Memphians, a Technami of automation is coming. We can either surf the Technami to success, or be crushed by it, as new technologies eliminate lower-skill warehouse-type work while driving demand for higher-tech skills, demand that we can’t currently meet.
The Memphis Chamber of Commerce’s UpSkill 901 initiative is the first step toward surfing the Technami. Instead of working in a silo, the chamber is partnering with a broad array of nonprofits, businesses, educational organizations and private citizens to figure out how we can collaboratively upskill 10,000 people by 2023 in order to meet the current demands for trained talent.
However, if we really want to surf the Technami to economic prosperity, we need to think bigger, and use this opportunity to reposition Memphis as the global leader in Inclusive Tech, Lifelong Learning and Automation Adoption and get people, foundations, companies and governments to invest in transforming that vision into reality.
Today, Silicon Valley is being rightfully-pilloried for its lack of diversity, ignoring multitrillion dollar markets and excluding a massive talent pool, which means a huge opportunity for Memphis to become a diverse talent hub.
First, we need to accept that we are a majority African-American community, and instead of trying to ignore and downplay that fact, we need to leverage it as a strength. The Black consumer market is worth over $1.3 trillion annually, and African Americans are global trendsetters. Hip Hop alone is a $10B industry, and yet we have neither an overall Black economic-development strategy, nor a tech strategy to leverage our local Black talent and market.
Since tech companies recognize they have a diversity problem, have tons of cash and an insatiable demand for tech talent, rather than try to act as if race, age, gender, sexual orientation, etc. bias doesn’t exist, let’s use that to our advantage to differentiate ourselves, to recruit new businesses, attract outside talent, and retain Memphians already here.
Why not create a center of Black Consumer Innovation, that’s focused on developing new culturally aware technology-enabled entertainment, services and goods designed for, and by, Black Americans? It doesn’t exist anywhere else, so why not here?
Ever accelerating technological-driven change is forcing people and companies to keep up, or get left in the dust. Unfortunately, our educational system is largely designed for a past era, and doesn’t meet the current and future needs of many employers and employees.
While Memphis has many organizations and educational institutions working to provide the soft and hard skills people need, there is no overarching community-wide strategy designed around the needs of employees already in the workforce to help them get the skills they need to grow their earnings, and fill the new jobs being created.
As far as I can tell, no community in America has a lifelong learning strategy designed to ensure every child and adult can excel in the new knowledge economy, which means a great opportunity for Memphis to be a pioneer.
Surfing the Technami will require more than just upskilling individuals, it will require upskilling entire companies by lowering the barriers to adoption so companies big and small can adapt.
After all, how are you supposed to integrate robotics, computer vision, drones and 3D printing into your business, if you’ve never seen or had the chance to experiment with the concepts? While the cost of the new technologies is dropping, the initial intellectual and monetary capital required to successfully deploy them is still high, so we need new institutions and services to help organizations adopt the new technologies.
We need physical centers of excellence and innovation where people can affordably learn about and experiment with new technologies, as well as consultants who can advise organizations about how to adopt and adapt.
While we currently lack any formal strategy to help our businesses adapt, so does every other community, which again gives us a great opportunity to lead, instead of lag.
While you can debate how big and how fast the Technami will be, it’s coming, so let’s use the opportunity to jump from laggard to leader, lift tens of thousands from poverty to prosperity, build entirely new industrial sectors and drive billions in new economic activity by becoming the leader in inclusive tech, lifelong learning and automation adoption.
Mukesh, my Lyft driver to La Guardia, taught me what it really means to be a journalist, along with the meaning of bravery, integrity, passion, sacrifice and dignity in the face of violence and separation from family and country.
“If you fight for freedom for the people, If you see the bad in front of and you fight you are a journalist. If you avoid, you are not a journalist! I’m a fighter.”
Over the course of an hour he told me how he’d been a journalist in India, had attempted to expose a corrupt politician which led to his being followed, beaten and threatened with death, before he paid smugglers $50k to get to the US where he applied for asylum 4 years ago.
Now he drives people around New York, while working long distance to expose corruption back in his home country. In order to keep his kids safe and ensure they get a good education, he’s put them in a military-type school where no one can enter, the kids can’t leave and students can only talking to their parents once a month.
“They only have one phone between the 80 students so me an my wife spend all day trying to call, and then whoever gets through first, calls the other one.”
He shared his belief that this was all god’s plan and that he needed to pursue justice as that is his mission. And that while, he may have had to sacrifice and struggle, he is happy because he’s making a difference and can look at himself on the mirror with pride every day.
As I listened to his stories, I thought about how lucky many of us are here in the United States. And how important it is for us welcome refugees and asylum seekers, not just because it’s critical for their well being, or that it’s part of what makes us admired around the world, but because of the ferocious spirit and drive these people have.
Thank you Mukesh and to everyone else willing to risk everything to fight for freedom and social justice.
After five years of blood, sweat and tears the FedEx Customer Reporting team finally launched the new FedEx Reporting Online, where customers can track and analyze their spend.
Developing the concept took just a few months, selling the concept took a few years and finally building the application took a few more years to get to a minimum viable replacement.
As I look back at the learning journey and my team, what stands out most to me is how a disparate group of individuals can transform into an extended family. Yes, we fight and fuss. (My work spouse even jokingly threatened to divorce me and sue for custody of the application after one recent disagreement.) But we also laugh, share bags of Cheetos, swap family stories and get a lot done together.
In the beginning, we found each other’s styles frustrating as we stormed and formed. Over time we’ve learned how to embrace the things in others that drive us nuts as we’ve realized we need that diversity to succeed.
While homogeneity makes relationships easier, diversity makes us stronger. It would have been easier to be surrounded by people who always agree with my crazy ideas and approaches, but I need people who call BS on me and force me out of my comfort zone.
I remember one particularly strong exchange of views with my work wife, which while challenging at the time, afterwards resulted in a better result for both of us. I forced her to think more strategically while she made me think about the details required to achieve the strategy.
And as I read about and remember other companies I’ve worked at, I’ve come to realize one of Fedex’s core strengths is its inclusiveness. While FedEx still has a ways to go in diversifying its senior leadership ranks, the professional through director level highlights the opportunities available for talented people regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation or ethnicity. While that diversity thins out at the top, you still have women and people of color all the way up to the EVP level.
The team represented the founding fathers’ maxim, “E pluribus unum” from many one; a salad bar of styles, origins, races, ages and ethnicities. And together we stormed and formed as we worked to figure out how to build a high performing team on a pressure-cooker project.
And trust me when I say the process has been messy, filled with lots of fighting and frustration, as it’s much easier to miscommunicate than it is to communicate.
But eventually we learned to embrace each other’s various quirks as being the flip sides of our strengths, and to tailor our approaches to meet our teammates’ needs.
And that to me is what makes America great!
Men and women, young and old, native born and immigrants of different backgrounds, creeds, races and ethnicities learning to leverage both our similarities and differences to build an even stronger, more perfect union.
So I just wanted to say thanks to the FedEx leadership for building such an inclusive culture. And to my team members, family and management who helped me learn, grow and truly appreciate the power that diversity brings.
Disclaimer: This is my personal and contains my own views, thoughts and opinions. It is not endorsed by FedEx and is not an official communication of FedEx.
In 2005 I tried raising money to develop a platform for connecting people with their neighbors, public services, politicians and deliver personalized news, real-estate and other high-value content and services. At the time I was the sole breadwinner with three small children rapidly going broke after working at a struggling startup so I shelved the concept and found a job.
And then just the other day I discovered that my city is now using Nextdoor as a news, communication and civic engagement platform. After reviewing their vision, funding and penetration I believe Nextdoor is now positioned to execute on what I envisioned 12-years ago and revolutionize local news & civic engagement.
So instead of worrying just about Facebook, journalists need to be thinking about their Nextdoor strategy.
So what makes Nextdoor special?
Their use of mapping-technologies to mirror and connect physical communities.
2. Building civic engagement tools to enhance communication between public agencies and the public they serve.
How is that different from Facebook and local media?
Traditional News approach: Journalists curate everything and publish to non/low-interactivity platforms so impossible to connect and hear directly from neighbors, politicians and public entities. Journalists and sections may be focused on specific communities but since space and journalists are limited, features very little actual local news/information.
Email, Facebook & Twitter: You can connect and engage directly with other community members, government and politicians but connecting is extremely inefficient as you need to find and connect one-at-a-time with each person or organization. Also since birds of a feather flock together it leads to people primarily connecting and engaging with friends and folks who look and sound like you. And neither provides sophisticated civic-engagement tools.
