Gaining insights from the little things

Through this video, I learned about The Myth of Innovation, by Scott Berkun, so I bought the book.

The first chapter is about the myth of the epiphany. It’s a subject covered in the video, and I’m only half way through the chapter, but the theme started me thinking about epiphanies I’ve had over the years. I’m going to share them because I think they both show the importance of epiphanies and how none are all that big, but might also demonstrate how small insights can lead to important business model changes.

  • When I first joined the online world, I signed up for SPJ-L, then moderated by Jack Lail. Jack constantly struggled to keep the list on target. From that experience, I learned how important it was to manage virtual communities and guide members toward mutual respect and staying on topic for the sake of a healthy community. But the main thing I learned, as I did from Steve Outing‘s Online-News, is how powerful a community could be that is organized around a passionately shared interest.
  • When I created RV-Talk for AGI (essentially the seeds of my later business,, I learned that shared passion wasn’t limited to a certain net-friendly demographic. The average age of in 1997 was 55. I learned it was more about people with a shared interest than it was technology.
  • When I became serious about blogging in 2002, it seemed obvious early on that what made us all smarter wasn’t the Big-J news story, but the conversation that went on around the story — all of the smart, informed, experienced people who could extend the story with their expertise. From there, it wasn’t big leap to buy into Dan Gillmor’s “journalism as a conversation.”
  • When Hollywood came to Ventura to shoot Swordfish, we decided to buy a bunch of disposable cameras (digital cameras were still rarely owned) and hand them out to movie fans. The resulting slide shows were quite popular. I realized then that something that would later become known as UGC had a place in journalism. This realization would be confirmed again after the advent of digital cameras when there was a large fire in Ventura County, a flood in Ventura County and our use of Buzznet for photo sharing.
  • One day in early 2004, right after I became director of the Star’s web site, I was running various web site traffic reports. I noticed that there were two big spikes and a couple of small, but noticeably more pronounced, dips in traffic. The spikes were two big local stories, and the dips coincided with the dates of large national stories (one was the invasion of Iraq, which we covered heavily on the web, including using blogs). It was then that I realized that local newspaper web sites had no brand for national news. When the big stories hit, people go to CNN or NYT or WaPo, but not 100K newspaper sites, even local people. From that lesson, I devised the strategy of pushing down generic AP stories and promoting regular updates of local news. At the time, it was pretty much an unheard of strategy for the average
  • Also in 2004, we introduced comments on stories on At the time, no newspaper sites I knew of had comments on stories — though it had been tried before. In an effort to “just get it done,” I supplied an online editor with some JavaScript from HaloScan and we launched comments. Within a few days, we had some great comments on stories about the mother of a murder suspect and a tiger prowling Simi Valley. The comments extended the story and helped make us all better informed. This truly was “journalism as a conversation.” This was the real power of participation. Of course, we would also soon discover the dark side of an open commenting system (racial idiots spewing hate, for example), but that reminded me of the value of community controls, which helped create the system now in place on (the primary reason I moved to Bakersfield was to launch a true community site welded to a newspaper site).
  • Discovering Clayton Christensen and his ideas behind disruption and innovation greatly influenced much of my approach to just try things, get things launched, don’t wait around for the perfect moment to do the perfect thing. This was a radical change of attitude for me, and one that took me a year to really embrace.
  • Two books read closely together welled up into an epiphany about how people use the web. First was The Search by John Battelle, and the second was Don’t Make Me Think, by Steve Krug. Everything I’ve been involved with related to design since has been informed by the ideas of the “intention-driven web” and keeping navigation simple and obvious.
  • The first-time that I saw the Numa Numa Dance, and knew that millions of people had already watched it, I realized that broadband penetration was sufficient to make video an important strategic consideration. It seems quint now, doesn’t it?
  • The first time I watched a video from an online producer for a newspaper (Anthony Placencia, for, and I sat there thinking, “this is no good because it’s not like TV,” and then the gentle, slowly set up moment of a boat’s keel touching the water, and really giving the story its gentle climatic moment, I realized, “web video SHOULD NOT be like TV.” The video was far more powerful than anything I could imagine a TV producer putting together.
  • When we started rolling out video in the VCS newsroom and reporters became more engaged in the web site than they had been before, I realized video was the gateway drug for journalists that we needed to care about keeping our web site updated. Everybody loves video and the idea of producing video themselves, because we all grew up with it.
  • When Jack Lail first shared with me Random This and the power of the Sony Cybershot, I realized that video need not be overly produced to be highly effective.
  • After I arrived in Bakersfield and started supplying those same Sony Cybershots to reporters and the feedback from the news room was, “these are great because they’re not bulky like camcorders” I saw the path toward getting reporters involved in video.

