When we bought a Dyson vacuum a number of years ago, it came with a user’s manual as well as a brief history lesson on how Dysons came to be. One of the things that stuck with me was that James Dyson had pitched his design to several major players in the vacuum world, only to be rejected.
When he finally broke through on his own, one of the vacuum executives noted that his company should have just bought the patented design and dismantled the damned thing. In other words, something that worked well had become a headache because it would force other people in the business to think differently.
Journalism and vacuums have very little in common, other than the fact that they both suck. However, when it comes to this bit of news, it’s clear the owners of these businesses have a lot more in common than that.
EveryBlock, the brainchild of a journalism grad named Adrian Holovaty, grew from an idea of layering data into a searchable, map-based mash-up. Holovaty’s earlier project, chicagocrime.org, used police and crime data to show people how certain areas stacked up in terms of police calls, fire calls and more. The upgraded approach that earned EveryBlock a $1.1million Knight grant took this a step further, augmenting the site with links that showed people news stories associated with their neighborhood, issues pertaining to their area and so forth.
The merits of EveryBlock are, as everything is, up for debate. I had heard from people I knew in the company that the data wasn’t always as perfect as it could be or that some of the details tended to get glossed over in the rush to keep growing the product. However, whatever shortcomings were attached to the project, Holovaty clearly tapped a nerve that needed tapping. As giant metro newspapers had struggled, often outstripping their usefulness, Holovaty went small, believing there was value in each flake of gold and that if he piled enough of them together, a richness would emerge. Whether it was going to be the “next big thing” or not, we’ll never know.
That said, the most depressing commentary on the issue, and the most telling as well, comes from this piece on Poynter, which quotes Senior VP Vivian Schiller:
I asked Schiller about the questions many are raising online — why not turn over EveryBlock to another operator or give supporters a chance to keep it going? She answered: “I understand that the Everyblock community is disappointed. So are we. We looked at various options to keep this going, but none of them were viable. It was a tough call to make.”
The answer underlying this is pretty easy to see: we couldn’t make money on the deal using our traditional media model/lizard brain approach to money making, so we’re killing this thing. Sure, we could hand it over or sell it or something, but if we did that and someone ELSE figured out a way to make money, we’d look like the bunch of idiots we probably are.
Could Holovaty (or someone like him) have pulled off a Steve-Jobs-Rides-Back-To-Apple-And-Saves-Its-Ass move with EveryBlock? I don’t know, but it was probably worth the try.
Could NBC have tried to think outside of its “MUST CAN HAZ IMMEEEDEEATE CASH” model and tried to learn something? Probably not without a lobotomy and a few high colonics in the ol’ C-Suite.
Might this thing have died on its own somewhere along the way anyway? Anything is possible. Even the best, most perfectly, bulletproof products for a time (read: NetScape) make a sharp, ugly turn and die.
The point is we’re never going to know the answer to these things because when a major entity is faced with something that might be good and that forces them to think, their first and only answer seems to be: “buy it and dismantle the damned thing.”
And that’s a big loss for all of us.