What news organizations can learn from MTV

An article from the most recent issue of Fast Company, MTV’s Digital Makeover, featured several important lessons for mainstream news organizations.

MTV, which had a nice business providing cable programming for two decades, has been disrupted by the new digital ecosystem just like everyone else. In response it is launching “dozens of new initiatives” to find audience and revenue online as traditional revenues and viewership declines.

If it sounds like MTV is basically spreading bets around the casino to see what hits, that’s not too far off the mark. “The culture MTV grew up in — short form, experimental — translates well to digital,” says (Van) Toffler (who helped develop Jackass and Beavis and Butt-Head). “The great thing about growing up in cable as opposed to movies is that in movies, if you fail, you fail big. Our history is littered with shows that didn’t work, and you probably couldn’t name any of them. You have to take risks.”

TAKE RISKS: While MTV’s culture is naturally more inclined to risk-taking than a newspaper or local TV station, news orgs must get out of the bunker and start pushing out of their comfort zones if they hope to innovate their way into digital viability.

MTV now runs about 50 such vertical sites. The model is to take an idea and run with it using off-the-shelf Web 2.0 technology, then either promote or cut the resulting sites depending on how they fare. The cost of entry is low: Programming vice president Gaurav Misra’s team develops verticals in less than six weeks’ time for less than $50,000, in part by outsourcing programming to Russia, Argentina, Israel, and India. Says Toffler’s boss, MTV Networks CEO Judy McGrath: “We don’t always have to swing for the fences.”

EXECUTE: Newspapers and other news outlets are full of bright people with good ideas. The problem is how difficult it can be for a new idea to see the light of day. Institutional inertia and bureaucracy keep good ideas hemmed in. The perfect is often the enemy of the good. But as MTV is demonstrating, a more experimental strategy is needed today. Try it. If it fails, pull the plug or reassess and devote more resources to it and make it work.

In Tacoma, we called this a “Pilot Project.” And that little semantic nuance allowed at least a few projects to get launched that otherwise would have remained only an idea.

And if you don’t have $50,000 and six weeks for a project, don’t worry. With open source technology and an enterprising developer, you can launch projects on a smaller scale with the same model.

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