Work from the core

[This month’s Carnival of Journalism asks how organizations like the Knight Foundation and the Reynolds Journalism Institute can encourage innovation in journalism. My humble thoughts follow.]

Because journalism has been removed from its swaddling of newspaper advertising, we now have the opportunity to discover the essence of journalism and what it truly contributes to our society and to Democracy.

The tools of the digital age are revealing blind spots in our previous vision. What we face is the discovery that what many of us thought was journalism actually is not.

Helping us sort things out with their grants, programing and activism are you, the Knight Foundation and the Reynolds Journalism Institute.

At this key moment of change, I would urge you to crystallize your missions in your mindset so you can work from the core and jettison what is superfluous.

I’ve taken a stab at what this crystallization looks like. To me, you share a similar core: your mission is about social change that supports Democracy. You would prefer systemic social change, the kind that sticks and evolves. [View Knight’s mission. View RJI’s mission.]

Both of you see information and community as essential parts of an equation leading to social change that will strengthen Democracy.

But what happens when you uncouple journalism from its traditional role as the messenger that delivers information to the community and instead begin to see journalism as a catalyst, an agent that provokes or speeds change, among community?

And what happens when you uncouple journalism from the tangible hard media of newsprint and instead couple it with the intangible streams and flows of the digital sphere, including data movements and agile multimedia reporting?

Variables are unleashed and recombined in unforeseen ways. [In understanding what these variables might look like, consider the beat areas for the RJI Fellows, and the KDMC program categories.]

What arises out of this mixed-and-match chaos will continue to look very different from anything we have had before. As the entire online world struggles to find a sustainable revenue model — strange and alien revenue forms will undoubtedly appear.

So Knight and Reynolds, you must continue to do as you have been doing: track and map the relevant variables as they emerge. You must be nimble in collecting and vetting operational categories and ideas as they fly your way.

So how can you best operate to encourage inovation?

Map the principles of journalism as they emerge in new forms. Cease worrying about the appearance of journalism. Instead connect with the principles and see how they could play out.

Be open. Like a baby in its first months of life, be open to the stimulus that comes your way and divide it broadly into buckets of information, assigned along your principle map.

Look for bright spots of activity and life. Look to the edges of change because the configuration of what will work has not shown itself yet.

Thrive amid uncertainty. Look for leaders but understand the principle of social proof. Understand that promising ideas will emerge from the crowd, and within them might be a kernel for success but not necessarily the full plan.

Shatter the silos. Look to other domains of business, Web technology, economists, anthropologists, non-profits, government and communicators who have been building the online world for two decades now. Note the conferences and learning opportunities in the maturing online world and make them available to Journalist entrepreneurs. [That’s what I do as a service every day on my Twitter and Tumblr streams]

Don’t be wedded to your ideas. Hold them loosely — like a dove that has alighted on your hand — and let them go. If they have wings they will leverage on your behalf and bring many iterative returns and successes.

Be courageous. Stand out from the crowd of philanthropy. To the best of your ability while still being responsible, cast off the shackles of foundation-think that judges “safe” as being equivalent with “success.”

Support our entrepreneurs. One concrete possibility: Knight, Reynolds take the lead and join together with affinity foundation partners to create an entity dedicated to fostering entrepreneurship among journalists and their creations.

More than a decade ago when I first started reporting on entrepreneurship as an independent journalist [and learning to work for myself], I came across the Kauffman Foundation whose mission is:

To help individuals attain economic independence by advancing educational achievement and entrepreneurial success

It was after the dot-com bubble had burst in 1999 and before entrepreneurship was a field of study at business schools. It was not nearly as ubiquitous as it is today. I was helping entrepreneurs write books about their experiences and learning the ropes of the angel and venture capital worlds.

Today, Kauffman says it is looking for partners to leverage resources and capability.

Maybe you and Kauffman and others could talk about how to jointly create a home for training, experimentation and comradry for the emerging new class of Journalist entrepreneurs.