The year of investing in processes

“In a quest to find a solution that will work for everyone, we too often invest in ideas that don’t work particularly well for anyone.”

In 2018, my aspirational prediction is that the journalism industry shifts its focus on innovation toward investing in processes, rather than platforms and products.

Currently, too many good ideas are discarded because they don’t fit the dominant model of “scalable” and “replicable,” which is too narrow in scope.

Many large newsrooms struggle with the reality that the scale their model requires keeps them focused on stories that have the potential of spreading quickly, but fleetingly, across as broad an audience as possible. VC-backed startup journalism still too often focuses on the development of platforms that show a direct pathway for expansion or to become easily replicable, across markets. And the pressure of many funders’ impact reports not only drive the projects that get funded to think about an immediate pathway to scale and replication, but also shape what even gets proposed.

Meanwhile, we have a steady stream of news about the downsizing and shuttering of local journalism outlets, an ongoing trend of concentration of news jobs to a small set of cities, and growing discussion of local news deserts (or, at least, news ecosystems facing significant soil infertility). And, lest we think that at least means the few cities where journalists have concentrated must inevitably have vibrant local journalism markets, consider closely the challenges faced in the past year for journalism specifically serving cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago.

By only investing in solutions when we can directly see where/how they will be replicable and/or scaled from the beginning, we run the risk of leaving the best approaches to the specific problem at hand on the drawing board. In a quest to find a solution that will work for everyone, we too often invest in ideas that don’t work particularly well for anyone.

Part of our challenge has been chasing “the answer,” when there isn’t one. And, by that, I mean there isn’t a blanket solution out there that we just haven’t uncovered yet. Rather, these are the sorts of wicked problems Heather Chaplin writes about that we have to uncover.

That doesn’t mean, though, that there isn’t anything that can be done or learned from one project or another — that every challenge out there is its own solitary equation, and every entity working on it is in a lonely, solitary pursuit.

Rather, the question should be: “What process should we go through to find and test potential responses to our challenge?” Whether that “wicked problem” be sustainable business models for local journalism, fostering more meaningful community investment, better addressing communities being significantly underserved by the current journalism industry, bridging divides in a polarized climate, or any other pressing part of the challenges journalism faces, we should be investing in exploring useful models and approaches to find the best solution for that particular audience and in those particular circumstances.

I don’t think that I’m stupidly optimistic to believe that 2018 could be the year of the rise of significant investment in processes, rather than products and platforms. In 2017, I’ve been inspired by working with several organizations who are doing just that — developing approaches for addressing key challenges around journalism and civic engagement. For instance:

  • The MIT Open Documentary Lab’s emerging Co-Creation Studio is exploring how a co-creation process of documentary storytelling can help communities explore solutions to the problems they face. I’ve already seen in its earliest stages how this approach has enormous potential for our Future of Work in Kentucky initiative I’m co-leading.
  • The Civic Paths team at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School is studying and developing processes for how fostering “civic imagination” can help communities develop a common vision for the future they’d like to see (an approach we’ve incorporated into the Future of Work in Kentucky).
  • The Jefferson Center is developing new approaches to deliberative democracy through its Your Voice Ohio program, on whose advisory board I’m honored to serve. Meanwhile, through the work of Michelle Ferrier’s Media Seeds initiative in Southeastern Ohio, the Center is also investing in systems for helping communities without sufficient access to daily local news and information build new communication tools around existing community assets.
  • My client Orb Media has been iterating a process to work with publishing partners around the world to produce multimedia stories inspired by data journalism. These stories tackle global issues that include civic participation in its reporting, with each publishing partner having the opportunity to explore the ramifications of the issue in their particular area.

In addition to being inspired by these groups, I’m currently working with Andrea Wenzel at Temple University to develop an approach to strengthening the information ecosystem, storytelling network, and civic engagement within particular localities. Through our “From Polarization to Public Sphere” work in Bowling Green and Ohio County, Kentucky, supported by Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, we have been building a process for addressing these issues that begins with research which informs a workshop that then leads to pilot projects, which we are just beginning with local partner newsrooms like the Bowling Green Daily News and The Ohio County Monitor.

I’m also currently interested in how we look for processes and approaches to finding solutions for local communities or niche audiences outside the journalism realm altogether: for instance, through studying the development of ecosystems that support artisanal businesses, as Grant McCracken, Leora Kornfeld, and I are exploring in the Artisanal Economies Project.

All of these projects involve establishing and testing processes that help lead to products, services, platforms, etc., which are specific to the circumstances of each community and situation. And all require investment in the sort of slow innovation approaches that Federico Rodríguez Tarditi and I explored in our work at Univision’s Fusion Media Group.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that many of these approaches are being driven by players outside of conventional commercial newsrooms, in organizations often better poised to do such slow innovation work. But building and testing these processes will require the active support and participation of all types of organizations throughout the news ecosystem.

The stakes for investing in sustainable processes for supporting the future of journalism are high, and we need to put our energy into investing in the approaches that drive building healthy civic ecosystems. I don’t believe I’m being stupidly optimistic to say that we can do this, if we get focused on asking the right questions.

P.S. Of course, last year, I predicted 2017 “as the year industry stakeholders put significant institutional, cross-industry resources behind better advertising products,” so what do I know?

P.P.S. Actually, technically, the title said 2017 would be “the year we talk about our awful metrics…” so I suppose we at least talked about them.

Sam Ford consults and runs projects focused on media innovation.

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