk away from this meeting with something to show off in a meeting when you get back to your newsroom. (Whether it’s a live, branded Ning site or a Drupal install on your laptop.)
  5. No panels, no keynotes, maybe some short, Pecha Kucha presentations to get through points 1. and 2.

But that’s just me; what do you think we could do if 50 of us got together for two days?