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

  • An open process. Honor requests for NDAs prior to product launches, but the bias should be toward making everything available to anyone who’s interested. This would run contrary in many ways to the news industry’s traditional approach, but the tide is turning in a lot of shops where openness is correctly seen as an advantage.
  • Meet anyone, anywhere. Hold small news-focused workshops or mini-conferences to encourage more independent cross-fertilization. Might not be necessary given the explosion of startup camps, incubators, etc.
  • Measurement: Get the data, publish it and explore it as you go, and work with academics who are (at long last) turning to the real world for a lot of their research.


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.

7 thoughts on “Needed: A "Think Tank" for Journalism R&D

  1. I think that a research wing of journalism as a whole would be hugely beneficial to the state of the world.

    Profit motive has tremendously tainted the current renaissance in information technologies – most of the new innovation is stifled in its crib if there’s no profit model attached to it, and where there *is* a profit model for new information, it seems to be perennially tied to page-clicks and advertising revenue.

    But new data projects, including Tilden, need to find other ways to integrate tech and information skills with a motivation besides page-clicks.

    I personally would be thrilled to be involved in this, but it feels even more important that people who have non-white-guy perspective be involved.

    But that’s got its own problems: from where I sit, it feels like technology innovation community (rooted in Silicon Valley, but with limbs in New York, Seattle, Boston, etc) is currently overwhelmed by an orgy of “Revenge of the Nerds” white-straight-anglophone-male culture dominance games (see PAX gamer brouhaha, Pax Dickinson brouhaha, and even the self-hating “Lean In”).

    • All true. At the moment, of course, no one’s even been slightly interested in funding this. So it may be an abstract exercise…

  2. Dan, this is an excellent post and the concept – if materialized – quite needed. In some ways, my current position and the group I work with has some of the advantages of your concept.

    I am the Director of Innovation at the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which is a US government agency overseeing US international media. (Think Voice of America, Radio Free Asia, etc.) Leaving aside what one might feel about government- or public-sponsored media and journalism there is one distinct advantage of our position on innovation: the lack of short-term focus on profit & loss. This is not to say that working in a media innovation lab within the government is not without pressure to demonstrate value, but that we have a relatively unique opportunity to work on projects that have a longer timeline to mature and without the day-to-day pressures of a newsroom.

    My group, the Office of Digital & Design Innovation, looks at three primary criteria for taking on a project: 1) does it respond to our global audience profile? (i.e. GoogleGlass is not so interesting to us), 2) are we working on a solution of a problem that is 6 to 18 months away? (i.e. not solving immediate publishing issues nor so far in the future to have demonstrable value) and 3) could serve a million or more audience members? (we have a weekly reach of 206M in 100 countries in 43+ languages, so we have to think scale)

    In pursuing this mission we have had to significantly change the way our group would normally function within a government agency. By working with more agility and openness we have enshrined a couple of key values that may add to your concept: a) we work in the open, even though it is true that USG cannot hold intellectual property in the US, we believe in ensuring that any advancement we might create can be utilized by journalists around the world, b) work in parallel whenever possible, which means working in open communities, rather than through a procurement relationship and c) invest in edge as where we see the most talent, most drive and most creativity is coming from the new centers of media (and potentially journalistic) innovation that include Lagos, Nigeria, Accra, Ghana, Dakar, Senegal, Bangkok, Thailand, Jakarta, Indonesia, Cape Town, South Africa, Narobi, Kenya and emerging in Cambodia, Egypt, Brazil, Chile and Argentina.

    This last value is something I have been thinking about more and more, and put a little more detail in: It is one I know that you share, but there has been so little done to really connect with these organizations. The African Media Initiative and the work of Justin Arenstein has been critical, but generally mobile/tech innovation is dominated by my fellow government aid organizations, which results in less attention (or perhaps just a slower adoption process) to supporting the journalism sector…with perhaps the exception of data-driven journalism.

    In general we try to document our work at, but in turn I look at some of the work that the BBC R&D Lab is doing as another publicly funded media lab. In addition, AlJazeera English is doing good work, they just don’t work as much in the open.

    Thanks for the thought provoking post!

  3. Great post Dan. A lot of this is what we’re starting to do at the new American Press Institute. A journalism think tank doing new research and connecting people and ideas across journalism and even from outside of it.

  4. Well said Dan, however, we need a think tank for developing a sustainable business around journalism. Without a solid financial base there is no future for any type of journalism innovative or not. I think you mean R&D around the business of journalism…

    • Tom, I mean both. The business models — plural — R&D is probably more important at this point, but the information R&D should be pretty fertile, too.

  5. From my vantage point on the outside much of the thinking that goes on in journalism/news about digital media and business models seems to be an exchange/tweets between the same 10 industry pundits.

    I have an idea on how to use our existing platform to create new online ad system (we call it Quantum Tunneling Online Ad Placement – QTOAP) that could conceivably be much better than the existing ones (or maybe not, TBD). Because QTOAP is content agnostic, it might be particularly useful for news which generally doesn’t relate to advertiser categories.

    But I have no idea how to have even a discussion with an open-minded person in the news space who could give me thoughtful feedback.

    I’d like to talk to Robert Bole and Jeff Sonderman.

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