Next door provides a much more efficient GIS/ address-based platform that automatically connects you with your neighbors and public agencies. Enter your address, and then through the magic of geocoding and mapping software, Nextdoor finds the city and neighborhood you reside in, applying physical geography to the virtual world. Next they provide tools specifically designed to connect public agencies they serve.
So what’s that enable?
Delivering truly-localized/personalized news and engagement based on the many different political and civic spaces/boundaries you live in.
You belong to not just a specific neighborhood and city but to many geographically-defined government and civic areas, e.g. City council districts, county council districts, public-school attendance zones, state and federal representative districts, public-utility, non-profit and business-service areas, etc.
Nextdoor by using mapping technologies, can now connect you with not just your local police but all of your geographically-specific political, educational, business and non-governmental organizations.
Instead of landing on either a generic screen or an information bubble of an algorithm-chosen feed, you can view both news stories and updates from your elected officials, public servants, favorite non-profits and local businesses.
And news orgs could either integrate or build their own geo-enabled platform and deliver personalized news to you. So instead of just getting a story about the city council, you could see exactly how your representative voted.
What does this mean for journalism and news orgs?
The opportunity: A new platform for delivering local news to a built in and engaged audience.
One of the reasons Patch failed and why local news sites struggle is that the World Wide Web is organized around interests, size and discrete facts, not geography.
Entering your address in Google displays info about your specific house but little about your neighborhood.
Enter your city and it tells you only information at the city level.
Go to your local news site and you may get the option for info about your local neighborhood but almost nothing about regional, state and national decisions with local implications and participation.
A geo-enabled information architecture using real-world boundaries provides an entirely new method of discovery and organizing information.
And this represents a huge opportunity for journalists to deliver localized content on the Web to a built in audience via Nextdoor.
The threat: It also represents another threat to local publishers that don’t adopt a geo-enabled platform and approach to news as they lack the personalization and integration capabilities of Nextdoor.
After all, much of what passes as local news involves public affairs announcements, and now that residents can easily get that info direct from the source, it’s one less reason to subscribe or visit a local news site.
Nextdoor also represents a new competitor for advertising dollars, further eroding the economic model for local news, especially since advertisers will be able to target down to the specific address level. Having worked for a real-estate information service provider, knowing a users’ address enables you to target them for all sorts of mortgage, insurance and home-service products specific to the house, e.g. you can see when their house was refinanced and target them with refinancing offers with fairly solid info about the interest they paid vs. now.
So what will Nextdoor do next?
I have no idea as I’ve never spoken to them, but as someone who envisioned similar concepts over a decade ago, I’d:
Build more and more integration points into local public services and political establishments, so Nextdoor becomes your one-stop shop for civic engagement.
Provide two-way communication and organizing tools to enable residents to give feedback and create conversations with both their neighbors, their elected officials and other public-service agencies.
Allow media partners to post their content on the site and enable them to leverage the platform to deliver personalized news in exchange for a revenue share. And since Nextdoor controls the platform, they will determine the deal structure.
What should news organizations do?
Decide whether they want to be content organizations feeding other people’s platforms or whether they want to be information technology organizations that provide civic engagement and intelligence solutions.
If you want to just provide content, then focus on trying to be the first on your block to negotiate a deal so you don’t get locked out. If I were Nextdoor, I’d be putting out RFPs and getting news orgs to compete for placement.
If you want to control your own destiny and compete from strength, integrate geo-enablement capabilities into your content management systems, develop a geo-enabled information architecture and geographically-discrete content.
The challenge is that for 99.9% of the world, even for software developers, the previous paragraph is pure gobbledygook. The only reason I understand it is because I minored in geography, took several GIS courses 20-years ago, have 20-years of software experience and built MyRepresentatives.com as an after-hours public-service project that began providing address-level personalization for Memphians. (Unfortunately we had to shut it down due to work and family constraints.)
If you’re interested, let me know and I’d be happy to explain in more detail how news orgs can leverage geo-personalization to increase both site and civic engagement.
While the stick-your-head-in-the-sand-and-pray strategy might seem nice, I think Jack Welch’s quote “If the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, the end is near.” highlights the small flaw in this argument.
So why is it that news organizations, some of the earliest adopters of the World Wide Web, are struggling the most?
For the same reason that Kodak, the inventor of digital photography succumbed to digital photography. Instead of adapting their organizations to the new technology, they tried to adapt the new technology to their existing organizations.
In the case of Kodak, this meant going from being a chemical company to a software, camera and ultimately mobile computing company, an almost impossible feat. The chemical plants that used to be their greatest assets, became anchors that drowned them.
So even if news organizations have developers and designers and deliver mobile-first content, they’re still stuck pursuing paper-based strategies in a software and Internet world.
So why are news organizations still stuck in the past?
Two hundred years of history is hard to change. Regardless, of the adoption of mobile, video or virtual reality the basic approach to news hasn’t changed in over 200 years. The news business is a slave to a business model built on the Tweet of the 19th century; the article.
Before the printing press made distribution relatively cheap, there was no such thing as an article, only books, letters & legal documents. Then along came the printing press, and suddenly the idea of private citizens creating throwaway publications as a way to deliver information became a thing. And the article was born. First accompanied by drawings and then later by photos.
And with the advent of radio came audio stories and recorded sounds. Finally visual news came into being via theater and later TV.
The defining traits for all these technologies are:
One-way communication platforms that require experts manning expensive equipment to create and distribute content
Limited space, personalization and sharing
Non-existent search, linking or ability to take action within the platform
So how did these constraints define news and journalism business?
With space being limited to 30 minutes of airtime or 30-60 print pages the entire product was built around disappearing content with no regard to long-term reuse/access since the content viewing and storage mechanism were the same, i.e. the story was both stored and viewed on paper or TV screen.
In the physical world, the costs for adding each additional page or minute of airtime are fairly linear, so the goal is to maximize the limited space with enough high-quality content that people engage with the product but not so much content that it impacted the profitability.
The other key factor about the news business, is that it’s based around disposable/disappearing content. Since the distribution mechanism is also the storage mechanism, i.e the paper or news program, there is little to no value to build long-term content since it either goes in the trash or disappears when the segment is over. As a result, “news” has been defined as throwaway content with little thought about creating content or an information architecture designed to support reuse.
Since space was limited and needed to be constantly refilled, and since high-quality content was required to attract and retain customers then it made sense to pay people, journalists, to write stories. Since the primary skill required to fill the space was to be able to tell a story in text or moving pictures, journalist and writer became synonymous.
Allowing the non-paid public to write anything more than a letter or an occasional op-ed piece meant devaluing the concept of being a journalist and the product they sold. Since the barriers to entry were so high, companies were able to transform the businesses into local and national information monopolies, duopolies or triopolies to be managed for maximum profitability not growth.
And since the technological underpinnings of the business didn’t really change for decades there was no real need for a product management/development organization. So by the 70s newspapers and news in general had become culturally-inbred cash cows focused on continuity and maximizing profitability, not growth, for investors.
And then along came the Internet….
The key technological traits of the Internet era are:
Infinite personalization: Every screen and item can be personalized just for you.
Unlimited space: Every news article ever created can be fit on a single hard drive.
Endless interconnectivity: Anyone can connect with anyone anywhere. Distance doesn’t matter.
Almost effortless sharing: Words and images can be copied and shared by anyone anywhere without any costs and capture the value of your work.
Simple self-service publishing platforms: Any amateur can publish professional quality stories, images & videos
Instant Interactivity: The Web doesn’t just deliver information, it enables action, ordering a toaster or organizing a mob.
It’s the platform stupid! Static content can be copied but server-side software can’t.
The Network Effect: Each additional person, company and system added to a gravitational platform increases the gravitational pull in an ever-self reinforcing cycle.
Active participation: People are no longer content to just be passive participants ingesting pushed information but want to be active contributors to conversations and drive change.
Interactive Analytics: Instead of static reports, you can filter and query to see information just the way you want
And just like in every other industry built on outmoded technologies and business models, software is eating journalism and the news business.
The current response: Building faster, better & cheaper buggy whips
Given the cultural inbreeding and the institutionalization of what news and journalism are both in academia and in newsrooms, the inability to respond effectively is not surprising. To date, the changes by news organizations have really been around leveraging technology to do more of what they have already been doing but faster, better and cheaper.
Faster: In the past news organizations competed on speed, trying to beat their competition by getting the story first. Unlike Wall Street where milliseconds can mean millions, being a few minutes faster than the competition on a commodity story generally won’t reap significant financial rewards.
