Great piece by Butch Ward over at Poynter, “Should your newsroom act more like a startup?” pegged to the unsurprising news that Chris Hughes is giving up the ghost at The New Republic. His stormy tenure as publisher has been correlated with its growing irrelevancy.
Hughes and his minions, like many many others, wanted to bring a “start up mentality” to the venerable opinion weekly. (The editor said he wanted to “break shit” which is apparently how some nerds show their authenticity.)
But leaving aside TNR‘s troubles, Ward makes a point that newspapers–and many other legacy companies–miss when they embark on “act like a start up” path. For one, that starts up usually often end in failure; it’s built into the model. But sort of paper failures, as there is still more money sloshing around in the real tech start up space and it’s not unusual for somebody to go from one to the next with transferable tech skills and industry connections. This isn’t necessarily the story of laid off newspaper reporters. money doesn’t tend to slosh towards them with any reliability. (Last I checked you can’t turn your Pulitzer in for stock options.)
“Silicon Valley has a no-lose culture: you join a startup, and either it succeeds, in which case you win, or else it doesn’t, in which case you just join another. Failure is victimless, and indeed can be worn as a badge of honor. And precisely because failure is so socially acceptable, it is also extremely common; young companies regularly take crazy existential risks because the downside (another free roll of the dice) is so acceptable, while the upside is unlimited.”
It’s also worth pointing out that even the upside outcome to startup culture is hard to map onto the news business (is there an example of one to point to, what would count as true success) A real startup that grows maybe goes public or gets sold (either to be absorbed or to be raided for its technology), and learns to do new, and seemingly unrelated things (say a retail shipping company that becomes a TV studio).
Perhaps newspapers can morph in such ways, but Ward makes another point, namely that it’s not in their DNA:
You are not a startup.
Jim Brady, founder of Billy Penn, the online news site in Philadelphia, raises his voice when he makes that point. “You are not a startup!” he repeats. The fact that your organization is an established business means you don’t qualify as an initiative with no history, no customers and no brand.
How do you behave like a start up if you are curating a legacy and a brand that goes back a century? If the “shit” you want to break is who you are, why do you expect a start up that breaks that to succeed? Deep down, do you even want it to?
This “are you my start up?” question also seems applicable to other areas: in my (admittedly musty) worlds of education, performing arts and libraries, the same kind of “startup” mania has been applied and at least to my eyes has been attended by very little success. But that’s a rant for another day.
If you are in the news biz, though, well worth reading Ward’s full piece.