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.
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 namedAdrian
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
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.