Better: Since Journalism is all about telling stories, news orgs are adopting new expensive story-telling technologies such as Virtual Reality or building a multimedia experience ala Snowfall to compete against the ocean of free content.
Cheaper: Leveraging AI to write stories ala the AP using AI to generate sports stories (actually innovative) or more frequently cutting staff and wages to drive down costs while pushing their people to write more, blog more, tweet more, etc. more.
The problem with all of these approaches is that they are all about optimizing horse-and-buggy businesses, instead of developing new automotive-enabled industries. In the IT world, it’s known as paving the cowpath, using new technologies to enshrine old approaches to the world, instead of changing the organization and processes to get the most out of the new possibilities.
If you can’t fight em, join em! Embrace your status as a solutions and information technology organization
The Germans didn’t just demolish the French and Brits at the beginning of WWII because they had tanks and planes, but because they had people who could think differently about using them and saw how they could redefine the battlefield to surprise the enemy and play to their strengths.
So instead of figuring out how to optimize outmoded technologies and processes, news organizations need to adapt their missions and organizations to the new information battlefield.
The first step to fighting back and winning the war for both the public good and and corporate profits is to embrace the fact that you are in the solution and information-technology business whether you want to be or not.
And in order to be successful as a solutions/IT company, news organizations need to expand their mission and playing field to capture the new opportunities and defend against irrelevance.
Move beyond content to enabling insights, action & community collaboration to capture new opportunities and avoid irrelevance
Once you move beyond just documenting the world via articles to providing solutions your opportunities expand a thousandfold. Take advantage of the gifts that technology gives you and shift your primary mission from just documenting the world to becoming public-service platforms enabling insights, action & community collaboration to make the world a better place.
Why Public service? If you’re not in it for the public service, then you’re nothing but a PR and advertising firm. Journalism at its core is all about public service and the moment that that gets lost, then nothing else matters.
Why Platform? The battle is not about the individual article or one newspaper or another, it’s about competing platforms. Anyone can publish, but the platform determines the user experience, profits and impact. While text, images and even videos can be copied and shared almost anywhere, software platforms provide the additional interactivity and value required to be economically viable and socially impactful. Relying on Facebook’s platform means they control the conversation, your future and profits.
Why enabling insights? The goal of almost any article is provide insights, to help your audience to understand a little bit more about the world and make decisions about where to live, travel, send their kids to school, what medicines to take, who to vote for. In the past, the primary model has been through the publication of an article, video or even infographic, but modern analytics tools provide so many more ways to help people make decisions. Unfortunately, while news organizations use business intelligence tools internally they’ve almost completely failed to adopt them to provide insights to their audience.
And even when news organizations create decision support tools, since they don’t view themselves as being in the analytics & information business, they fail to monetize and support these products as products.
Why community collaboration? We are a social species and so not only does the Internet allow us to take action by ourselves but it enables us to organize our friends, neighbors and countrymen to work together to make a difference. Instead of just writing articles about people coming together, we can actually help people come together to create better communities.
Together, this combination provides fills an unmet need, delivers an incredibly powerful value proposition and represent a massive market opportunity. Instead of being content companies competing against every other publishing platform and anyone who can write, you are now providing value Facebook doesn’t and competing in a fragmented space against primarily homegrown, smaller software companies.
Coming soon: How to go face to face with Facebook and succeed in the conversation business
Virtual reality must be experienced to imagine and execute upon the possibilities it brings, but if you never get a chance to experience it, how can you leverage it?
And if my hometown Memphis and other communities like it are going to be able to participate in the future, we need to experience it before we get left behind yet again. Ultimately, what we need is a massive investment to deliver low-cost high-speed Internet and high-quality technology education to every corner of this country, but in the interim, why not create Alternate Reality Vehicles packed with high-tech tools and talent to experience and create virtual and augmented-reality content.
Just imagine an RV packed with the latest and greatest content creation and experience tools and piloted by passionate professionals and volunteers bringing thousands of dollars of equipment and experience to schools, community centers and corporations.
After all, just as we’ve used mobile clinics to bring medicine to healthcare deserts, and food trucks to fill our bellies, why not use Alternate Reality Vehicles to help bridge our technological divides. While far from a panacea it would at least be a mobile oasis bringing a taste of the future to our technology deserts.
Thoughts? I’d love to work with others to see what we can do to help bring the future to Memphis.
Providing local residents an online event calendar is one of the most basic yet poorly executed components of community journalism.
So this morning, I went to the CommercialAppeal.com site on my tablet in search of events, and I couldn’t find it, so finally I grabbed my laptop and after much searching found it buried in the entertainment section and then proceeded to get further frustrated with the search and overall usability. And then I went to see how I could submit an event, and the experience deteriorated even further as the site passed me off to a 3rd party to create the event.
I’m sorry but if news organizations can’t execute their local events calendar with any quality, then they have no right to survive – and honestly won’t and here’s why:
Events are the ceremonies that help communities come together. Whether they be city council meetings, PTSA meetings, volunteer opportunities, community concerts, athletics events, TED Talks, you name it, community events are key to community life. And by not leveraging modern technology to help foster community, you are failing in your public-service mission.
Event information validates, excites and engages your audiences. If you are hosting information about my event and helping me market it, then it gives me a reason to engage with your site and for me to market your site. And unlike Facebook, having your event “featured” on a news site provides validation as well, building a sense of connection to your organization.
Content costs are nearly zero. Since the event organizer is entering the information, news organizations only need to screen for quality and not actually write up the events. This is the reason why Facebook is so profitable because they just provide the platform while others provide the content.
Local events are a key to competing for a local audience. Today there is no single site or source for local event information, both pre and post event. Since so much of what news organizations are all about, this represents a perfect opportunity for news organizations to combine their brand equity, editorial skills and technology to differentiate themselves.
So what makes a great online event calendar?
Comprehensive: Instead of forcing people to go to multiple places, allow them to go to one place for everything. It’s not just an entertainment calendar. It feature’s every local event for every type of local organization, neighborhood associations, school events, city council meetings, city planning meetings, sports events, meetups, chamber meetings, afterschool events, you name it.
Intelligent: Users shouldn’t have to work very hard or at all to find the events and information they are looking for. Users need to be able to easily filter and find events that matter to them so the categorization options need to make sense to the users and offer a mix of open ended and fixed filters.
Lazy: Help people be lazy and successful. Users should have information pushed to them on a regular basis and the option to have reminders embedded in their calendars so they don’t have to constantly search for options.
Interactive: Ask users for feedback about the events they attended as a way to deepen the user engagement and transform the site into just a calendar into a conversation and drive engagement.
In order to succeed, news organizations will have to think of themselves first as civic intelligence and engagement platforms that combine traditional journalism with design thinking and technology product management to develop new ways of informing and empowering their communities.
At work I was recently asked, “Kevin, What’s was the secret to get your project funded?”
So I looked in the mirror, and quickly realized it wasn’t based on looks, and instead after much thought replied, “Naiveté, creativity, persistence & luck!” which frankly are the key ingredients for any successful project.
In the beginning I thought it would take a few months to sell the project, and then someone told me it would most likely take six to 12 months, which both relieved me and frustrated me at the time. Ultimately it took more like 24-36 months before the project went from concept to funding
Honestly, I probably would have never tackled the project if I had known it would take two, almost three years before it was finally prioritized and funded. The reality is that you have to be naïve and overly optimistic about how long it will take otherwise you’d most likely give up before you start.
Because while we all start out naively, success ultimately requires persistence, otherwise we’d give up before crossing the finish line, especially when the finish line seems to just keep moving further away. The challenge is to figure out the difference between persistence and stupidity, as success is never guaranteed.
While persistence is critical, you need to keep coming up with different sales pitches and throwing them against the wall to see what sticks. And we came up with stories based on fear, greed, greatness, customer experience, you name it with all sorts of different charts that showing how we’d save money, save time, make money, grab new markets and so on and so forth as we drafted presentation after presentation. And each time our story became a little crisper, gained us new advocates and helped us slowly crawl up the prioritization list.
Just like any other types of sales, when you are asking for people to part with their money and resources, it’s rare that you create the perfect pitch the first time. Instead you need to view every pitch as an experiment, where you are making as many observations and potentially asking as many questions as you are answering, otherwise you are wasting time. So identify what went well and modify what didn’t – and keep selling until someone bites!
So what was the final ingredient required for funding?
Luck! Without luck, I don’t know that we ever would have gotten the required nor the desired funding, but part of luck is being ready at the right place and right time when the opportunity arises. And while most of us would love to credit our brilliance for success, and blame bad luck for our failures, the reality is that lady luck is equally present in both.
