Sustainable? Profitable? Actionable?

Jeff Jarvis recently raised some very interesting questions about the future of “networked journalism” and “sustainability/profitability.” If you’re reading this blog you probably already know about our first and second ventures.

The first warning I’ll make is that, if you don’t know me, I’m an unrequited idealist. Which is not to say I’m an optimist, and certainly not much of an economist. However, I will say this. There is a difference between profitability and sustainability. At least in the short term. In the short term, you don’t have to be in the black to be sustainable, as long as you’re not in the red.

Now I’m an idealist, but I’m also a cynic. I doubt the problem with Jeff’s entrepreneurial students is the lack of pressure to earn so much as the lack of “something to lose.” Why has Alive in Baghdad been immensely successful and survived on a shoestring budget, while producing high-quality documentary shorts every week for a year, yet it is far from profitable? And why can’t CNN do it?

I would argue it is a non-quantifiable combination of idealism, desire, patience, practice, and nothing to lose. I would also argue that this is part of why our Mexico project is not moving as fast as we’d like. I also have an easier time understanding the cultural nuances of the Middle East, I’m still getting my Mexican education.

Now Jeff, understandably, thinks capitalism might be the answer, as does this commenter, and this one.

I just think that most people in the privileged world aren’t thinking about the human problem, nor do they think the poor and un/under/less-privileged, in America or Africa, can take care of themselves. We’re producing Alive in Baghdad for a lot of reasons, one of which is because we can, and another of which is because we have to.

Of course, because we can, is the part of the why that depends on sustainability. We’re working on ad models and ideas about licensing material, as well as parallel funding opportunities, but more about that later. Let’s just say that while things are rough now, we have good ideas on the table. We have to be sustainable, because we want to continue, and we want to keep helping people around the world who have historically not had access to the international media. We want to take RSS, ADSL, and CCD and CMOS chips and do something revolutionary with them. Web 2.0 is not a revolution, it is a tool, one of many, which can either be used for profit and individual benefit, or for mutual understanding and the collective progress of humanity.

Last but not least, I mentioned the word “Actionable” in the subject line. What I mean by that is another thing that flies in the face of the idea that “innovation” is only possible with profitability. Yet another reason that Alive in Baghdad exists is that, despite all the reasons not to do it, and the risks and lack of apparent profitability, there was an opportunity and I acted.

I personally believe that there will be more innovation if there is more action, which is why I’m an idealist. But I’m American, and I know Americans, which is why I think its unlikely there will be much more action in the future, and also what keeps me from being an optimist.

OK, really lastly: Without profits, there would be no such thing as journalism. Excuse me???

Jeff, correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t profitability a post-mid-20th century ideal of journalism?

Alive in Baghdad, Alive in Mexico, Blog

3 Responses to “Sustainable? Profitable? Actionable?”

  1. Jeff Jarvis says:

    If people can’t afford to do journalism, many of them will sell tires. The more people who can afford to do journalism, the more will. We need to support them. Profit is not bad. It’s about eating, no?

  2. Brian says:

    Sure Jeff, but profit is different than sustainability IN THE SHORT TERM. Profit means you are making more than your costs, and desiring a profit to often has resulted in lowest common denominator journalism.

    There has to be more too it than profit, it has to be seen as a service. It is much easier to make journalism sustainable when you utilize wealth disparities due to globalization. It’s not to say you should take advantage of those in developing countries, but that they are desperate for the chance to show the world about their country, and can afford to work for much less than American or West European staff on long leaves from home and family.

    I would charge that journalism has never been profitable, and was started initially not altruistically to assist the human condition, but by wealthy playboys wanting to manipulate power and present their own face on world events.

    We do have to afford to do journalism, but that doesn’t mean catering to the stories that advertisers want, it also means the audience has to demand better news.

  3. “Just because you have a camera, or a blog, or a vlog, doesn’t make you interesting. Just giving someone the money and space to innovate, doesn’t mean they will.”

    The point you make above is, of course, totally valid. But I look back to the time when Desktop Publishing technology started spreading and Photoshop 1.0 was released. The tools empowered people who never before would have been able to produce their own printed publications.

    Many of the flyers, newsletters and brochures which resulted were, inevitably, absolute rubbish.

    But the toolset also allowed the emergence of a new generation of graphic designers whose work now sets standards, wins prizes and is a self-evident part of our visual environment.

    My feeling is that the same kind of possibilities will be exploited now that the cost of entry for video reporting/storytelling is so low.

    Good to discover AiB!

    Malcolm in Abu Dhabi

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