Startups that live for the present have a few key characteristics. More often than not, they have an employee with business experience—which means they have revenue projections and five-year plans and realistic fundraising targets. Their attempts at revenue generation are usually highly labor intensive—and would thus be out of reach for most sites that do not have a dedicated business employee. These include high-volume, direct-sale advertising; constant fundraising; and offering non-journalistic services such as social-media training for local businesses.
Sites that live for the future are no more or less committed to journalism than sites that live for the present—they’re just less likely to be able to practice journalism for very long. Journalists founded the majority of these sites, often under the assumption that they could juggle both editorial and business responsibilities. Once the site is up and running, they find that the demands of the editorial operation are more than enough to keep them busy. They neglect their present environment and instead hope that the value of their work will lead to staying power—a fallacy that might sound familiar to many newspaper publishers. Sadly, the startups with hopes most pinned on this faith that good work will be rewarded monetarily are often the ones in underserved media markets. They rushed to fill a news vacuum and now find themselves in a void of a different kind.
One of the most common criticisms we receive of our work on The News Frontier Database is that we define news organizations by the standards of the past. Is it necessary to pay so much attention to conglomerations of reporters and editors who publish news items alongside display advertising? Should we, as Clay Shirky suggested, devote our attention to entities such as WikiLeaks that have no clear antecedent, or to promising phenomena like the NPR social-media strategist Andy Carvin’s Twitter account, which he has turned into a sort of twenty-first century news wire? Does the next best hope of journalism lie in something not yet possible or even conceivable on the local level?
The types of organizations we’re documenting are undeniably an intermediate step. For that very reason, it’s crucial to study them. The low entry barrier for news startups provided by the Internet means that they are going to be part of local journalism for the foreseeable future. And the best of them (even the ones that will die once their editors exhaust their savings accounts) are providing vital information to their communities. This is why the people who run them need to trade their optimism about the future for a hard plunge into the present.
Some of the most impressive startups I’ve encountered aren’t particularly innovative—not in the way I usually think of the word. Innovative, to me, is an artist who died fifty years before his heirs ever sold a painting. If journalists are going to venerate innovation, we need a more helpful understanding of the term.
News startups might be more successful if they thought of innovation not as a race to be the first around the next curve, but as a creative response to their present environment. The Big Five are innovative in this sense. They haven’t invented something radically different. Instead, they seized an opportunity given them by declining newspapers in their respective markets, and managed to convince foundations concerned about the future of news that they were the best near-term solution to the problem.
Thinking of innovation this way also broadens the conversation about web news. For example, I’ve encountered several thriving local news startups that have print products, but they’re not at all backward in their thinking. This Land Press, perhaps Oklahoma’s first new-media company, produces beautiful video journalism and an equally stunning broadsheet that turns print from stale to exclusive. The website is free, the paper is not, and ads are sold across both mediums. Weld, a new site in Birmingham, Alabama, breaks city politics stories on Twitter that evolve into blog posts before becoming context-filled news articles for their alt-weekly-style print product. These startups innovated by coming up with the right blend of old and new for their respective markets.
Defining innovation as a reaction to the present might also help some of the troubled startups I mentioned above kick their bad habits. Lastly, and this is crucial, thinking of innovation in this way allows us to talk more realistically about failure. One thing I’m bemused and saddened by in the online news world is the excitement that heralds every new launch or trend, and the scorn that follows every failure. Could this be because we’re obsessed with an unrealistic conception of innovation, one which dictates that everything unprecedented is good and everything unsuccessful is un-innovative?