But without the naiveté to start, the persistence to keep going when it seems hopeless & the creativity to keep coming up with new pitches, you will rarely be in a position to enjoy lady luck’s sunshine.
So put on those rose-colored glasses, but with flexible titanium frames that will hold up to the abuse, and get started pitching!
The promise because the article was a classic piece of investigative journalism that shined the light on the way the ultrarich maneuver the political and legal system to evade taxes.
The failure, because the NY Times only enraged readers. Instead of empowering their readers by providing tools to help them take action and drive political change, they only offered an article, like offering a match without a lantern to people looking for light. The match ignites the fire, but the lantern keeps it burning much brighter and longer than the match alone.
Articles are an 18th century technology that are still incredibly powerful here in the 21st century but they:
Lack Personalization so that you can understand how the issue impacts you specifically – or where your specific representatives stand on an issue or their role in the problem, i.e. who are my representatives, do they have their hand in the cookie jar, what’s their official position and what’s their track record on the issue.
Are passive instead of being interactive. While they get you enraged, they don’t help you get engaged and take action. Instead you have to search elsewhere for tools and resources to help you reach out to your representatives or mobilize others to make change.
While Infographics, data visualizations, videos and even virtual reality are great new story telling tools, they still don’t fundamentally transform news organizations from being content generators into solution providers – which is what we as a society need to increase our civic engagement and news organizations need to do in order to grow their value.
So if the Times and other news organizations truly want to make a difference, then they need to provide users the ability to:
Find their specific representatives
Identify how much they’ve received from lobbyists and individuals
Their votes on specific items
Their positions on the issue. The Times could have easily sent a survey to the representatives and Senators to get their feedback.
Give feedback to their elected officials via Democracy.io or similar tool
Create, sign or share petitions demanding change
Engage with organizations that are fighting for equity
Attend virtual or physical town halls with key players to learn more about the issue and potential ways to get more involved
I’m sure I’ve barely scratched the surface on what the NY Times could do. And yes, they all contain risks, but unlike real estate and employment classifieds, civic engagement is why we became journalists and the space news organizations need to own if they are to fulfill their 21st century potential.
I’ll never forget the flat staccato of the semi-automatics or the boom of the shotgun blasts that would regularly pierce the night sky. As a resident and reporter in Santa Ana I’d pray that the noise wasn’t the prelude to yet another homicide story, where I’d have to interview distraught parents wondering why, wives shorn of their husband’s love, friends mourning their buddies and traumatized neighbors forced to clean the blood off their sidewalks.
Finishing an interview at Pio Pico Elementary School, driving 100-yards and seeing a teenager laying in the street, blood flowing toward the gutter as cops flooded the area looking for the perpetrator. He lived but others didn’t.
The parents who kept celebrating their son’s birthday, year after year. Of reading the search warrant, describing how the killer had shot him at point blank in the brain while he hid behind a car fender. And then the shooter went onto kill another kid – and all because they yelled a drunken insult at the Southside House.
Covering my first shootings; two separate shootings leaving two teenagers dead and a 13-year old in critical condition. When I went to visit the 13-year’s old family, one of my questions got turned into me supposedly saying that the kid had died. The wailing and tears of that apartment living room are burned in my mind.
Teenagers in wheelchairs, alive but partially paralyzed by the bullets that shredded their spines.
Calling the police four or five times in one night to report the non-stop gunfire from a block or two away; until I gave up when I learned that in the ‘hood, just because you call the police, doesn’t mean the gunfire stops.
I could go on, but for me guns and gunfire meant only one thing – fear and loss.
Then I went to Washington DC and was talking to someone who grew up in rural Klamath county, where shotgun blasts meant duck hunting and the crack of the rifle meant deer season.
“I’d get up before dawn, go duck hunting and bring my birds to school for cleaning before starting class. The shotgun stayed in the truck and no one cared or called the police – it was just part of life.”
Similar sounds, almost entirely different meanings. When urban America talks about guns, they see death and destruction. When rural America talks about guns they see ducks, deer and dinner.
So when urban America hears about gun control, they see it as a common sense way to save lives, but when rural America hears about gun control, they see their way of life being threatened. Layer on additional racial, ethnic and economic enmities and is it any wonder why we’re so divided on this and almost every other issue in America?
The fact that it is newsworthy, is also whyBuzzFeed and Univision are growing and why traditional news audiences and outlets are shrinking.
While distribution and story-telling technologies have changed, the keys to successfully covering your hyphenated audience haven’t changed since the days I wrote for a community newspaper.
Just apply the principles of community journalism to us
As a cub reporter at the Santa Ana Progress, one of the Orange County Register’s attempt to go local back in the early 90s, I learned the local news mantra, “People want to read about themselves, their family, their friends, their neighborhood and their organizations, so put lots of names in the stories and bold them as people scan to find the familiar.”
Twenty-years later, people haven’t changed. We all want to see and hear our stories reflected in the media, whether it’s in paper, on TV or online. And so if you want to grow your Latino, African-American and other hyphenated American audience you need to apply that same local lens as we’re looking for stories that reflect our names, our families, our friends, our organizations, our ancestries, our countries.
We’re looking for validation; that our stories matter; that we matter; that regardless of what’s to the left of the hyphen – we’re Americans; we belong and we’re welcome – no different than anyone else.
And unfortunately, more often than not, what we see, hear and read tells us otherwise.
So how to rectify the situation and grow your audience – instead of see it dwindle is to define your audience and then design for your audience.
A good place to start is with some basic market research and analyze your market demographics:
How old are they?
Where are they or their families from?
What ethnicities/races do they belong to?
How do they identify themselves?
And then compare your staff and your coverage with your market demographics to see how well it matches.
Even if you may have never paid attention to these items, your audience does and we notice the fact we are underrepresented and under reporten.
For example, as a news junky I listen to NPR but find myself constantly frustrated by how news coverage is skewed to Europe and the Middle East despite the fact that there are way more Latinos with roots and families in Latin America than in Europe. And the conflicts and successes in the Americas, have a much greater impact on us here – than conflicts far from our borders.
As a “Paucho”; (my Mom is a “Gaucha” from Argentina and my dad is a “Pocho,”a derogatory Mexican term for a Mexican-American, from New Mexico), I can tell you it’s the little things that matter:
Pronouncing names correctly
I confess I often butcher other non-Latin names, so this isn’t a deal killer but it’s always great when you hear the “r” rolled correctly.
Not interviewing American Tourists when disasters strike in foreign lands
Guess what, when a hurricane strikes Baja California or Manila, chances are that some of those brown Mexicans or Filipinos may actually be Americans – and I can almost guarantee you that they have family and friends in the US.
A fair share of the coverage that reflects our importance
Global news is now local for a good part of your audience, so remember what’s foreign to you may be “local” involving family and friends to a significant part of your audience.
Going the extra mile to integrate us into your non-minority stories
Us hyphenated people are everywhere, but we may not be as easy to find if you don’t make a conscious effort to find us. We don’t want to just be affiliated with special interest news, tragedies or controversies.
Not relying on the faux-mouthpieces that supposedly speak for the community
I always remember their were two guys, we called them Frick & Frack from LULAC, that the not-so-in-the know reporters, i.e. everyone but the couple Latino reporters covering the city, would call any time there was a story with a police/civil-rights angle – and these clowns would say stupid things like, “We need less police in our streeets!” which would wind up as story quotes and the official Hispanic position.
As a Hispanic, who lived and hung out in the ‘hood, I never heard anyone ever say there should be less police, not even many ofthe “gangsters.” The conversations I was having with my neighbors, teenagers and adults alike was the need for more and better policing as we were tired of being afraid, hearing gunfire and seeing kids killed.
Hiring us hyphenated-folks; Lots of us
A chocolate chip does not a chocolate-chip cookie make. Tokenism isn’t going to grow your audience -and just because you have one of us, doesn’t mean that person can speak for the larger community. The reality is we are much more than the color of our skin or our names – so just because our last name is Garcia, doesn’t mean we have any clue what life as a Chicana in East LA is like or what it’s like to live in Cuba under Castro. And I certainly don’t mean that you need a Latino to cover Latinos, but it always helps to have people who understand the basics.
Ultimately, you need to hire a broad cross-section of employees of not just various ethnicities, but experiences and geographies, if you’re going to be able to capture the hyphenated-stew, or rather chili or phở, that is America today. And not just as cub reporters, but as leaders who can hire and fire and influence the organizational structure so that we’re not just hyphens grafted onto a tree not committed to change.
