Boston Globe editor Marty Baron generated some chatter with a speech he gave last night at University of Oregon. The local paper, the student paper, the Boston press, the NYT's Nick Kristof and even journo-curmudgeon Jay Rosen commented. (Full disclosure: Marty's my former boss.)
Today, Marty stopped by Portland for a lunchtime give-and-take with a group of Portland journos on much the same subject. I'm not going to dissect the conversation, which covered a lot of familiar ground by him and the assembled others. It got a little chippy between the print and broadcast folks a couple of times in the wake of Marty's assertion that most stories that appear on the air originated from print newsrooms. But the conversation didn't really lead to any "ah ha" moments that changed everybody's thinking on the problems at hand.
Most interesting were Marty's responses to a series of questions about where the most important innovations are likely to emerge. He started with the premise that traditional news orgs will continue to innovate alongside an increasing number of startups and journalism ventures. He believes some will be nonprofits, some will be spinoffs from existing companies, some will be new for-profit organizations and many will focus on narrow niches. He also said it's an open question whether the big, traditional outlets will be the ones that remain the primary distributors of news, or whether they'll be replaced by smaller, focused competitors -- even on a local level.
All that's fine, and likely true. It got sticky when Marty said the most creative thinking is likely to emerge from startups founded by venture capital money. These are people who will vet ideas and put real money behind ones they believe can work. In other industries, he pointed out, this is typically where the biggest innovative leaps are born.
Now this is a bit of a body blow to those of us who are trying to innovate from within the belly of the beast. No matter what we do, according to this line of reasoning, we aren't likely to be the source of the Big Breakthrough that starts to define the new paradigm. And he might be right, which is the most depressing part of the whole thing.
So, if you accept that argument, where does that leave us in the MSM?
I suppose it leaves us innovating, and watching, and reading, and learning and doing what we can to remain in the conversation. We might have to let go of the idea that we know and/or will dictate the direction of things, and be willing to let the market determine how things evolve. Like Microsoft in its younger days, we'll have to try to be in position to recognize smart innovations on the part of others and then capitalize on them.
Sounds feasible, on the surface. But we won't be in position to do that if we're not tinkering constantly, failing regularly and succeeding occasionally with innovations of our own. And that, as anybody knows who's trying to do it every day, is very, very hard.