Journalism connection project teaches how to fail forward

Posted on June 10, 2011 by Janet Coats

The Patterson Foundation’s involvement in the Journalism Accelerator began strictly by chance.

And it is that chance encounter – the meeting of folks who are working on the same idea and don’t even know it – that the Journalism Accelerator is intended to address. We are hoping that, through this tool, innovators will be able to find each other more easily so that they can share both their problems and their solutions.

In April 2010, I was still deep in the inquiry phase of the New Media Journalism Initiative. Pam Johnson, executive director of the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri Journalism School, invited me to come listen in to a meeting of RJI’s past, present and incoming fellows.

The seeds of both of our projects were sown from the meeting. Our work with Michele McLellan on the Block by Block project grew out of conversations she and I had during that week. I’d known Michele for years, and I was already an admirer of the work she had done identifying typologies of entrepreneurial journalism. I'll be writing in detail about our Block by Block work next week.

It was during a discussion at this gathering that I mentioned I was interested in working with networking projects that could help connect journalism innovators. That brief remark led me to Lisa Skube.

Lisa was an incoming RJI fellow at the time, and she intended to work on a networking project during her fellowship. As we talked, we realized that we were exploring many of the same ideas. We promised to talk more to determine whether we might be able to collaborate.

Several long phone conversations later, I was on my way back to Missouri, where Lisa and I locked ourselves in a room for a two-day mind-meld. At the end of that, we were resolved to work together to test the concept of building an online community using the tools of the semantic Web to help innovators connect and share.

Lisa and I continued to work together through last summer, collaborating on the intellectual framework for the Journalism Accelerator. Our backgrounds provided a nice balance: my experience was all in journalism, specifically in legacy newsrooms, while Lisa had 15 years experience in marketing and communications and had formed her own consultancy to pollinate the best online practices from the for-profit world into the non-profit world. Most interesting to me, she had experience in community development derived from years of working on campaigns for non-profit clients who were working to build not just awareness but action.

By fall, Lisa and her partners – most notably, the very smart Jeff Lennan of Red Hot Penguin and Winning Mark in Portland, Ore., -- had built a very basic version of how a collaboration tool might work in its early stages. It was a tool that I had asked to test drive at the Block by Block Community News Summit in October.

Our test audience was, shall we say, less than enthusiastic. And for a few weeks afterwards, that felt like failure to me. But what happened next is the real story of how innovation is supposed to work, because when we failed, we failed forward.

On Monday, I'll explain what failing forward looked like and how this project came to new life.

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