How often have you read an article with a political angle at the local, state or federal level and wondered:
Who is my representative?
What’s their stand on the issue?
How can I give them feedback easily?
What do other groups that I respect have to say about the issue?
Why didn’t I learn about this meeting or issue before the vote took place?
Where do my fellow constituents stand on the issue?
While traditional news articles may enrage, they rarely help people engage as they lack the personalized content and tools for people to easily take intelligent action.
So here’s my recommendations:
Leverage the power of GIS/mapping to identify which elected officials or candidates are aligned to each reader. Instead of your audience wondering which one of the city council members or county commissioners represent them, in exchange for users entering their addresses, news organizations can display the specific elected officials aligned to their location.
Survey the elected officials about their stances and publish their positions prior to major votes.
Send alerts via email, SMS, etc.. notifying your audience when something of concern to them is coming up – with the information about where their elected officials stand on the issue.
Enable your audience to vote in favor or against the specific issues – and give them the ability to send their feedback either privately directly to their specific elected officials or post their comments online.
Segment the audience vote and feedback by political district so that representatives and residents in that district are able to see what their fellow constituents are saying – and not have it lost in the larger noise from people outside their district.
Capture the elected officials votes on issues and save them so your audience can easily scan through them come voting time or if they have questions in the future.
Just imagine if news organizations implemented these six basic concepts; what it would mean for both civic and site engagement.
Today, all the pieces exist to execute this vision for interactive personalized political “journalism,” but no one has merged them together into a seamless experience for both journalist and reader.
Sunlight Labs and others have built powerful services that provide elected official information and even make it easy to give feedback at the state and congressional level. Combined with the many different interactive survey tools it should be “easy” to hack this personalized political vision together.
The bottom line is all the individual components exist today, someone just needs to have the courage and resources to pull them all together into one seamless whole.
And that organization will win the election for the best political coverage platform and our undying gratitude for your service to our nation!
Do you know who your government representatives are?
Do you know who to vote for?
Do you participate in the political and governmental process outside of voting?
If you’re like me, the answer to all of the above is, “Not really”. And the media is partly to blame.
Instead of providing people the information and tools they need to easily and intelligently engage in local politics, news organizations are stuck in old paradigms, Political Journalism 1.0 – covering local politics following a paper and TV-based model – which is a debacle for both their finances and society as a whole.
Despite the dysfunction and the billions spent on political advertising, there has been very little discussion about how to comprehensively leverage technology to bring simplicity, transparency and engagement to local politics, which is especially pathetic when there are so many existing models to borrow from.
The first step into the new world is to take off your “story” glasses and try on your “etail,” “social networking,” “fantasy-sports” and other glasses as you think about moving from just covering politics to becoming a platform for civic engagement. This means providing an editorial and technology platform designed to enable participation.
Today, the technology exists to do this – and various organizations and companies have developed individual components – but as of yet no one has built out the entire infrastructure. And whomever does will create an entirely new space and largely obsolete the existing models of political coverage – just as Craig’s List killed newspaper classifieds and YouTube transformed online video.
Transforming Retail Politics into Etail Politics
You need to find a new toaster. Where do you turn? Amazon.com. It’s easy, you type “toaster” in the search box, up comes a list that you can sort by price, brand and features. Need information about the specific toaster, click on the links to read product spec, customer reviews, etc.. Want to compare selected toasters, select the models and see how they stack up side by side.
By contrast you need to figure out who to vote for in your local city council. Where do you turn to? Do a search for your City Council. What pulls up? An individual candidate website. Maybe you can find a list of city council members – but good luck finding your specific representatives and candidates. And if you can find a list, is it easy to compare them based on their specific stands?
No, No and no! In order to solve this, news organizations need to think of voting as a purchase process and apply basic etail and mapping concepts to politics.
Step 1: Find
You need to help people find their representatives and candidates. Most of us don’t know who our local representatives are – and the current story structure doesn’t help us easily figure that out.
Residents should be able to simply enter their address and pull up a list of all their representatives and candidates from their city council to congressional district.
Today there are multiple sites that enable you to enter your zip code and they will provide a list of your congressional and in some case state representatives – but I’ve yet to find a site that lists all your representatives down to the local level. And amazingly, no local media organizations provide this basic functionality, despite the fact that local politics is a core news offering.
If properly integrated, it would even enhance the reading experience and help make stories more relevant, after all, how many times have you wondered which one of the politicians mentioned in a story are your representatives? Wouldn’t it be great if your specific representative’s names were highlighted with a link to that candidate’s engagement page. Or at the very least enable readers to easily find out which is their representative. Step 2: Choose and Engage
It’s election season and as I drive to work, I’m surrounded by a sea of signs, but when I go online and try to figure out who to vote for, there’s a paucity of trustworthy easy to find information. And I certainly can’t easily compare candidates side by side the way I can when selecting a toaster online. The result is frequently clueless, frustrated voters – often either guessing who to vote for, skipping the majority of the races and/or not participating in the elections at all – angry at the media for its haphazard, mostly unhelpful approach to campaign coverage.
If the traditional media is going to stay relevant and regain its standing, it needs to begin providing the same tools people use when shopping online, deciding on where to eat and engaging with each other. That means providing readers the ability to easily:
Compare candidates qualification and positions on key issues. This requires offering both a technology platform and an editorial oversight role to select the key issues for candidates to respond to. A “journalist” should be both identifying issues, e.g. new court ruling will require the school district to redraw school boundaries, and polling residents about what they view as key issues.
Reduce the shouting by limiting the conversation to residents in their specific districts. One of the problems of the Internet era is it’s easy to become the target of a national audience and be overwhelmed by angry voices from outside the district. By requiring address level information to participate, it’s may be possible to reduce the noise from outraged minorities (not necessarily people of color) on the left or the right that often seem to hijack the political conversations.
Encourage participation by enforcing clear rules of engagement designed to maintain civility – as all it takes is a couple of verbal hand grenades to transform the conversation into shouting matches. And I, like many people, find the flames just completely turn me off – and often make me wish for the pre-comment era.
Ask questions and receive answers from politicians. The YouTube debates enabled ordinary people to ask questions and Obama took it the next logical step with his Open for Questions http://www.whitehouse.gov/openforquestions
Vote early and often for candidates. The site www.HotOrNot.com pioneered the ability to vote online – and as simple and as silly it is, it’s addicting. Visible Vote (Now http://www.bythepeople.us/ ) enables you to “vote” on candidates and bills. And this should be a standard for any political site. People should be able to rate and vote on the politician, their stands and their votes – as a way to give people both a voice and engage in the site. There should be weekly polls on the candidates and representatives – and give people the ability to vote on candidates’ positions, ads and everything else.
Campaign online in favor or against candidates. Make it easy for people to share their opinions, create petitions and take action. People post signs in their front yards, why not make it easy to show your support online by providing people easy-to-use tools to show their support on their Facebook pages, blogs and emails.
Personalize political stories. When I read an article, I’m often not sure if it applies to me, or which council person I should care about. In the future there needs to be prompts and linkages that make it easy to determine who in the article is my elected representative and their position on an issue. Traditional story telling isn’t dead – it just needs to be updated to take advantage of new technologies and meet key readers’ needs.
Read reviews from groups and people they trust. Customer reviews are standard on retail shopping sites, but are a little more problematic for reviewing politicians. If I’m a conservative gay Republican I don’t care what straight liberal Democrats think about a politician. I care what other conservative gay Republicans think. Today, sites like REI.com or diapers.com enable you to not only read reviews but select reviews based on what group the reviewer belonged to. After all, I may not trust a journalist to provide me with “unbiased” commentary, but if I belong to the NRA, I’ll trust their candidate ratings.
Until news organizations move from just thinking of themselves as storytellers writing articles to focusing on helping voters more easily and more intelligently participate in the political process, voters will continue to feel confused and disenfranchised, news organizations will become less and less relevant and our democracy will be driven by the few, instead of the many.
I originally wrote this in 2010 and sadly news organizations are still stuck in the same old broken paradigm.
Hats off to the Commercial Appeal for a good solid piece of investigative journalism about how Shelby County General Sessions Court Judges are absent way more than they should be. http://bit.ly/CAJudgeInvestigation
Unfortunately, because they and most other news organizations are still stuck in a primarily narrative story mode, where text-based stories that disappear shortly after creation are the norm, they missed multiple opportunities to transform their work into more useful, usable and longer-lived content.
If the Commercial Appeal and other news organizations are going to succeed on the Web, they’re going to need to move beyond just writing stories to creating information products that maximize both the value of their work to the news organization and their audience.
