Day 24: Solutions

If ever there was a heaven on earth, I imagine it involving unlimited food & drink on a beach.  The world’s most talented and intelligent folks would be present, including David Muir and Anderson Cooper (my big news crushes). Cue the right music and they’ll change the world.

What’s described is basically one big cocktail party, only high-achieving and probably out of my reach. Since cocktail parties typically don’t accomplish much more than tipsy small talk (at least in this physical world), I can only hold hope that creating a productive (non-celebrity) one in the digital sphere is possible.

My friend Steve Spalding is working on a network that gets clever people together to discuss difficult (but solvable) questions, form thesis’ about how to solve them, and create actual solutions (papers, products, organizations, events etc…) to help chip away at them. Here are 3 examples of questions that this proposed network would attempt to solve (keep in mind there are a wide range, these are just the top 3 that piqued my interest):

Improving your diet is often as much about where and when you eat as it is about what you are eating, how can we develop way(s) to get people to include more vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and fruit in their diets without making the plan seem like a “diet”?

Crowdfunding technologies have been highly beneficial for small producers, artists, and engineers who need capital injections without the onerous terms often associated with them, however, they don’t allow communities to come together and share both their skills and their capital to create larger more complex projects. How can we develop a system of Crowddoing that brings people, their skills and their capital together to complete big projects? 

The reasons for high unemployment are complex and varied, but one solution that has been posed is to increase the ease, diversity and scope of entrepreneurial ventures, allowing more people to build stable companies that help kickstart new industries that can support new employment  How can we create better support systems to allow small entrepreneurs to develop more varied businesses faster, cheaper and more easily?

Eating healthier, enabling large-scale collaboration, and solving unemployment – who wouldn’t want this? Yet  we need people to seriously think about how. Also, there are more problems that need solving. What would make each of us advance closer to our best selves? How can technology help rather than limit us?  Steve proposes that we think about what we’d like to solve and pose it in a question. Perhaps presenting it to a group of other like-minded folks in the arena would yield tremendous progress.

I have a few questions which I will be sharing in the next post. If you have a question you’d like to pose or just want to learn more about this network – leave a comment, or drop Steve a tweet @sbspalding.

Day 11: Connections

About half the professional contacts I meet are through friends. In some cases, these people introduce me to their friends which then makes these new contacts friends of friends of friends, or something like that. At some point, you stop keeping track and accept that we’re all just sort of connected in some…connected…way.

There have been quite a few studies about the importance of weak ties in building powerful, diverse networks. This weekend was a perfect example of that. I had three separate meetings with people I knew through friends, for three separate reasons. Turns out all three of them knew each other, or at least of each other, unbeknownst to them . Despite being in different fields (journalism, fashion, web developing), and attending different schools, our interests have since converged through tech, thanks to its unique capability of crossing previously insular industries.

I love where I am now for the sheer opportunity to meet people. It’s not about collecting business cards or climbing the social ladder because quite honestly, that’s annoying and not even all that helpful. Building relationships is intriguing. I do it out of wonderment, wonder at seeing how all these linked tiny nodes organically evolve into a live, buzzing web of activity. When you have our greatest resource – people – at your disposal, the possibilities are endless.

New Journalism

I’ve visited three incredible startups in the first 48 hours since being back in New York. Some initial takeaways:

LearnVest – their first live event at the Metropolitan Pavilion on Tuesday night brought hundreds of women to learn about finances and how to live our “richest” lives.  Founder Alexa von Tobel founded the NY-based company after realizing that there was a basic disconnect among young career women on how to manage their money. She kicked off the evening with her 7 Money Mantras, which was followed by two breakout sessions from experts in dining, fashion, investing, and entrepreneurship. The evening was chalk full of helpful tips on how to save money and invest now so we can be prepared for curve balls that may derail financial stability in the future. It was extremely informative in a fun way, which is difficult to pull off for a heavy subject matter like finance.

