Tuesday, July 12, 2011

How the energy world might be able to learn from publishing

 A beautiful book, combining two seemingly irreconcilable ideas--printing and sustainability.  

A few weeks ago, I announced that I would start talking about how the energy world might learn some lessons from the tech startup world.

Well, seeing as I work in publishing, and mainly in the online space--I figure I'll start there.  I spend a fair amount of time reading about and evaluating the massive changes in the industry, while also trying to anticipate further changes and making sure (as a 24 year old could possibly) that our publication comes out on top.  

A lot of the changes are being addressed by tech startups, trying to hack publishing and save (or do the opposite) to the news industry.

I came across a better than usual post today on gigaom regarding "why the chaos in media might be a good thing," mainly citing a recent blog from Clay Shirky.  Shirky went so far as to say that not only is it a good thing, but a necessary one at that.  Chaos fuels the right kinds of innovation--and it allows for competition.  How else might we be forced to discover new ways to report, spread news, and understand the world in which we live?

I agree with him wholeheartedly.  At no point did the insightful NYU professor and theorist say that innovating and sustaining the publishing and specifically news industry would be easy--but he persuasively argued that even what we are doing online is not rapid nor innovative enough.  The revolution has started already (as opposed to happening a few years from now).   The layoffs are real, the ad dollar shifts are real, and the fact that one of the more popular documentary films out in theaters at the moment is about The New York Times--well, it speaks volumes.

One of Shirky's best arguments was against loyalist, niche audience reporting (that's not really news now, is it) and for crowdsourcing events, facts, images, etc through citizen reporting.  Rather than cutting costs by cutting jobs, cutting costs through engaging your readers and citizens who are consuming your publication could be an interesting experiment (and it's already happening--look at all of the hyper local news sites out there, along with sites like Storify that create stories wrapped around social media).

He also wisely says: "None of the models being tried today are universally adoptable; the most we can say is that each of them happens to work somewhere, at least for the moment."  This is where the energy analogue finally hit home for me.  Having worked on the film FUEL, my biggest takeaway from that experience was that there is no one perfect substitution for oil, that which we've depended on and developed for for over 150 years.  Rather, there is a barrel of solutions, changing depending on the location, the need, and the community.  

Just like there is no one solution to saving the news and publishing industry, there's no one obvious turnkey (gosh, I hate this word, but I just keep using it--in real life, not just blogosphere life) solution to replacing oil.

Moving on from Shirky--what struck me about the gigaom post was the following bit:

"In general, Shirky’s point seems to be that innovation and experimentation need to happen before anything becomes clear, and he is undoubtedly right on that score. Unfortunately, as I wrote recently, that kind of startup-style impulse is sorely lacking in most mainstream media entities, who are content to incrementally dip their toes into new media tools and projects without really trying too hard. Why do something radical when you can just put out an app and throw up a paywall?"

Aha, Mathew Ingram, you've got my attention!  It's mainstream and institutional fear that holds publishing back, just like it holds the energy world back.  I've seen it myself.

What if oil companies focused more on innovation and experimentation (indeed they are dependent on a completely non-renewable, limited resource--they should be a little more afraid), and less on lobbying to keep their subsidies and inordinate amounts of power?

I'll admit--I'm a sucker for the Exxon commercials that focus on algae.  But even algae is old news.

I read a piece earlier today on the power of harnessing seawater and using nuclear fusion (yes, fusion!!!) to supply the world's energy demands.  This is the kind of crazy innovation and experimentation the energy world could use.

Maybe, if we as people viewed our dependency on energy as we do our dependency on consuming the news every day, we would have more people working on revolutionizing the industry, akin to that of publishing. 

Now--we just need a Clay Shirky for the energy world.  Anyone want to step up to the plate?