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 February 25th, 2012 1 comment
I’ve been invited to participate in the latest Carnival of Journalism, a monthly blogfest in which journalists are invited to post about the same topic. This month’s question, posed by Steve Outing’s Digital News Test Kitchen, is:
“What emerging technology or digital trend do you think will have a significant impact on journalism in the year or two ahead? And how do you see it playing out in terms of application by journalists, and impact?”
Anyone who follows my user-contributed content experiments can guess my answer, but they may not guess the entire answer.
The most obvious first answer is my mind is “eBooks!” For the last year and a half I’ve run a startup called BookBrewer that makes it easy for anyone to create and publish eBooks. The eBook market has been growing at a 300% annual rate for several years now, and it’s only destined to keep up that rate if not exceed it.
The last study of sales from the International Digital Publishing Forum and Association of American Publishers showed eBook sales generating $120 million a quarter. That was 18 months ago, and since tablet ownership doubled from December 2011 and January 2012, it’s safe to assume that quarterly eBook sales are at least in the $300 million range.
I’ve been urging journalists to hop on this trend since November of 2010 (see my original post about that on this blog). I suggested a few topics that would work well as books, including multipart investigative series, stories about major events, “news you can use” and collections of columns by popular columnists.
But now thanks to Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, I have an even better suggestion. Leverage the intense interest of your local sports fans to create not just sports eBooks, but full-color Print on Demand commemorative editions. And make those available as Print on Demand titles.
Here’s the story of the Post’s Tim Tebow book. If you think about how this could be done at dozens, if not hundreds of other newspapers around the country, the amount of revenue generated could be significant. It may even save a few journalists from getting laid off.
In January, we kicked off a relationship with The Denver Post that allows them to use our services to publish eBooks and Print on Demand. They said they wanted to do something about Tim Tebow, but weren’t sure how the book would end since the Broncos’ season was still underway.
In a previous era they would have waited until the the Broncos season was over (read: the Broncos had lost their last game), and then spent a few weeks editing a book of stories about the season. They’d make a deal with a local printer to print up thousands of copies on offset presses at an average of $30,000 for the run. They’d get a bunch of boxes of books that they’d then have to sell — usually for $30 or more — and when the interest waned, they’d need to lower the price and sell the remainders at a loss.
We told them that all of that goes away with Print on Demand. We gave the Post a URL that allowed them to take money up front as a preorder. This allowed the Post editors to finish writing and editing the story, and creating a nice print layout. Their online teams promoted a splash page about the book from their web site and social media channels.
And boy, did the sales ever start to come in! The actual figures are confidential, but I’m allowed to say that the total sales now are over 2,500 — most of that for the printed book — and the Post will be getting a first check in the high thousands. Unlike in the past when the Post had to put money down which they then scurried to make up, this time they put nothing down and generated a profit from the outset.
You can see how the sales followed the remaining Broncos game schedule here:
In early February, the final PDF came over from the Post, and the first copies were shipped to customers. For those print geeks out there, they were printed on a state of the art HP T300 variable digital printer run by our print partner Frederic Printing (a division of Consolidated Graphics) at a cost to the post of a little more than $15 per copy (or around $4 profit per copy to the Post, given the $19.99 consumer price). Because the orders are printed and shipped as each order comes in, there’s no need to use more expensive offset printers that require thousands to be printed up front. That leads to a lot of cost savings, less hassle and higher overall profits.
From this experiment we’ve learned that the keys to success are:
- A topic that the newspaper knows its audience is interested in.
- Good content, either original or curated into chapters, that reads well in book form.
- Good cover design and visuals.
- High level promotion from the newspapers’ web sites and social media channels.
When all of those stars align, you end up with a great information product that makes readers happy, and also makes money.
And here’s an interesting note on the so-called “eBook revolution.” We also converted the PDFs into eBooks and distributed them to all the major eBook retailers. But for at least this book, the print sales have consistently outpaced the eBook sales by a 3 to one ratio.
Thus, the second trend is one that I never expected. Print is far from dead — it’s just going through a wardrobe change. You never know if someone will prefer an eBook or print book, but the common denominator between them both is on-demand publishing.
Posted on October 8th, 2008 No comments
Since my blog is read by a lot of people who work in digital news, I would like to invite everyone to submit good ideas to this year’s Knight News Challenge. All entries must be in by 11:59 p.m. on November 1, 2008, which means there are only 24 days left. You can submit your application at http://newschallenge.org/
The Knight News Challenge is an annual contest that awards $5 million for innovative ideas that develop platforms, tools and services to inform and transform community news, conversations, and information distribution and visualization. The criteria are:
Digital – Your idea uses digital technology (computers, the internet, cell phones, that sort of thing).