So what do I mean by that?
So instead of just writing stories, think about the different challenges your audiences face and how if you structured the information differently, you can help them solve those challenges. And secondly, how could you leverage the information to drive ongoing engagement over time.
Below are a few thoughts that came to mind after I read the story.
Learn how the brain works
The brain has three types of memory:
Iconic Memory: Where sights, sounds and other senses are first processed. Information stays in here for less than a second, but our mind is able to identify certain items instantaneously, even before our conscious mind is aware of them, e.g. length, movement, color, etc..
Working Memory: The brains RAM. Unfortunately we humans can only hold small amounts of information in our working memory, e.g. names, dates, etc.. so as we learn new facts, we either forget what we learned previously or we need to move the information into our long term memory.
Long-Term Memory: Where we store our information for later use.
The key takeaway is that our working memory only holds small amounts of information, so we need to design our information products in ways that make it easy for us to absorb and manage the content being presented, i.e. stories are great for communicating themes and conflict, but don’t work so well for delivering lots of facts and figures.
Just think about all the stories you’ve read where you’ve confused the various characters and have to constantly refer to earlier parts of the story to understand who’s who and what’s what.
Just as we no longer rely on just oral communication, we can’t rely on just text in a world with almost infinite design options if you want to maximize your story’s impact.
I highly recommend Stephen Few’s blog for more insights into the human brain and data visualization.
Help me understand my government
First, while the article was chock full of information, I still don’t understand how the different courts are structured or work. There was a paragraph or two buried in the article about the different courts, but since the article was so fact dense, the information was quickly pushed out of my working memory as I tried to absorb other details in the story.
The local court system in Shelby County is incredibly confusing, but there is nowhere you can go that explains how the different courts are structured and compare them with each other. The CA provided some limited explanation of the court structure in the article, but if they had created a table that explained the various courts and provided links to more in depth descriptions, they would have both provided better context – and created evergreen content that would be helpful to anyone who is trying to understand the Shelby County Court system.
While the investigations are great, developing rich base content about the people and institutions that serve us would fill a giant information gap in the market and provide a better foundation for stories like this to build from.
Unfortunately, by not thinking of themselves as a Wikipedia for local government, they missed out on the opportunity to:
Better serve their readers by providing insights into a confusing and opaque system.
Create evergreen/longtail content that will be relevant months and years after it was written.
Deliver a better user experience as the structural details of the various players, processes and systems get lost in traditional storyform.
Just ask yourself, where do you, your friends and family turn to when they have questions about their local government? Is it a local news site? And is it easy for them to find the information they want? Or is there an opportunity for you to fill?
Help me vote
Second, by not structuring the story as part of a larger voter-guide initiative, they lost the opportunity to make it easier for me to make decisions about the upcoming ballot.
The upcoming ballot in Shelby County will be huge – especially with all the various judgeships on the ballot. As someone who’s not involved in the legal community nor closely tied to the local political parties, I don’t have a clue who these people or what their duties.
If the Commercial Appeal created a ballot structure with links to the various articles/information – or that had the information in such a way that I could easily save as part of a voter guide, the stories would go from “Hmmm… this is interesting and potentially outrageous” to “Oh… this is great, they’re creating a comprehensive voter guide that I can easily use to help me make voting decisions.”
Instead I read the article, thought this is bad and I need to save this information for when I vote, then promptly lost the article and got lazy about copying the information to a form that I could use to decide and document my ballot choices. As a result, I may not ever use the information in the article as part of my voting decision-making process because of the additional work required by me to make it usable for me. (Okay, I will but only because I’m a nerd who invested so much time writing about the article.)
Don’t make me work
Stories are great for painting pictures of events and conflict, but they frankly suck for providing detailed minutiae as our brains can only hold so much detail in our working memory. Instead of forcing people to remember a bunch of facts and figures, news organizations need to focus on new ways to help people easily understand both the larger context and the details of who’s doing what – neither of which traditional text-based stories are very good at doing.
So considering how much time is invested in investigative work, in the future news organizations need to think how best to communicate that information to their audiences for their audiences’ benefit – and how best to transform that information into valuable longer-term assets.
Thanks to Joey Brown, Bryan Glazer & Sunlight Labs you’ll be able to soon:
Instantly find and give feedback to your state and federal elected officials all across the United States
Embed the MyRepresentatives feedback button in your site or blog, so whether you’re a news organization, non-profit or advocacy organization, you can make it easy for your audience to get engaged.
The goal is to transform journalism from just presenting information to providing civic engagement tools that make it easy for readers/viewers to take action. After all, isn’t the whole point of journalism to help drive change?
With MyRepresentatives you can embed the MyRepresentatives feedback button on your site, just like you do links to Twitter and Facebook, and you’re done!
Best of all it’s free! The entire site has been developed as an after-hours non-partisan public-service project, but that doesn’t mean we won’t accept donations.
So stay tuned! And feel free to contact us for more details about how you can integrate MyRepresentatives into your site.
I hate to say it but the Old Gray Lady needs a major face lift if it’s going to be welcome in my home again.
We’d been getting the Wall Street Journal for the last few years, until we received a gift subscription to the New York Times so we let our subscription to the Journal lapse. My wife and teenage daughters really enjoyed the Journal’s inviting layout, easy-to-read articles and especially the Market Place, Personal Journal and all the Weekend Extra sections, but I loved the NY Times articles on the Web and was looking forward to receiving the entire paper.
So after three months of the New York Times, our family unanimously agrees, the Times is out and the Wall Street Journal is coming back to our driveway.
While the WSJ still has a focus on business and Wall Street in particular, it didn’t feel like it was written just for Wall Street Insiders. There were articles on politics, international affairs, science, family, education, relationships, etc… that were easy to read and of interest to the family.
On any given day there were always more than a few articles that interested adults and teenagers alike. While the Journal may not have as much written content as the NY Times, the layout was a lot more user friendly for a busy family always on the go. So at the end of the week, you actually learned more even if there was less actual text/content.
The NY Times on the other hand seemed like a big gray mass of text with an overwhelming number of articles and even worse, an intense focus on the New York arts and culture scene, about as a relevant to a Memphian as Memphis city politics are to New Yorkers.
While it featured some great articles, the total amount of text was too much to read and the stories too hard to find. Everything was so buried in a sea of words that even though our family is very internationally focused (One spouse is from Europe. I’m half Argentine. One daughter wants to be a diplomat, etc…) the length of the articles made it difficult to find the time to read.
Instead of being able to quickly ingest an article or two over breakfast before dashing out the door, you needed to plan on setting aside time for a three-course meal to digest articles in the Times. Rather than being an enjoyable Sunday read, going through it was viewed as kind of a chore, and mostly abandoned by everyone except for myself – a former reporter and intense news junkie.
When I was a reporter at the Orange County Register we used to grouse about the travesty of having to write more condensed articles and having our articles chopped to fit the papers easy-to-read design guidelines. After I left and started editing/designing publications, I discovered the importance of design. And now as a busy dad and marketer, I’ve come to appreciate good design even more, which is why one reason why I appreciated the Journal, and why I’m even more surprised that the Times hasn’t focused more on making their content more accessible.
Another part of the problem is the “New York” in the New York Times. While many, daresay most of us, outside of New York embrace the brand for its ongoing history of great journalism – especially its coverage of national and international events – most of us don’t really care about New York, and find the intense parochialism, off putting.
On the Web, it’s less of an issue, as it’s very easy to skip the New York components and dive into the areas of interest, but in the paper form, it’s very distracting. And while we’re all Webheads, nothing beats bringing a good-old fashioned paper to the bathroom or for sharing articles and commentary with family around the breakfast table.
Now that our gift subscription to the Times has run out, we’ve re-upped our subscription to the WSJ and are looking forward to relaxing with the paper instead of working through the paper.
To the Commercial Appeal & other Memphis-area news organizations,
Now is your chance to rise above and help us Shelby County residents better understand some of the momentous choices we are about to make, but it will require moving beyond the traditional reporting and writing of the past to actual analysis & presentation of information.
Us residents of Bartlett, Germantown and Collierville are about to vote on creating new school districts but without having any of the tools required to really understand the impacts of our decisions. And your text-based reporting doesn’t really illustrate or explain what the impacts of the different scenarios really are.
If you and the rest of the news organizations really want to thrive in an interactive world, then it’s time to move beyond just writing and adopt new tools – like GIS/ computerized mapping, which can give us readers the ability to visually see how different options will impact us.