Everything else I’ve done in the past 24 months or so have really been epilogue. They’ve been about coalescing and refining these insights.

Maybe Mr. Berkun wouldn’t consider those moments epiphanies, but they were all moments in my career that shape my strategic thinking today.

Here’s a suggestion for other media bloggers: Post your own string of epiphanies and how they’ve shaped your current media thinking.

7 thoughts on “Gaining insights from the little things

  1. Huzzah, Kudos and all that, Howard!
    I am still trying to get my Wah-Wah-pedal to not squeak. (Lithium grease does the trick, BTW)

    Well deserved. Geesh I was on message boards back when the admin had to answer the phone and place it in the modem cradle! Go us!

    Seriously thoogh – the key to any new thining is built on alot of small talk and many small steps.

    Google’s CIO says they value and invest in building a culture or iterative experimentation. The culture that built Google is an anathema in most top-down newsrooms. They value diversity – what a concept!

  2. My latest epiphany: A colleague and I were driving down Interstate 405 between Kirkland and Bellevue, Wash.. We had our Clearwire modem fired up and were uploading video to YouTube.

    At 75 mph.

  3. Well, first Andy diverts me to wonder what the video was showing and whether he’s the cause of the push for a tiered Internet pay system. ;-)

    Second, regarding your statement, “Also in 2004, we introduced comments on stories on At the time, no newspaper sites I knew of had comments on stories — though it had been tried before.”

    You’re not alone in not recognizing / remembering / knowing about the family of Zwire sites that have been around since 1997. Since that time I believe all their stories have had comments. An example, the Grand Coulee Star.

    They are used, though the tiny comment button at the bottom is likely a limiting factor.

    The Star btw was my first job out of college in 96, so I know what they had.

  4. […] Call us the power trio of techno reporting. Ron, Kamal and Rod. I’m Ron Sylvester, legal affairs reporter for The Wichita Eagle, and we hope this blog will make the transition to a web-based journalism world a little less daunting. A few days ago media blogger Howard Owens posted some “epiphanies” that shaped his current thinking.  He challenged other media bloggers to do the same.  Here are mine: In the early 1990s, I started to use the Internet to replace calls to the library to do basic research.  I found I could email stories to my editor, although at that time at the newspaper I worked for in Missouri, we had one computer capable of getting email.  I found a couple of early social networking sites called “community bulletin boards” and was able to reconnect with some old friends. Within six years, I’d heard people talking about computer assisted reporting, and I loved the potential timesavings, looking through thousands of records on a computer.  Wow!  It took about two hours for the slow computer I had to load in a database and run the first query.  I hit “enter” and took a long lunch. By 1998, I’d gotten rolling on projects.  I produced a restaurant inspection project, as many other papers had.  When I get started on learning a new skill set, I rarely break new ground, preferring to go with the tried and true, until I get more comfortable.  That’s what I did here. The next year, however, I did try something different.  I learned the EPA was requiring drinking water suppliers to inform their customers about the qualities of their drinking water.  We had some 300 suppliers in our area.  I obtained the statewide database and, with the help of someone who knew more about computers in marketing, created a lookup table on our newspaper’s relatively new web site where people could type in their zip codes and get their drinking water report. That project caught the attention of The Wichita Eagle, which hired me for an opening covering courts. Since then, I’ve filed live from the courtroom of several high profile murder trials, including the BTK plea and sentencing, arming myself with a smart phone and a foldaway keyboard.  I blogged about my surreal experience during the plea and sentencing of the BTK serial killer.  Almost a year ago, I began seriously learning audio and video. Then in the spring, I started blogging about my personal experiences at a blog I called Multimedia Reporter. I began doing this at the encouragement of Katie Lohrenz, our online content developer and my new media spiritual adviser, and Mindy McAdams, whose blog everyone interested in the on-line journalism world ought to have in their reader. Then I got a call from Christine Tatum, who asked me if I’d like to move the blog. And the power trio formed. Published Monday, September 03, 2007 3:19 PM by RonSylvester […]

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