06 December 2010

The world hasn't changed that much.

Last week I was on a phone call with some colleagues about a project we were working on and I said, "the folks at Worldchanging would probably be interested in this."

At which point they both said, "David, Worldchanging closed its doors this morning."  Which, of course, sucks.  On many levels.   From the note nailed to the door:
Why is this happening? Worldchanging readers were generous over the years and an important part of our ongoing operations, but we were never able to secure major foundation support, so Worldchanging relied most heavily on income generated from Alex Steffen’s speaking engagements (Alex gave more than 400 talks over the past five years) and the Worldchanging book. The strenuous travel schedule it takes to deliver that many talks, though, was unsustainable, both personally for Alex and in terms of the impact it had on Worldchanging’s ability to develop new work. It was clear we needed a new model if we were going to stay in operation.
Early this year a new board was brought on to reshape the organization and pursue a more traditional nonprofit development model (based more on grants, gifts and major fundraising drives), with many new board members recruited in just the last few months to help us re-imagine operations and launch these new plans. Unfortunately, despite everyone’s best efforts (and a successful October event), funding ran out before such a transformation could happen. Given the financial realities we faced, the board and staff have agreed that it is time to bring Worldchanging to a close as gracefully as possible.
I loved the content at Worldchanging, though I clearly didn't read it every day. Alex Steffen is obviously a really smart guy who gets asked to speak at a lot of really smart conferences.  The site featured some outstanding stuff from people I admire.  But sadly, as perhaps begrudgingly admitted above, the large-foundation and NPR crowd can only support so much for so long.   In a down economy, there's even less ability to provide support.  I'm guessing the new board considered some opportunities to partner with the private sector, but it's pretty clear they either didn't want to "soil their hands" or didn't have a compelling enough offering.

A couple of things come to mind here:

1) The advances in technology that gave almost all the power to information consumers haven't only hit traditional media companies.   Worldchanging isn't the only really good site (from a content perspective) to fold. Bottom line: very few people have figured out how to crank out good, smart, topical, family-friendly content online at a profit.

2) The rest of the foundation-supported blogosphere better take note of this.  (I'm looking at you, Global Voices Online.)  Some groups have stronger relationships with foundation benefactors than Worldchanging did,  but reliance on foundations is NOT a sustainable business model in the new media age.

3) It's long past time to stop equating working with companies as "selling out."  This is a much larger discussion for another day, but working with people who don't think exactly the way you do is NOT a weakness.  Developing relationships where all parties get something of value is NOT evil.   If you're worried about conflicts of interest, just disclose the nature of your relationships.  People are smart.  They can tell the difference between an entrepreneur and a whore.

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