Ignite the imagination: UMKC’s Digital Sandbox, the Next Big Thing and Kansas City media

Screen Shot 2013-02-02 at 10.29.18 AMFriday’s announcement that UMKC will be leading efforts to create a start-up incubator in Kansas City called the Digital Sandbox should get the attention of forward-thinking media folks.

The Digital Sandbox, a $1 million public-private initiative that is being backed by some of KC’s biggest companies, calls for the development of high-tech start-ups in the Kansas City area. It’s goal is to find “the next big thing,” and it’s part of a renaissance playing out in Kansas City, home of Google Fiber and capital of the Silicon Prairie.

Civic leaders are saying the time is now for Kansas City to become a leader in digital entrepreneurship – the Chamber of Commerce’s Big 5 initiative calls for the area to become the country’s most entrepreneurial city – and, in fact, it already has.

As for the Digital Sandbox, it’s targeting companies specializing in data center and cloud operations, data analytics, mobile applications and data security, the Kansas City Business Journal reported.

If this is indeed the time that KC makes a play for cement its role as a hub for digital entrepreneurship, then it’s also time for local media to follow suit. It’s time to say the status quo won’t do anymore. It’s time to stop looking for limitations and reasons not to try to something crazy, unique and exciting.

Ignite the imagination

“Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans. Aim high in hope and work.”

That’s Daniel Burnham, whose plan for Chicago resulted in iconic architecture, grand parks and a sensible grid street system. I Googled it to make sure I got it right, and came across a Machiavelli quote: “Make no small plans for they have no power to stir the soul.”

Add KC entrepreneur Mike Farmer to the list of quotables. He told the AP Kansas City’s start-up culture “ignites the imagination about what you can do with that sort of bandwidth capability.”

Let’s turn that on its head and think of how Kansas City’s media organizations can ignite the imagination, giving a growing number of hi-tech readers, viewers and listeners a reason to tune in.

Let’s get nerdy

Look at the media landscape: four TV stations with comparable websites and competitive broadcasts, an alt-weekly doing what it can to survive in a world that’s been cruel to alt-weeklies, and a daily newspaper that is seeking to give readers incentive to pay for its product online. And any number of blogs that cover just about everything under the sun.

And today we live in a world dominated by apps. And data. And maps. And data fed into apps fed into maps. And it seems nobody’s tried to take all these tech tools and hit one out of the park. At least not in KC.

Let’s use that kind of data- and app-driven mindset to ignite the imagination, to expand the definition of what online news can be.

Let’s do that by hiring developers on top of developers to hack civic data, and allow citizens to visualize their governments at work because public information should be accessible to the public (for free!). Let’s put their skills to work to reimagine storytelling (see Patient Zero, the New York Times’ Snow Fall). Let’s file FOIA requests for everything and keep a database of everything we get and learn.

Let’s build games that will keep our audience on our site. What’s the Angry Birds of Kansas City?

Let’s foster an enterprising spirit among our staff, and partner with news entrepreneurs who are trying to fill voids in the community. Let’s encourage creativity.

Let’s get a bunch of nerdy interns and turn them loose. Let’s make Kansas City the nation’s biggest and best news app incubator.

Let’s seek out new ways to solicit feedback from readers and take action to make sure we’re meeting their expectations, winning back trust that may have eroded over the years. They might even have some good ideas.

Let’s find our own Charlie LeDuff. Let’s have some attitude.

Let’s make apps. Lots and lots of apps. And not just for smart phones. Let’s make apps for game day. For cooking. For making a smarter voter. For you and for me and for everyone. Because without that personalized experience, local news is just another Twitter handle, another Facebook post to skip over without driving people to your website.

Kansas City is redefining itself. The status quo wasn’t working. That’s why downtown was neglected for years. That’s why news organizations compete with cat gifs, Facebook and Angry Birds for a fractured and fragmented audience. That’s why news organizations need to participate in this new Digital Sandbox.

Yeah, it takes an investment. And some ideas – like in everything – won’t work. And some will be great success stories. But The Next Big Thing will never happen if nobody tries.

As former New York Times sports editor Joe Sexton said, in what has become my new favorite quote, “Ain’t no room for cowards in journalism at this moment in time.”

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One comment

  1. Pingback: Thank you, and goodbye | MediaKC

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