Dan Gillmor

Needed: A "Think Tank" for Journalism R&D

Most of the smartest people don’t work in journalism.

There’s an enormous amount of R&D going on in digital media. Most of it isn’t happening inside the news industry.

As Clay Shirky and others have pointed out, the low barrier to entry is fueling an enormous amount of experimentation. Most projects fail, but that’s a good thing, because when so many are being tried the small percentage that work will be a relatively big number.

Where is all this happening? Everywhere: universities, corporate labs, open-source repositories, startups, basements. The experiments are taking place inside and outside of companies, inside and outside the news industry (mostly outside), in Silicon Valley and out in the larger world. Many if not most of the valuable ideas, technologies and techniques are coming from projects whose creators have no journalistic intent — but whose work could and should be used in the journalism ecosystem.

Connecting dots

There’s a need for a new kind of initiative to help sort things out. It’s not a traditional Center or Institute.

Imagine the inverse of a big corporate R&D center, which tries to pick winners and makes relatively “safe” bets. Imagine, instead, a small team of, for lack of a better word, “connectors.” They identify interesting ideas, technologies and techniques — business models as well as editorial innovations — inside and outside the journalism sphere, but mostly outside. Then they connect these projects with people who can help make them part of tomorrow’s journalistic ecosystem.

Who are the connectors?

They understand technology at a reasonably deep level. It’s not necessary to be a programmer. But it’s vital to know how to a) ask the right questions of the right people; b) recognize innovative technology and business models when they see them; and c) have a sound sense of the difference between cool and useful.

They appreciate journalism’s essential role in society, and how the craft is changing.

They have a broad array of contacts in the technology, business, education, philanthropic, investor and other sectors; the ability to have an intelligent conversation with any of them; and the desire to follow the dots to wherever they lead.

They’re capable of being evangelists, selling all these people not just on the need to combine great ideas with journalism, but also to take risks in new areas.

Some principles of operation

Audience/users

Traditional news organizations could really use this. I’m not saying they should stop doing their own R&D, but this would provide some better leverage for those budgets, to the extent they still exist. Only a few major organizations have what it takes to do this in-house.

Who else could use this?

Investors outside the journalism business. Angel investors and venture capitalists think “entertainment” when they think about media. They may be willing to place some of their high-risk, high-reward bets on projects that meet community information needs if they can be persuaded that there are also serious business models.

Non-media enterprises. More and more corporations and nonprofits of all stripes are creating media. If they can help support innovations that also serve journalistic purposes, everyone wins. If they can be persuaded of the value of applying journalistic principles to what they produce, all the better. (If newspapers can sell advertorials, uh, native content, by the bushel, why can’t they — transparently — partner with some of these other entities?)

Individual (or small-team) media creators who can invest only their time. An essential part of the connectors’ role would be to identify open-source and other such projects that regular folks or small teams can put to good community-information use. (This includes communities of interest, not just geography, but if something useful for one it’ll almost certainly be useful to the other.)

The catalyzing opportunities here are fairly amazing. It is definitely worth the effort, because the payoff for journalism could easily dwarf the investment.

I recognize that those latter entities are competing with newspapers and traditional media. But my goal isn’t to see newspapers survive — much as I still love what they do when they do it well and hope they’ll survive in some form. It’s to see that whatever comes out of this messy period has value to communities, investors and everyone else in the emerging ecosystem.