24 September 2009

Saving Journalism Through Business Incubation

President Obama has been thinking about the fate of journalism lately:
"Journalistic integrity, you know, fact-based reporting, serious investigative reporting, how to retain those ethics in all these different new media and how to make sure that it's paid for, is really a challenge," Mr. Obama said. "But it's something that I think is absolutely critical to the health of our democracy."
I've said it before - the traditional news business is working its way through the Kubler-Ross five stages of grief. It's dying, and nobody has figured out a way to make it profitable in the digital media age - at least not yet.

We can't expect every media outlet to go non-profit, and we shouldn't expect journalists to work for free. What we need is something that will give entrepreneurs in technology and journalism some initial support to allow their ideas to get off the ground - help them reach some semblance of sustainability so we can really see if new business models and technologies can work.

That's called a business incubator.

The ethical code professional journalists strive to maintain and use to define themselves really hasn't changed. However, we all know the conditions under which journalists work and compete has shifted dramatically. It's more local and more global at the same time. It's much more reliant on the Internet and multimedia. It's more user-driven than ever. And it increasingly competes with people who may not even be aware of that ethical code but still have news to share, and can do so at little or no cost.

A global, virtual business incubator for the journalism industry can help entrepreneurs with things like bandwidth, server space, and equipment. It can provide some IT expertise to help people translate their ideas into computer code. It can provide business expertise to help people who write a great story but don't speak spreadsheet. It can connect entrepreneurial journalists and editors with other reporters worldwide. And finally, it can help these nascent firms "graduate" to the point where they're ready to redefine the industry and deliver a quality product at a fair price.

An incubator with a strong affiliation with a college or university - perhaps schools of business, computer science, and journalism - can provide these businesses with a wealth of information and perspectives to get the product AND the process right. When I worked for Senator Kennedy I helped him write the LEADERS Act, which provided federal resources for business incubators with strong academic affiliations. The bill had bipartisan support and was endorsed by the National Business Incubation Association, but never made it through the Senate. It's been reintroduced several times by Congressman John Tierney in the House. (There's a great business incubator at Salem State College in his district.)

This idea is a bit different than the legislation, but the economic benefits of incubation are not disputed. The contributions academia can provide are limitless. And the changing nature of the industry demands conditions to let new models develop.

I've been kicking this idea around for some time with a few very good friends. I've thought of a few others I want to invite to this discussion. I'm sharing these thoughts now because I'd love to see this go "open source" and see who's interested in playing along. There's no way I or a small group of folks will crack this nut. But we can help create the conditions necessary to help entrepreneurial journalists share new ideas, grow their businesses, and thrive.

Seriously, this can be done.

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