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Pardon the Disruption: What My News Startup Does NOT Aim To Disrupt

The go-for-the-jugular ambition of the good folk at Publish2 is inspiring. It is also a bit scary to see a 10-person startup try to take on/take DOWN the Associated Press… for what it says about how broken the news business is, how hard it will be to fix it and…what happens in the meantime. As a former AP correspondent in Rome, who stills follows the Vatican beat, I have watched my wire service colleagues’ outstanding work on the current Catholic priest sex abuse saga, breaking stories (here, here, here) in the past couple of months that bloggers or freelancers simply don’t have the resources or wherewithal to pull off in the kind of ongoing way as a crucial, far-flung story like this requires.

But none of that means that the AP is not vulnerable to assault. And if it vanishes, no one knows if/how Publish2 or anyone else will be able to substitute the work it does, and cover the ground it covers. For the second time in this space I refer to Clay Shirky’s ominous dictum about the prevalence of failure on both sides of the disruption divide in remaking the world of information/communication in our digital age.

But if the prospect of potential (or even likely) failure were ever to clip our ambitions, there would be no success worth achieving. So upward/onward for us all: hungry beat reporters and upstart news entrepreneurs alike. No one at Publish2 should scale back their goals, or somehow soften their direct, name-your-prey approach. Aiming high, and aiming straight is good for rallying the troops, making some waves, and of course, er…WORLD DOMINATION!

My question is about the fixation with the conception of disruption that often drives the New Media discussion. Though my sights are set pretty damn high as well…what I hope to create does not aim to actually disrupt any fundamental component of the news business. Indeed, it is conceived of as a boost to those currently hanging for dear life on around the world. This doesn’t mean that it’s not new, or innovative, or might even change the way people think about and consume foreign news. Moreover, if it works, some people might lose their jobs, and others might find new ones. It’s also worth confirming that both in my old and new lives, I have run into resistance from established forces of the news business, and so I know that there is indeed much that needs disruption…and in some cases, outright destruction.

But perhaps part of the what the news business needs now are ideas, mechanisms, products that help what has long existed better do its work and spread its product….and repair the bottom line. I am well aware that I say this, because this it what my product would do. But I also believe it is true– even a full year after having sipped the New Media Kool-aid. (DISCLAIMER/APOLOGY: I am still a couple of months from taking the details of my project public, and my decision to hold off on saying just what it is has slowed down this blog a bit, as a result. Despite the urgings of my astronaut soon-to-be brother-in-law “Go live, man. Go live!” I’m still holding off, lining up those ducks.  Soon…I promise!)

As we move toward what is coming, there will be some essential disruptions. There will also be stalling the inevitable, crutches and life support pulled out, sucking up resources. But there is also room for bridges, new networks for old players. This may be a failure of imagination on my part to grasp how much will change, but I am convinced that filters, brands, organizations…and yes, reporters and editors…are as important as ever in helping consumers of news get what they need.

I have a friend who is a successful airline industry consultant whose business booms when his clients are struggling. Indeed he once told me that a true, sustainable business model for air travel may not really exist. But that doesn’t stand in the way of lots of people and companies all along the food chain getting paid. In the meantime, the people get transported in a more or less sufficient manner.

Might we carry that analogy over to the news business? At least for the next 20-50 years!? Be just disruptive enough to make a decent living by continuing to do what we love doing. Spend as little time/energy navigating those burdened by salvaging what ought to be abandoned. And maybe have a small seat at the big table where the world of information is changing forever. This is my ambition.

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