Depending upon how the new municipal school boundaries are drawn, e.g. if they only include students within the municipality, you will have dramatic fluctuations school populations – either increasing or decreasing – and therefore the potential revenue and staff available at the school.
For example, we love Riverdale Elementary, our neighborhood school, but as far as I can tell the majority of the school kids actually come from the Cordova area outside of Germantown city limits. If a new municipal school district was too be launched then my assumption is all the kids from Cordova would be excluded and attendance would plummet. Instead of overcrowding, we’d be faced with empty classrooms and firing teachers.
However, these are all guesstimates as I don’t have the tools to easily calculate the different scenarios. Instead, I get to read articles from different stakeholders sharing general opinions but without really getting insight into the cold hard numbers or what new boundary changes will mean to me.
It’s as if I turned on the TV news to find out the details of a dangerous storm heading our way so I could decide whether my family should take shelter in the closet or not – and instead of a meteorologist giving me detailed visual information about the storm track and intensity, reporters with no meteorological training were interviewing various “experts” about the storm.
“Yes, it’s going to be a dangerous storm,” exclaims expert one.
“Well it shouldn’t really be that bad unless you’re in the impacted areas,” explains expert two.
“There you have it, it will be a stormy night,” explains the reporter.
Meanwhile, what people like me, have come to expect is a trained expert using advanced analysis/visualization tools showing us the intensity and storm track so we can make potentially life or death decisions. (For those of you outside of tornado country, check out this clip of the play-by-play analysis of a severe storm to see what I mean.)
Because I have a GIS background, I could potentially conduct the analysis but that’s what I’m looking to you for as I have a full time job and kids. That’s why I subscribe, or don’t, to the Commercial Appeal or turn to other local news sources.
The reality is that if I want to buy a car, house or furniture, I’m going to look on Craig’s List, but when it comes to understanding what’s going on with my city, county and schools I look to news organizations, but you need to provide me the information I want and need in order for me to shell out my hard-earned money for a subscription.
The good news is that the technology has become much cheaper and easier to learn and use – so someone with some curiosity and basic spreadsheet skills can quickly move from just reporting to analysis.
And if you don’t have the skill sets internally, partner with the university or people like me who do. Whatever you do, don’t continue doing what you’ve been doing and expect different results – your business and your community need you to do better.
It’s hard to believe it’s been sixteen years since that fateful St. Patrick’s Day party at my place in Santa Ana when I hooked up with my wife.
Since my roommate was Vietnamese and I’m an undercover Hispanic we celebrated this Irish holiday in a 100% American way with green fried rice, a Shamrock piñata, Guinness, Irish whiskey and a multicultural and multicolored group of friends.
Not everyone was as enthused about this cultural miscegenation. My roommate’s Irish-American boyfriend just kept muttering between swigs of Irish whisky, “My grandfather must be turning over in his grave,” as we ate our fried rice and took turns whacking the pinata.
But that’s what I love about America. Where else can you celebrate an Irish Catholic holiday with an Asian and Mexican twist? Nowhere! And that’s why where others are dismayed at the sights and sounds of other countries in their own front yards, I see the strength and vitality that will be critical to our success in this global economy.
After all, I’m a cultural mutt. My kids are mutts. My dog’s a mutt. And that’s what makes America great – the mashups of people and cultures that create new versions of old traditions – especially food!
Lets face it the “traditional” American diet is pretty boring. I remember the days when even in LA my mom would have to drive cross town to get fresh raviolis and empanadas. And the concept of eating raw fish with rice and seaweed was virtually unheard of – at least in my household. Instead, being a good Mexican-Argentine-American family we’d have much more traditional food, like bacon, eggs, waffles and beans or steak and beans or beans and empanadas…. you get the picture.
Back then, your choice of bread was white Wonder bread or if you wanted something with a little fiber there was Roman Meal bread in the yellow and orange bag – and that’s it. Now walk into a supermarket in any major city and there’s tofu, tortillas, sushi and Sriracha Sauce next to the Greek yogurt and Gruyere cheese.
Even beyond that, the dirty little secret of our information age is that it’s primarily powered by South Asian immigrants and others from around the globe with the talent, education and drive required to thrive in a code-driven economy.
And where would I be without this global society? Nowhere as I’m a Paucho; the mix of an Argentinian Gaucho and a Mexican-American Pocho.
Worse yet, I’d never have met my French wife and learned about the joys of home-made whipped cream. Growing up I thought it just came out of a can and had no idea just how good it could be! Or how easy it is to make! I’d know nothing of tarts, the joys of cheese or the proper way to eat mussels – that’s with another mussel shell of course!
My kids wouldn’t be bilingual – now working toward trilinguality – and most of all I wouldn’t have my partner, the woman I love, the femme I fight with, the mother of my kids, who watches my back, tells me the things I don’t want to hear, holds me tight when I need a hug – my petite hummingbird who flits from task to task and declares on a daily basis, “I can’t understand why I’m so tired” despite waking at 5:30 a.m., rarely stopping, never sitting, helping cranky kids with homework, planting gardens, cleaning, installing kitchen tiles, cooking home-made meals, dashing to and fro for good deals and kids activities.
And I might not have her in my life if it weren’t for celebrating an Irish saint’s birthday nearly 1,700 years later here in America – home of the free, the brave and the mutts.
It’s time to add socially responsible to the current product-development trifecta of desirable, feasible and viable.
It’s no longer enough to focus on building products that are desirable for customers, feasible to build, and viable for our organizations. We need products that are socially responsible as well.
In a world facing catastrophic climate chaos, growing economic inequality, and battling the twin pandemics of disinformation and disease, we need to explicitly design social responsibility into the product itself.
Unfortunately today, design thinking, lean, and agile — the foundations of modern product development — all fail to include social responsibility as part of their guiding principles and processes.
Ultimately, in order to develop ethical, equitable, and sustainable products, we need to integrate social responsibility into our core product development frameworks, processes, and metrics. This starts with adding a ring for social responsibility to IDEO’s famous Venn diagram.
Simultaneously, we need to embrace diversity, inclusion, and equity as foundational components required to achieve the desired socially responsible outcomes. Without diverse teams — that represent potentially impacted, and traditionally underrepresented, communities, ecosystems and species — we will inevitably overlook key opportunities and consequences resulting from our decisions.
Adding social responsibility while explicitly integrating diversity and inclusion into the most widely shared design construct is a key step toward making them part of every organization’s product development process, as opposed to largely irrelevant afterthoughts.
It’s the right thing to do!
It mitigates the risk and uncovers new opportunities in order to deliver long-term shareholder value.
The link between social responsibility and shareholder value
While many disagree that economist Milton Friedman was wrong to state that a corporation’s only goal was to maximize profit and shareholder value, I agree with him.
My issue with what he wrote is that he failed to define a time frame for delivering shareholder value. Is the corporation and its management responsible for maximizing shareholder value for the next millisecond, minute, day, month, quarter, year, decade, century?
If we assume the goal is to maximize shareholder value for just the next quarter, then we should eliminate all expenditures on product development and just focus on cutting costs and maximizing short-term revenue regardless of long-term risks. Who cares what happens three months from now. However, by focusing on just the short term, we almost guarantee the destruction of shareholder value in the longer term, violating Friedman’s exhortations to focus on shareholder value above all else.
On the flip side, if our goal is to maximize shareholder value over multiple decades, then who cares about what happened in a single quarter or year. In fact, long-term thinking becomes a strategic differentiator as Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of a small trillion-dollar company, Warren Buffet, and other uber-successful executives have demonstrated.
So if our goal is to maximize long-term shareholder value, then it’s critical to integrate social responsibility into our product development framework and ultimately products in order for us to avoid the shortcomings that come with short-term thinking, and reap the benefits of designing with our children’s future in mind.
Four reasons why social responsibility is critical to delivering long-term shareholder value
First, climate-related chaos is accelerating, and therefore the very air, water, and land our economy and society rely on are beginning to fracture. It’s unleashing fires, floods, typhoons, heat, drought, rising seas and threatening our physical ability to deliver the goods and services we sell, dramatically increasing our costs while reducing our income. If we’re needlessly contributing to the crisis, then we’re ultimately destroying our own company’s value.
Second, as anyone who has ever built a product knows, it costs 10, 100, 1,000 or even a million times more to fix issues once they’re discovered in production, with the costs being in direct proportion to either the investment made in the product or the breadth of the product adoption. The dynamics are the same regardless of whether you are building cars, e.g.the Ford Pinto and exploding gas tanks, software, e.g.Facebook & disinformation, or spaceships, e.g. the Challenger disaster.
