Online news pioneer and Digital Media Test Kitchen founder and director Steve Outing was interviewed recently about the debut of the new initiative at the University of Colorado.
Q: How did the idea for the “Test Kitchen” come about?A: Well, it started with an initial idea by me that I presented to Dean Paul Voakes of CU’s School of Journalism & Mass Communication (and some other universities), but then morphed into what we’re launching in early 2010. My initial thought was: There’s a ton of research and digital-technology development going on with various people and institutions trying to solve the News Crisis, both directly and at the edges. And it’s coming from a variety of disciplines, but there’s no one who’s putting it all together in context so that a news entrepreneur or established news publisher wishing to reinvent his/her operation could quickly figure out what new things could help profitability and better serve the audience.
Dean Voakes, some of his academic team, and I brainstormed and reached out to some foundation folks for advice, and that led to the idea of a place where people from various disciplines — not just journalism and communication — could work together on potential solutions to the news industry’s difficulty adapting to the digital age. We’d leverage the university’s students and faculty, and off-campus experts and companies.
That’s a huge shortcoming for much of the news industry, and for academia. In my view, to transform journalism and news for the digital age, journalists should be working side by side with the best technologists, marketers, entrepreneurial and other business experts, and probably sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, telecommunications researchers, and library science experts. I don’t believe that journalists alone can reinvent the news industry without others’ help.
So, we arrived at the “Test Kitchen” model, where we will get those people together in teams to tackle various projects that will help transform and create the news eco-system of the future, and invent and test the new business models to support news.
Q: Why “Test Kitchen”? Where did that phrase come from?
A: If my memory is correct, it was Dean Voakes who coined that term for what we were planning. Traditional news companies seem too panicked about just surviving, or being profitable again by making draconian staff cuts, to take many chances and experiment as much as they should. Most news start-ups and non-profits can’t afford it. But in the university environment, we can take chances and fund experiments that may or may not work out. So the Test Kitchen metaphor fits nicely, since in a culinary test kitchen you try out a bunch of new recipes: Some work, some are flops, and some taste awful at first but the ingredients and preparation can be tweaked to turn out a great dish.
Q: So, what kind of “recipes” are you talking about?
A: We’re looking at doing a variety of research and development projects. Generally, each will focus on one of three core areas, but of course there will be overlap.
- Business models for news – Currently, we’ve got newspapers and broadcast news media with an old business model that’s failing; we have a new wave of non-profit digital news entities that have to figure out how to raise start-up funds and develop a sustainable financial model; and we have new news and news-related digital companies that have to learn how to make enough money online and with mobile platforms from the content they produce, which is difficult in the hyper-crowded digital-media marketplace where advertising is cheap and consumers resist paying for content. So we’ll develop and research effective business models to help all those folks.
- New technologies – Transformative technologies and digital services are being introduced every day; entrepreneurs outside of the news business are designing and building services and technologies that could be applied to the News Crisis. We’re looking to work with such companies. Some are working specifically with the aim of helping solve the problems of news in the digital age; others are working on things that are not targeted at news, but could be adapted to benefit news and the public good. We plan projects that will utilize and build upon such technology to address the problems of news; and we’ll likely develop new technology (create new recipes from scratch), as well.
- New news techniques – One of the big challenges of digital media for content producers is keeping up with all the new digital platforms that climb onto the stage. I think it’s safe to say that many news publishers haven’t fully mastered web publishing yet, but now they have to figure out how to publish to the new wave of smartphones and tablet e-readers. And they can’t just shovel web content onto a tiny phone screen; that would be repeating the mistake of newspaper publishers in the 1990s and early 2000s of mostly just shoveling print content onto the web. So our research and projects will explore how to leverage the newest platforms, including teaching reporters new ways to interact with and collaborate with the public. Our first Test Kitchen project involves figuring out how best to present in-depth, investigative journalism on a smartphone — and have it be an experience for the mobile user where the content makes an impact and can spur individuals to action.
Q: You keep mentioning the “News Crisis.” Is that real? It seems like we have more news and information now than we’ve ever had before!
A: Yes, it is a paradox. But the problem is real, and not solving it has dire consequences. The biggest problem is with investigative (sometimes also called enterprise, public-interest, watchdog, or in-depth) reporting, which newspapers traditionally have provided the bulk of, because they made enough money to employ enough professional journalists to cover important stories that took a lot of time and money to report. But in the last year or so, tens of thousands of reporters have been laid off or bought out. Many newspaper and other newsrooms are at half the editorial staffing they were at their peak a few years ago. There’s less investigative reporting being done as a result.
Many noble investigative-reporting efforts, by individuals and especially by non-profit groups funded by foundations, philanthropists, and other donors, are trying to fill the holes left by newspapers. But donated money is not likely to ever make up for what newspapers have shed. The result could be in some communities a new wave of corruption, misdeeds, and mistakes by government and business that goes on uncovered by a weakened press watchdog.
It’s a big deal, and only now are more people outside of the news business starting to understand the scope of the problem, and how it affects all parts of our society. We’re starting to see, for example, some foundations and philanthropists that have not previously put money into media, news, and information issues shift some of their giving to this area. That’s encouraging.
So, our projects will have a common thread of supporting the news industry as it transforms for the digital age, so that tomorrow’s news eco-system can serve the public at an even higher level than in the past.
Q: Speaking of money, how is the Test Kitchen being funded?
A: Not directly from University of Colorado funds, at this point, but CU is contributing staff and faculty time, office space, servers, etc. We were able to get going thanks to a generous grant from Howard Schultz, a CU graduate who’s now a reality-TV producer in Hollywood. That’s a great start and it’s funding our first two research projects.
We’re currently looking for additional donors and talking to foundations. The response has been encouraging in these early days, so I’m optimistic. Longer term, we’ll work on building a sustainable operation after our start-up funding drive is successful. This might include such things as bringing in licensing revenues for some of the technologies or other stuff that comes out of the Test Kitchen, plus ongoing donations.
Any individual or organization or foundation that wishes to help finance the Digital Media Test Kitchen, or a specific research project, should look at our Giving page, click the “Give Online” graphic below, and/or contact Dean Paul Voakes or development director Julie Karbula.
Dean Paul Voakes, CU School of Journalism & Mass Communication, email@example.com, 303-492-5007
Julie Karbula, senior director of development, CU Foundation, CU School of Journalism & Mass Communication, firstname.lastname@example.org, 303-492-4550
And of course, I’m happy to talk to anyone interested in the Test Kitchen, whether it’s for more information, inquiries about partnerships or collaboration, or anything else. Phone: 303-834-7810 | e-mail: email@example.com
Q: Thanks, Steve.