I spent Friday at the Institute on Money in State Politics at the invitation of Jim Barnett. It”s tough to imagine a brighter, more public-spirited group of people. Beautiful Bigfork, MT was the setting, which was a little unlikely for such a convening of goo-goos. Among the bumper stickers I saw on the main drag were “Honk If You’ve Bitch-Slapped an Environmentalist Today;” in what seemed to be the town’s central watering hole hung a “Hippies Use Side Door” sign which didn’t exactly radiate irony. From my hour spent at the bar there I can tell you that unemployment in the Flathead Valley is nearly 15%, and the natives are mighty restless. One particularly rueful chap was praying for lightning so he could get work as a firefighter.
But back to the Institute. A sat on a non-profit journalism panel, shamelessly shilling for the Texas Tribune. Jim gives a nice shoutout to our discussion of “fast failure:”
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.”
Sadly, I wasn’t able to stay for the wrap up today, where Jim notes that there were eminently understandable questions about my motivations and sanity:
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, careful conservation of resources is part of the culture.
Jeff’s question is a bloody good one, especially since one of my consistent gripes about the non-profit sector is the enormous duplication of effort, generally in service of an “our approach is unique and better” attitude. And basically what I’m saying is “our approach is unique and better.”
Of course we won’t know if that’s actually true for quite some time. And I’ll cop to the fact that part of the reason I didn’t hitch up with some other effort is that “plays well with others” was never a box on my sixth-grade report card that arrived home filled with a smiley face. After appointing myself captain of my kickball team, I once ordered the whole squad off the field in protest of some egregious missed call by the ump (my teacher). I’m not sure Mr. Rowland ever recovered from that one.
But aside from ego, I think we have good reason to head the direction we’re headed. As for working with existing newspapers, the most obvious issue is that nobody asked me, and I’m not waiting by the phone. And if they did, I’m not sure how I could help. My fundamental problem with the newspaper business is that I think it wants to be a lot smaller than it currently is, and a lot less profitable than it used to be. As I’ve said before, the newspaper industry reminds me of the old Woody Allen line: “it’s not that your problems aren’t serious; they’re just not very interesting.” That’s why I’ve chosen to address the crisis in journalism with my civic rather than commercial time. It seems to me that the The Biblical admonition against serving God and Mammon was only suspended by newspaper publishers for about 40 fairly accidental years. It was never repealed.
And while it may be true that we could fill the gaps in statewide coverage that we’ve identified under some other umbrella, I don’t know what it would be. Furthermore, I’ve learned this lesson more than once in my day job: it’s generally easier to start from scratch than it is to convince an existing organization to adopt a new strategy (and some new management). This is especially true when you’re enamored of your startup team, which I very much am in this case. And the whole idea is to build an organization which is super-nimble, has the web in its DNA, and is a very early adopter of new technologies. After meeting Ellen Miller, I’ve decided that she’s our new role model (perhaps I should inform her lest she, Charles Barkley-like, declines the job). In co-founding the Sunlight Foundation, she recognized that a new organization was needed to take advantage of rapid advances in technology in service of government transparency. Glomming such an effort onto something else just wouldn’t work. I feel the same way.