When I first heard about Trinity Mirror's Us vs th3m, I rolled my eyes. Did the UK really need another Buzzfeed clone? Were our publishers incapable of innovating rather than jumping on yet another bandwagon?
It took a talk by one of the key personnel - Tom Phillips - to change my mind. He characterised the launch of the site as a skunkworks - an agile, but ultimately disposable, attempt to gather learning that the business could apply elsewhere, and an attempt to capture an audience that was drifting away from its traditional products.
The second iteration of this skunkworks experiment is now underway, under the guidance of Martin Belam. It's an attempt to create a data journalism site that attracts viral sharing - and it rejoices in the name ammp3d - although it's operating as a Mirror sub-brand, rather than an entirely independent entity. Some of the pre-launch workshops were exciting enough that I lost a chunk of my Interactive Journalilsm MA students from the second half of a lecture because they wanted to attend (and at least one of them is now writing for it).
An agile team
Neil Perkin thinks the way the team is structured is noteworthy:
I also particularly liked the blurring of lines between functions in the team. The publishing industry, says Martin, tends to silo people into editorial, pictures and graphics people, and technology people. Instead, they have a lean team of five where everybody to a greater or lesser extent can do words, pictures and code.
It is interesting - but it's not quite as innovative as you might think - it's certainly the way a lot of smaller pure online sites work already, and it has its roots in really small mags, where an element of that was necessary.
Victory conditions for innovation
I tend to think that the most interesting thing about the project is its three months of funding. Some people have characterised this as a lack of commitment to the projects, but Martin spins it - successfully I think - as a positive thing:
I think it shows exactly the opposite. I think it shows a real commitment to making something work. It self-selects the people who are willing to join the project as risk-takers who have a real stake in the success of the project, and it stops us just drifting aimlessly for months on end because we don't have a target date to be considered viable. And why would I commit to doing anything for longer than we need to find out if it is a success or not?
To give some context here, one of my regrets from my corporate days is that I didn't fight harder for victory/defeat conditions on more of the projects I was involved with. Too many of them were hand-waving "let's give this a go and see if anything comes of it" type projects. I think too many publishers at the time were enamoured of Google-style innovation coming from 20% time, and weren't taking the manifold threats to their business seriously enough.
No time for hobbyists
The very structure of traditional media companies demand that you have some sort of success or failure condition in place, otherwise there's no existing corporate way to get the money and attention you need to continue to grow what's evidently a success - or to stop a failure being a resource drain. And, as Martin suggests, putting those sorts of parameters around a project gets people to take it more seriously.
We have to stop treating innovation in publishing as a hobby, and give it a serious business focus. Kudos to Malcolm Coles at Trinity Mirror for doing exactly that.