Saturday, June 13, 2009

Fast to Failure

We began our panel Friday with a quotation from Clay Shirky's essay, "Thinking the Unthinkable," to give the NIMSP conferees some idea of what is going on in the world of serious journalism. The upshot: Institutions are crumbling faster than they can be replaced, and nobody can know for certain what ultimately will replace them.

From that premise, our panelists began hurling ideas for what the future might hold - online media brands that will replace the books, newspapers and magazines that depend on crumbling business models.

A key to understanding how the next few years will unfold is a strategy John Thornton calls "fast to failure" - the idea that we need to test as many plausible ideas as possible to sort out those that actually will work. And as John notes, the best laboratory is the nonprofit sector, where innovators are freed from pressure to produce immediate profits. His answer is the Texas Tribune, an online investigative news source that he hopes to launch later this year and, he acknowledges, must navigate "a thousand ways to fail."

But as NIMSP board president Jeff Malachowsky said later, it's hard to get one's head around exactly what this means and why somebody would want to try. He and other conferees wondered why John didn't spend his time and money working with an established institution such as one or more of Texas' ailing newspapers. In the world of philanthropy, carfeul conservation of resources is part of the culture.

The answer, to paraphrase John loosely, is that established media simply don't get it - and they can't get it - because they are wed to a model that is failing. A "patch" is just that - it's not innovation.

Thinking the unthinkable, it turns out, is hard to do - even for highly imaginative people.

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