Narratively – this is a new storytelling platform focused on long-form articles, bringing a level of depth and originality rarely seen in today’s 24-hours news cycle. They are currently based in New York but have plans to expand to additional cities in the future. Contributors have written for the Times, The New Yorker, and other respected publications. The catch? Just one story is published a day. But what Narratively lacks in quantity and distractions (each story demands its own page with zero advertising) , they more than make up for with substance. With substance comes raw and sometimes painstaking detail requiring patience and time to digest; in a nation of news skimmers, is this sustainable? I believe so. A model like Narratively’s will cater to a growing audience that increasingly craves depth and authenticity.

Behance – its goal is to connect creative talent to great opportunities by showcasing their portfolios. The premise is that the more exposure an artist gets, the more (and thereby, better) opportunities he/she will receive. The idea was born back in 2003 and now, almost 10 years later, boasts over 80 million visits a month. Aside from displaying some really awesome art, the site gives artists a way to actually make a livelihood out of their talents.  Schools and companies scour the platform for top talent. Check out all their success stories.

These are three awesome platforms with three distinct but simple purposes. LearnVest educates, Narratively tells stories, and Behance connects talent with opportunities. What happens when we merge the three? As a journalist, I’ve been thinking about how all of this can be applied to journalism.

Journalism is undergoing a seismic shift. Its original purpose was to inform and educate responsible citizens of a democracy.  This is still true but how many people actually turn to the newspaper to read up on the latest City Council action or House legislation?  As technology has changed, the stories have also changed.  We are a generation that finds little connection between journalism and democracy.  This is not criticism, but an irreconcilable truth we must simply live with. For most people under 40, information does not come through traditional means.  Aggregators like Google News use algorithms for choosing what stories matter, so gradually our cultural narrative arises socially from what we collectively follow and not from what newspapers decide to run.

Information is no longer the valuable commodity. The real value comes in networks and communities, our connections. Journalists still need to provide information by seeking the truth, but it is not the primary value-add.  What really matters is what the journalist does with the information and the varying responses to it. Engagement, inspiration, and activation are the goals.

This is a map of our emerging journalism ecosystem, courtesy of the Journalism That Matters blog. What this shows is that news is no longer single-sourced. It’s not a reporter dispensing information through a video stand-up. Multiple voices have their say now: social media, blogs, expert citizens. Talk all you want but it’s useless to spend time trying to discredit one another; a source with a logo is no more authoritative than a person typing at the computer. The savvy journalist spends time pulling all these various voices together, building a niche audience’s trust by providing credible information pulled from various sources, then facilitating a conversation.

Businesses have been successful with this. Look at American Express Publishing. They aren’t a news organization; they’re a credit card company. But AmEx has been effectively branding itself through content like Travel & Leisure, Food & Wine, and partnerships with Foursquare. They are successful at 4 things:

informing through helpful articles in niche subjects,

engaging through social media,

inspiring through compelling stories, and

activating by ultimately getting readers to act on what they’re reading (in their case, booking travels through American Express’s travel rewards program and boosting their brand equity/bottom line).

Today’s journalists need to be doing the same. Our product is our individual brand and the knowledge we dispense. We need to sell it by leading conversations in a way that builds loyalty. There are lessons to be learned from startups, because we are essentially our own startup. Like LearnVest, we must continue to inform. Like Narratively, we must find compelling stories to engage and inspire our audience to care. Lastly (and this is probably the most important), like Behance, we must activate latent social networks and interest groups by connecting them to opportunities that help them reach their goals. This will lead to an enriching experience for all: one where journalists do not simply inform, but engage, inspire and most importantly, activate the population to meet its full potential.

However abstract all of this sounds, it’s going to manifest into a more concrete model very soon. Journalism is called to serve another purpose other than report and inform. It’s much bigger than that. I believe that whoever can crack the storytelling code will be onto one of the next big things (second to the cure for cancer and life on other planets, of course). Effective storytelling can awaken latent social networks to come together and tackle issues with a collective learning-through-experience mindset.  How we choose to communicate these emerging narratives and through what forms is an exciting possibility just waiting to be unveiled.