With a big year ahead, stopping to reflect on what we've learned

Posted on January 18, 2012 by Janet Coats

The holidays ate this blog.

That is the only reason I could come up with to explain why I've been away so long. I had promised I'd get back to this right after Christmas. Which became right after New Year's. Which became as soon as the first week of January is behind me and I've made a dent in the mound of work that went undone during the holidays.

So here it is, with January almost gone before I finally made my return.

The last year was an eventful, fruitful, sometimes frustrating, always exhilarating one for me in my work with the New Media Journalism Initiative. In the last few months of 2011, we really gained momentum as projects with the Journalism Accelerator and the Block by Block network of community news publishers began to gain steam. We've gone from thinking-planning-testing to fully operational in our work, and I see exciting things ahead for this year.

So in keeping with our focus on journalism, I'm going to start this first blog of 2012 with a headline. This headline is intended to capture the spirit of our biggest lesson in the last 12 months:

"To best enable innovation, focus on an approach that is iterative, collaborative and open.''

OK, so it is a really long headline. But it is a pretty pithy summary of a lot of trial-and-error learning from the last year.

We started 2011 a bit tentatively. We were incubating two projects, and the path wasn't clear for either of them. We knew we needed to reset the Journalism Accelerator and find a community to test the premise that an online collaboration community could help speed the pace of learning and innovation. In Block by Block, we were coming out of the first Community News Summit, a successful effort to bring community entrepreneurial publishers together -- but we were casting about a bit for the next step.

We ended the year with a well-established collaboration tool in the Journalism Accelerator, a business mentoring pilot project for Block by Block that is drawing attention for its early success, and a tighter focus on helping the Block by Block publishers transition from a loose affiliation to a more cohesive organization ready to take responsibility for their own community's learning and growth.

Along the way, we learned five key lessons that guide our work as we move into this fully operational stage:

* The value of high touch combined with smart tech. The tools we've used in both of our projects aren't particularly high tech; they are open source and readily available to any user. We haven't invented any new or proprietary technology for this work. Instead of focusing on invention, we have focused on innovation. We recognize that technology can open new ways for people to share and connect, but that it does not do the sharing and connecting for us. We still need smart, focused human intervention to do that.

* The need to revisit business models that work in a digital age. One of our most powerful realizations during the last year has been the real lack of understanding about how the digital age has transformed business and financial models. This is acutely true for journalism, but in reality, it has implications for all field, implications that apply to both for-profit and non-profit enterprises. We recognize that in our work going forward, building bench strength in financial sustainability is vital.

*Building iteratively, openly and in real time. In both of our projects, we've focused on building incrementally. We scan the landscape, look at other efforts already in the field and seek the sweet spot of need and opportunity. Then we build toward that sweet spot a piece at a time.

* The focus that comes from thinking about exit strategies. Thinking about how you want to leave your work has the effect of helping you focus on what is really important. It helps you think about what you want to leave behind, what you want to learn, what you want to gain, what you want to make better -- and it helps you create a road map for achieving those goals.

*Finding -- and leaving -- partners. Part of our strategy in working with partners has been providing radical clarity about our own mission from the beginning: We are not a source of sustaining funding. We don't just write a check and walk away. We provide rocket fuel to accelerate innovation -- and that fuel comes not just in financial forms but in intellectual capital. This approach has drawn partners to us who are interested not in building a particular project but in building capacity. That focus on building capacity allows for fluidity in partnerships, as we look for ways to leverage each experience to mutual advantage.


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