I had a chance to catch up with serial Web entrepreneur Ben Huh recently in Portland.
Huh has built an empire by launching a series of off-beat sites that capture some of the folly and humor in life. He first launched “I Can Has Cheezburger?” and his later ventures led to the creation of the Cheezburger network.
I asked Huh about The Moby Dick Project – his effort to help spur innovation of the journalism industry (a business that struggles with those concepts). Huh is one of the speakers and judges of a journalism “hackathon” this weekend at Adobe’s Seattle offices. The Hacking Seattle News weekend (#HackingNews) is one of a handful of such sessions being held across the country and will award a $10,000 prize to the winning team.
I decided to do this blog post in a Topic/Answer format, allowing Huh to speak for himself – which he does very well.
Who is this guy?
We run some well-known humor Websites: I Can Has Cheezburger?, FAIL Blog, The Daily What, Know Your Meme, MemeBase. We’re based out of Seattle and specialize in user-generated and Internet culture humor.
FAIL Blog is one of the key reasons people say “fail” (#fail). It started in 2008 and it was a collection of things about the human error; the mistakes we make, the failures we go through, and to laugh it through.
Huh’s venture to reinvent journalism
“It’s called the Moby Dick Project. You can find out more by following us on Twitter, @MobyDickProject.
The key thesis is news curation and presentation has been done the same way since the Civil War: articles, headlines, home pages. What if we invented journalism today? What if we didn’t have all the baggage of articles, the inverted pyramid … what if we just re-imagined news in the age of social media, digital distribution, and how people consume news? What would that look like and how could we build stuff that supports it, that’s open-source, that anybody can use.
We ran a workshop at Stanford a few months ago and brought in about 80 people to rethink this idea of journalism and how to make it work in the digital world. We’re actually going through the process of creating hackathons (about four different cities total). The idea is to actually build a prototype and to use the prototype as a way to increase awareness and raising support for the program.”
A journalist who became an entrepreneur
“I have a background in journalism, a degree in journalism from Northwestern, the Medill School of Journalism, and spend some time in the media world. In that role, the ONA (Online News Association) asked me to come and speak and give a keynote in Boston and I just happened to also have this project, so it was a good coincidence. …
At the keynote in Boston, it was very, very clear that the digital world has made the journalists think twice about how their job evolves and I think they’re past the stage of fear and getting to stage of acceptance: This is going to happen whether we like it or not. What they haven’t figured out is, we need to change our perception of our job, perception of our technology, how we view our readership. All that needs to change before we can really be truly successful; that has not yet occurred.”
Where is the innovation in journalism?
“My personal opinion is that things in the news industry haven’t gotten bad enough where people will truly think of innovative ideas. The disruption really hasn’t been that bad; it’s been gradual enough. It’s been bad, but it hasn’t been catastrophic and I don’t want to see that. I don’t want it to get to catastrophic. I don’t want to see people start jumping ship. I think the industry has been really focused on cutting costs, instead of trying to build a product that’s better for everybody.
I think that providing news of value to small groups of people in more efficient ways is one of the future paths of journalism. The decimation in the last three years of journalism has come from what I call “repeatable news,” things people publish because everybody else publishes it and that has very little value. Only the winners get the majority of that traffic. So, if you’re writing about the same thing everybody else is, you’re actually declaring to your audience, “I really don’t have anything else to tell you.” We, as consumers, want more uniqueness; we want more diversity; we want more analysis; we want more opinion. We are not getting that, and that’s a big problem.”
Looking ahead: What happens to journalism …
If it doesn’t adapt: “I think you are going to see more accidental entrepreneurs who will gain followers. Boing Boing is one of those examples where they were covering things that other people weren’t; that’s how they grew. It’s the uniqueness that adds value.”
If pay walls aren’t the answer: “The jury is definitely still out on the pay wall. I think the New York Times, despite all the flak they’ve gotten, have done a decent job of making the pay wall work for themselves. The problem with a pay wall is that a lot of people believe that is the answer to their problems. I have to say, having run a business, every business is unique, and if you’re just going to implement someone else’s solution, you might as well print somebody else’s story. It’s the same response to the same problem we’ve been having all along.”
Ben Huh’s post on blog about the Moby Dick Project: Why Are We Still Consuming News Like It’s 1899?
Online News Association 2011 recap: Ben Huh’s Friday Night Keynote at ONA 11 in Boston
Jay Rosen’s blog post about the Stanford Moby Dick Project session: The three different kinds of context we’re missing in the news system as it stands