There was a time when media was the new hotness — when Marc Andreesson released a stream of tweets extolling the vast potential of the journalism industry, when newly minted Stanford MBAs chose a Buzzfeed clone over the stability of a corporate job. That time was about a year ago.
Since then, the sudden fall of well-loved online publications such as Gigaom and The Bold Italic has once again dampened some of the enthusiasm about the glittering digital future of news. It’s against this more somber backdrop that the Seattle-based, soon-to-be husband-and-wife team Berit Anderson and Brett Horvath this week launched a Kickstarter campaign for their new journalism venture, Scout. They’re seeking to raise $30,000 to cover the costs of producing their first issue, and so far have accumulated more than $20,000 in pledges.
In some ways, their pitch video seems to come straight out of the public media playbook. “We’re raising this money because we want to keep our coverage independent, hard-hitting, and provocative,” an earnest Anderson tells the camera. “We want to bring you visionary writers and people who aren’t afraid to speak truth to power.”
That’s a movie I’ve seen before. As an editor, I rode along for the rise and demise of the once-promising Bay Citizen, a San Francisco journalism startup that went from billionaire-backed industry darling with a New York Times partnership to takeover target in two years. Before that, I poured sweat equity into KALW News, the innovative public radio team founded by Holly Kernan, now executive news editor for KQED. KALW has been turning out awesome work and piling up awards for a decade, but its audience has remained relatively small and financial success has been elusive. After seven years in the nonprofit journalism game, I went to business school and am now leading a product development team at Amazon.
So what convinced me to fork over $75 to become a “Super Scout”? Lord knows it’s not because the world needs another journalism startup. And it’s not just because (disclosure) Anderson and Horvath are friends of mine, although they are lovely people with plenty of talent and gumption.
Scout is different from other journalism ventures in a few key ways. It describes itself as a “news site covering the intersection of tech, economics, and morality using near-term sci-fi and reporting.” Its editorial model — focusing on one big issue at a time — is more Lapham’s Quarterly than NYT Now. The inclusion of morality in the mix of high-level topics is a provocative choice, about which I have my questions.
Like any startup worth its launch video, Scout will undoubtedly modify elements of its approach as it learns and grows. But what makes this venture special in my mind is its use of fiction in service of journalism.
Fiction is truth unconstrained by fact. This is especially the case with science fiction, which has the ability to expand our understanding of the world by removing the guardrails of factual accuracy: replacing what is with “what if?”
Layering meaning and understanding on the complex, world-changing developments happening around us — that’s what good journalism is all about, and I’m excited about science fiction’s prospects for helping advance that goal. Come to think of it, it’s frankly a little odd that this powerful storytelling medium has not yet been incorporated into the journalistic toolkit.
In its FAQs, Scout’s Kickstarter page anticipates that readers will ask, “Isn’t science fiction, well, fiction?” The answer: “We believe that science fiction will help our readers imagine the impacts and implications of current and future technologies. … Including science fiction as a separate but equal part of our coverage allows us to help you imagine what could be without tainting solid, investigative journalism with unfounded speculation.”
Scout will face familiar challenges in making the economics of a membership-only model work, and may refine its methods over time. For now, I’m enthusiastic about its credo that by “collectively imagining the future,” we can “anticipate how society and technology will shape one another” and “choose the future we want, rather than letting the future happen to us.”