Innovation is a bumpy road but journalism needs it

Lost in the whole Rob Curley/LoudounExtra “flop” flap is that innovation is never easy.

Heck, six out of 10 start-ups fail within the first four years of operation (let alone individual ideas and products at a start-up). And for some reason people are using the performance of LoudounExtra.com (it’s still going by the way) to cast judgment on Curley, his ideas and hyperlocal journalism in general.

Some people are going as far to use the WSJ piece as a “told you so” to hyperlocal journalism. Some are even personally attacking Curley and calling him a fraud.

With this kind of climate, how many journalists are really going to want to try to stick their necks out and attempt some real innovation? That’s what Curley did. No one ever said innovation was easy or that it always works as planned.

Curley would probably be the first to admit that LoudounExtra could have been better. It could have served its readers better. Lessons were learned from the site.

Innovation is a bumpy road.

But that’s just the thing. Sometimes you can have a great idea with great execution and still not perform as well as you thought you would. That doesn’t make what you did a waste of time.

No one said trying to innovate and build better journalism was easy. Sometimes you win. Sometimes you lose.

Curley has had many successes. He’ll learn from his lessons in Washington and make better, more useful and cooler products in Las Vegas. People shouldn’t use one site as a carte blanche to dismiss everything he has ever done.

But that’s not the point of this post. This is about the restrictive culture that many journalists seem to foster right now. Jay Rosen of NYU and PressThink probably said it best about the unwillingness of many journalists to try to innovate:

News people who wonder why their industry gets creamed by Google and Yahoo are the same news people who dismiss an idea after it fails once.

Google has a culture where innovation and, gasp, failure are celebrated. To not embrace failure (or stumbling in the case of LoudounExtra) is to basically write off ever taking a risk. Even the best stumble from time to time.

The past few weeks have been filled with rumors about a new version of Apple’s wildly successful iPhone. But no talks about the iPhone’s spiritual ancestor, ???????? ????? ????????the Apple Newton. It was a failure.

The Newton has been an inspiration for much of the PDA market. Perhaps without the Newton, Apple wouldn’t have the iPhone. Everyone talks about another famous Apple product, the iPod, but how many people talk about Apple TV (or about its meager success)?

For every product Apple releases, many more prototypes never make the market. And even some of Apple’s products that do make it to the marketplace, like the Newton, end of failing. Failure has only made Apple work harder to innovate.

Failure must also make journalists work harder to innovate. Many innovative projects will fail. But we cannot allow ourselves to fear failure.

It’s fair to criticize LoudounExtra, because it didn’t go as planned, and we should learn from each other. It’s fair to point out how the project could have worked differently (no one, even Curley’s staff at WPNI is saying that LoudounExtra didn’t have faults or that they couldn’t have done things differently). It’s perfectly fair to dissect the project and what WPNI was trying to accomplish.

It’s not fair, however, to look at LoudounExtra and use it as proof that new, innovative forms of journalism aren’t possible. It’s not far to say that just because one project didn’t do well that another, similar project couldn’t succeed with some tweaking.

What happened with LoudounExtra does not reaffirm the status quo. The status quo certainly isn’t working. Journalism needs innovation.

Nor is it fair to look at the failure of other start-ups like Backfence.com and say that because of them hyperlocal journalism can’t succeed. Mark Potts, one of the founders of Backfence, has been learning from past hyperlocal attempts to try to understand what will and won’t work:

Backfence is gone, LoudounExtra is struggling, and neither Pegasus News nor Outside.In can be labeled a commercial success at this point. So what’s the right formula for hyperlocal?
I think the answer lies somewhere at the intersection of all of these models. You need sharp technology, lots of databases, aggregation of existing blogs and content, and lots of low, low-cost user-generated content. Professional content is good, too, if someone else is paying for it. You’ve got to be intensely local (LoudounExtra, by covering a 520-square-mile county, missed the boat here). And then you’ve got to market the hell out of the resulting stew, with aggressive community outreach, grassroots campaigns and, if you’re fortunate enough to be attached to traditional media, a print counterpart and the boost you get from an attached media Web site.
That’s how innovation happens. Trial and error are our friends, not our enemies. That’s what I like about Potts so much. He’s not afraid of taking risks, nor is he afraid of trying again if his first attempt doesn’t succeed.