Third, corporations are a figment of our collective imagination. If we decide that the organization has become more of a nightmare than a dream and no longer delivers the type of value that we as a society desire, then we have the right to regulate, tax, sue, punish, disinvest or dissolve it altogether. On the flip side, if we decide that we like what the organization is doing, they may receive tax breaks, subsidies, increased brand awareness, along with improved pricing power and ultimately higher share prices.
Fourth, making social responsibility a key part of our product development process enables us to not just avoid risks, but to uncover new opportunities we might have overlooked in the past. While I can’t give details just yet, by applying a social responsibility lens to my work I literally uncovered a massive revenue, cost savings and sustainability opportunity in plain sight.
In summary, integrating social responsibility into the design process helps us avoid issues that destroy shareholder value while enabling us to capture new opportunities that maximize shareholder value over the long term.
So what is social responsibility?
Social responsibility, two simple words filled with infinite complexity. Social responsibility is no different from other human concepts like love and shareholder value. Despite the fuzziness, social responsibility is all about designing products in such a way that they minimize the negative impacts while maximizing the positive impact in regards to:
People: Employees, families, customers, suppliers, communities, and any other person impacted by the product/organization. The goal is to improve as many lives as possible while minimizing impacts to those who can least afford the downsides.
Planet: Air, earth, water, and all the ecosystems and species being impacted. Ideally, a product should improve the environment, but at minimum designed in such a way to reduce the impact on the environment, e.g. regenerate, reduce, reuse and recycle.
Prosperity: Employment, wages, generating innovation, paying taxes, wealth creation, etc., so rather than just maximizing corporate profits, maximizing community prosperity.
To sum up, social responsibility requires focusing not just on short-term corporate profits and our immediate customers, but on our long-term sustainability and impact on the broader community.
And like love, there’s the utopian/ideal version of a socially responsible product. Then there’s the messy reality that most of us live in, filled with trade offs and compromises, as we work to achieve better, and vacillate between whether the glass is completely empty, half empty, half full or overflowing with promise.
Examples: Two types of companies
There are two types of companies. Those which are founded with the goal to bring socially responsible products to market, and those who already have products in the market and are looking to be more socially responsible.
The average package shipped today is between 20-40% empty space, which means tremendous amounts of waste and pollution. Packsize, CMC, Paccurate and a variety of other companies now offer rightsizing solutions, which enable their customers to save money and avoid waste, greatly reducing their impact on the environment. In essence they transformed being socially responsible from a “burden” into a boon for their customers and a booming business for themselves.
Patagonia and Lego are two companies that have been around for a long time, since before socially responsible was a corporate buzzword. Each of those companies have integrated social responsibility into every facet of their operations, reducing their environmental impacts while strengthening their brands. Both are growing like crazy. Lego grew 13% in 2020, while Patagonia grew to a nearly billion dollar business in 2019.
So how do we integrate social responsibility into the product development process?
Like any other design challenge!
It requires systems thinking, lots of hard work, bouts of inspiration, arguing, evangelizing, etc. as we work to define how to measure a product’s social responsibility, and what skills, people and processes are required to develop more socially responsible products.
And just like the push to integrate user experience, design thinking, and agile into the product development processes, the road to add social responsibility will not be easy, nor complete for decades.
My goal isn’t to provide a roadmap regarding how to bring all the different players together, but to at least provide an initial framework that people can use to start the conversation and begin their journey toward a more socially responsible product development process and future.
A few suggestions
Ask who, what and where will be impacted
Conduct the lifecycle, market, and user-experience research required to get a better understanding of who the impacted parties will be, i.e., the people, places and species who either potentially benefit or bear the brunt of the impacts of your organization’s actions/inactions, to identify who actually needs to be at the table.
Oftentimes, this will be an iterative process, as you won’t realize who needs to be at the table until you conduct the research. Until you have different voices at the table, you won’t realize what you need to research. Remember there will be no perfect, just better,
Bring diverse voices into the product-development process early on in order to identify both opportunities and issues.
In larger organizations, start by reaching out to the organizations/groups representing sustainability, social responsibility practices and the diversity, inclusion and equity initiatives.
Today, these initiatives/organizations usually reside in separate siloes, far removed from the design and product-development processes. Bringing these two players to the table can potentially give you access to expertise and diverse voices that may be missing from your team.
Also, remember that most of these folks already have full time day jobs, and need to be compensated/rewarded for taking on extra work. It’s not fair to expect them to take on yet more work, because of the company’s failure to invest in hiring more representative staff or expertise in sustainability, etc.
Set the bar high enough so diverse and traditionally underrepresented voices can actually speak and be heard
A cookie with just one or two chocolate chips doesn’t qualify as a chocolate chip cookie. Instead it’s just a lame-ass cookie. Make sure you have enough representatives with enough clout that you’re truly getting a qualified, and diverse set of perspectives.
In order to avoid the lame-ass cookie syndrome, you need enough people with enough status, and an environment that makes it safe for sharing differing perspectives. It’s not enough to have a single woman be the voice for nearly 4 billion people.
Instead, make representation a key metric that management gets rewarded and punished for, otherwise it will just be a nice to have.
Identify where the biggest potential opportunities and risks exist
Gather whatever data/research you can to better understand where the biggest opportunities and risks are. You’ll never have perfect data, but once you have some, you can begin to identify trends and validate hypotheses.
A few key things to look for are:
Underserved communities/segments that you could grow market share in if you offered solutions and messaging that met their needs. Safaricom developed M-Pesa to serve the unbanked in Kenya and other parts of Africa and has turned that into nearly $800M in annual revenue.
Conduct a Pareto analysis to identify where the biggest opportunities for impact are, instead of a more scattershot approach.
Also while everyone talks about the 80/20 rule, what you often see is what I call “hyper-Paretoism,” whereby just the top 1 or even .1% or .01% of whatever drive the majority of the impact. A cursory search shows how this plays out in regards to wealth, homicides in the US, health care costs and business size, so oftentimes it’s better to be laser focused on a small number of targets, than many.
Walmart, is a great example, not only is it 263 times bigger than the smallest Fortune 1,000, it’s 11 million times bigger than the average US sole proprietorship and 13,000 times bigger than the largest small business in the US, so if you can get Walmart to adopt something, the impact may be much greater than 10 million small businesses.
FInd the biggest points of leverage
Oftentimes small upstream changes can have huge downstream impacts. Find the one thing you could change that would drive a domino effect across multiple systems — either negatively or positively — and focus on solving that problem.
As this diagram illustrates, poor packaging practices not only generate a massive negative environmental impact from the creation and disposal of the packaging itself, but also drives a huge amount of waste and environmental impacts from the additional impacts it imposes on the shipping process as well.
Conduct premortems to help identify problems early on in the process
Unlike a postmortem, which comes at the end of a project to analyze what went wrong, a premortem focuses on what could go wrong early on in the project, or with the product. The goal is to identify the potential downsides of something before you introduce it into the market so you can mitigate them prior to launch.
Start off with a focus on eliminating waste, as eliminating waste is generally good for the planet and profits
Eliminating waste usually means saving money, and therefore can be relatively easy to justify. Rather than trying to sell something that has relatively squishy benefits from a finance perspective, you can show how you’re saving the company money, and the company.
Conduct a PEST analysis to understand how consumers, the environment and regulations are changing?
Bottom line, don’t just focus on past industry growth rates and customer desires. Plan for dramatic changes driven by environmental changes, climate-crisis related regulations, and socio-economic adaptations all interacting with each other, e.g. climate change is causing heat waves and droughts which will in turn drive demands for regulations, which in turn will change supply chains, which will change cost structures, which will in turn change consumer behavior, and so on and so forth.
As part of a PEST analysis a few questions to ask are:
What regulations are already on the books, or coming down the pike that may impact you?
How do you fit in a Net Zero Supply Chain, and what changes do you need to make in order to compete in a Net Zero economy?
How will demand and supply chains change as the cost of carbon goes up, and new regulations arise?
As the price of carbon goes up, what new opportunities arise?
Finally, don’t wait, get started!
In summary, in order to deliver long-term shareholder value then we need to create products that maximize the benefits to our broader environment and society, while minimizing the impacts to our most vulnerable people, ecosystems and species.
Once we embrace why we need to deliver socially responsible products, the next step is to define how we execute and measure the results of our efforts, and who needs to be engaged from both a skills and life experience perspective in order to translate the vision into results.
The process will be long and challenging, but failure is not an option your company or our planet can afford. Integrating social responsibility along with diversity, inclusion and equity into our core product development frameworks won’t guarantee success, but at least provides a jumping off point to start the journey. So…what are you waiting for?