Taking a Risk on a Mouse Click

The City University of New York is trying an experiment. The first question they want to answer is this: what happens when you combine some of the world’s greatest observers (journalists) with the world’s greatest do-ers (entrepreneurs)?

The second question is perhaps a bit bigger: can this combination- after so many stops and starts and highs and lows from the industry at large- help usher journalism into the digital age?

There is no shortage of interested parties who would like to know the answer to these two questions, and there’s no shortage of money they are willing to pay to find out. In the fall of 2010, two foundations committed $6 million to establish the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at CUNY, which just announced its first class of 11 students.

What makes this group so interesting is that the student body is a carefully selected combination of experience and eagerness. Many of the participants are less than halfway through their careers, and hail from places as different as DR Congo, Sri Lanka, Brooklyn, and Denmark. In this class, youth, and the raised-with-a-keyboard familiarity that comes with it, mixes with hard-fought experience to hopefully craft a new path for digital reporting.

Nonetheless, there’s another question that has floated around the program. A less than charitable commenter on an online forum announcing the new initiative spelled it out. “Arianna Huffington has blown thru over $50 million dollars and is nowhere close to breaking even. Yet this boob keeps saying the internet is the future like it’s 1998 again.” Indeed, there are concerns that programs like these are simply perpetuating broken models that will inevitably fail to produce.

Program member Hong Qu took a stab at answering the question- failure is an option, he said, and it should be welcomed. The man knows of what he speaks- he was one of Youtube’s early employees. He drew a comparison between the cratered media landscape now and the relative calm of Silicon Valley:

“The 1 thing that makes Silicon Valley special is that failure is an option–in fact, it’s a respectable outcome.  I’ve heard many people say: “if you’re going to fail, fail fast.”  The staff of every failed company learns from their mistakes and does better at the next place they work.  And that is how Silicon Valley attracts the best talents from around the world: because it’s a meritocracy for resilient hackers and dreamers.”

Indeed, maybe that’s the best answer that the CUNY program will offer, at least for now. If journalism took its cues from Silicon Valley and rewarded the winners without destroying the losers, perhaps innovation would pop up a bit more freely.

For that matter, maybe this rule could be applied to the world at large- innovate, fail, get back on your feet, and innovate again.


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