It’s not fair to look at every journalism start-up that falters or fails and say, “I told you so.” Many of those failures will directly lead to the successes of other start-ups in the future. Some of those failures will teach us the lessons needed to turn this industry around.

Will Sullivan is correct to point out that change doesn’t happen immediately:

Change is hard.

Trying new things at a media organization that’s claim to fame is on the Pulitzer name is especially hard.

99 percent of innovation is failing, then dusting yourself off and trying things a different way. If people in your own company aren’t interested in helping you succeed, then maybe it’s time to move on.

We all get that journalism organizations are facing tough economic times, but it is irresponsible to assume that every new idea or project that is tried will be an overnight success. Maybe even LoudounExtra will be a success if its given more time to marinate.

I’m glad to see journalists like Sullivan standing up to the parade of journalists that want Curley’s hide. I’m going to leave you with some final thoughts from entrepreneurial journalist Steve Outing:

News companies, especially, really need to inject some entrepreneurial folks into their operations. Entrepreneurs fail, learn from it, and move on. They don’t give up.

  • http://markvanpatten.com mark van patten

    I’m not questioning Curley’s Louden adventure, I’m criticizing his whole career.
    Anybody can “innovate” when given carte blanche, which Curley enjoyed. Once he had that from Lawrence, he was the golden boy.
    My point was not against innovation. It was against not holding the “innovator” accountable. Curley brought nothing radical to the table, he only integrated what existed.
    Hardly an innovator.
    As far as giving Louden time? There is no time. In internet years, they have had their time. It didn’t work, so don’t be married to the idea, boot it, and move on.

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  • Ted McGee

    Innovation is important in journalism, as it is important in other fields. Without innovation, we would not have some of the great things that are constantly being produced and improved, like microwaves, socks, Dell, and shoes (just to name a few). I have stressed innovation to some of my friends but often they say “no, ted, innovation is wrong, etc.” I want them to know that they are wrong, but I am right. Yes.

  • http://www.globaljournalism.org Patrick Yen

    I love innovation. I love to innovate.
    Life would be pretty boring if it wasn’t for innovation and innovators.

    Especially American innovators..
    America generally has a rich history and culture of innovation,
    so it’s sad to not see that trickle more into our journalism industry.

    As for journalism, most of it isn’t very innovative.
    Print journalism had remained virtually unchanged for decades.

    It has a culture and foundation strongly grounded in both tradition and authority.
    Highly structured, highly regulated, highly risk-averse.

    Groups are inherently conservative, opposed to change.
    Thus, “group-think” is inherently counter-progressive.

    To be progressive in the field of journalism, to attempt to make it better,
    you must be a rebel. You must be an ‘iconoclast.’

    I’ll be willing to argue that the more innovative you are,
    the more enemies you will naturally make in the field of journalism.

    Here is a quote from Steve Jobs,

    “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

    news-service.stanford.edu/news/2005/june15/jobs-061505.html

    An example of one of my most recent stabs at ‘innovation’ can be viewed here:
    Americandiversityproject.org/2008/multimedia/pikeville/

    It is just part of a more comprehensive multimedia piece which can be viewed here:
    Americandiversityproject.org/2008/multimedia/

    It was a non-profit project, produced without funding and for no pay.
    Limited time and resources prevented a more comprehensive and complete, holistic coverage of Pikeville Kentucky, but I think we did a decent job considering our circumstances.

    When producing the intro video, I took a more ‘literary’ or poetic approach,
    trying to give a small town of about 6500 more appeal to a global audience.
    Call it “hyperglobal” if you will.

    Is it too abstract? I would love to hear your thoughts, Dr. Thornton.

  • http://www.dullessouthonline.com/loudoun_county_gateway/2008/06/loudoun-extra-welcome-to-neighborhood.html Elise

    Here’s our take on the situation, from the very front lines of Loudoun County’s Internet Marketing and Publishing 2.0 battles….

    http://www.dullessouthonline.com/loudoun_county_gateway/2008/06/loudoun-extra-welcome-to-neighborhood.html

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