Innovative – Your idea is new and original. It’s different from what people have done before. You are, in some way, breaking new ground.
News/information – Your idea is about giving people access to what they want to know.
Timely – Your idea delivers news or information while it’s still fresh.
Community-building – Your idea helps create a sense of community among some group of individuals.
Limited geographic area – Your idea affects people in a specific area, which could be as big as a state or province, or as small as a city block. (If your idea is national or worldwide in scope, it must work at a regional level.)
Open Source – The inner workings of what you create will be visible to the world, so that others can take it and improve upon it.
ALL CRITERIA are applied to EVERY application, so if you have an idea I suggest you read it over once for every rule above and make sure that your idea and application fit within the scope of the contest — especially the “limited geographic area” requirement. You would be surprised at how many people don’t do this.
Think the odds are stacked against you? The bar is very high (last year there were 3,000 entries and 16 winners), but if you have a killer idea you stand a chance.
I can speak from experience here. A year ago, I entered this contest along with my colleagues — Mary Lou Fulton and Justinian Hatfield — from The Bakersfield Californian. We had an idea for making it possible for anyone to be a local print publisher without any money, design skills or even content. To our surprise and delight, that idea, Printcasting, was one of the 16 winners, and we’re on track to launching phase 1 next March.
Now for a few caveats. I’m a screener for this year’s entries, which means that if I know you I will need to recuse myself from reviewing your application. I also may not be the one to screen your app, as they’re assigned randomly.
Finally, if you have a good idea and want feedback from me, as a screener I’m not allowed to provide any. However, everyone is encouraged to post their ideas first at the News Challenge Garage (http://garage.newschallenge.org/). You can request a mentor who will review your application and help you make it better. When you feel it’s ready, post it at http://newschallenge.org. Note that you only have once chance at that point, so make it count!
Posted on December 8th, 2007 No comments
Gary Kebbel of the Knight Foundation recently talked at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society about what the Knight Foundation is trying to accomplish with the Knight News Challenge. This is a $25 million contest with awards that will be given over 5 years. It’s into its second year now, and winners will be declared in early 2008.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I’m involved in two entries, one directly and one indirectly. That’s not why I’m passing this on, and I don’t want anyone to think that I’m trying to stack votes.
Regardless of who wins in the next round, I’m genuinely inspired by the objectives of this initiative and others like it. I want to see the best ideas get funded that have the most potential to sustain the practice and values of journalism in the future. If that wasn’t my goal, given my background and connections, there are plenty of other things I could be doing today that would be easier paths to money than working for an independently owned local newspaper. I do what I do today because I care deeply about journalism, its values and its benefits to society. That’s totally independent of the outcome of this particular contest.
What Gary outlined at the Berkman Center is what all journalists should strive for in the digital era. And truthfully, in the long run we shouldn’t need to rely on awards and grants to make this happen (although that is one great way to jump-start innovation without relying on traditional venture capital, which has its own price).
Here’s the quote from Gary that struck me:
“We really hope that the people who are inventing the latest digital information technologies care about things like ethics, and principles, and freedom of speech and press, and fairness, and separation of advertising from news, and news from opinion. These are vital to journalists.
And if journalists aren’t involved in the creation of tools that everyone is using, and instead the tools are being created by technology companies that frankly don’t understand, don’t know about or perhaps don’t care about those things, that gives us pause. So we’re hoping that we can lead the news industry into the digital revolution to help them gather new audiences, keep new audiences, and keep not only their perspective, but their important position.
If newspapers die, that’s one thing. If the news and information function in a community dies, that’s a horribly different thing. And that’s something I think that we should … work to make sure does not happen.”
Yes! That’s why I work in journalism, and came back to it after 6 years at a pure tech company. I hope there are more and more of us in that boat over time and that together we create a flotilla, and then a proud armada, that collectively preserves democracy and free speech around the world.
I know there are people with similar aims at non-news companies. Call me quaint, but I just feel like an industry that has consistently upheld these values for two centuries is best equipped to carry them into the digital world. But we can’t assume that this will happen on its own. If you’re reading this blog and others like it, it’s your responsibility as well as mine to make sure that happens.
You can view the Gary Kebbel’s entire speech on the Berkman Center’s web site.