Tuesday, April 7, 2009 | Bill Stensrud used the word “create” quite often when I sat down to talk with him recently.
It must just be part of his breath by now. For the last couple of decades, Stensrud has been creating things. He knows what it means to build innovative organizations — ones that end up solving problems their founders didn’t even know existed when they began their effort. The companies he helped create were instrumental, in fact, in building the internet’s “nuts and bolts and infrastructure,” as he calls it.
Stensrud says it is no quirk of fate that he is now on the board of directors of voiceofsandiego.org, this online news venture that was made possible by those nuts and bolts. He’s anxious to see how the internet will continue to change our lives and he thinks that from a perch at voiceofsandiego.org, he might get as close of a view as possible.
The board of directors oversees our operations. Its members don’t decide what stories to pursue or ever really know what stories we are pursuing, but they do make sure we spend money properly and that the organization is hewing the mission it was founded to pursue. And most importantly, the board helps provide us with the resources we need.
The word resource is often used as a substitute for money — a polite way to discuss what some might consider a base need. But it’s more than that. Our board is charged with helping us think about what we don’t know — building a strategy for the future and analyzing feedback about the past. And each one of our board members has been crucial to our success as they draw on decades of their own experience in technology, business, media and management.
So Stensrud is now helping build a news-gathering enterprise his previous work in some ways made possible. Stensrud was a founder of StrataCom — a company that had developed technology crucial to linking computers together across a “wide area network.” Wide area networks were what made it possible for people to share data between their computers even if they were no where near each other. Stensrud went on to help start a variety of other technology ventures and now he has landed on his latest effort: InstantEncore.com — a website for classical music that is trying to do for that genre what MySpace has done for emerging pop musicians.
He is a lover of the arts and has been deeply involved in making them strong in San Diego. So voiceofsandiego.org readers who have long recommended we do a better job in this area now have a strong ally.
Full disclosure: Stensrud is now, obviously, one of five of my bosses. And I had to get to know him. I’m a journalist and that has given me skills I can use to get to know people and research issues. So when I wanted to get to know Stensrud, I decided to do what I knew best: interview him. I thought that readers might like to get a glimpse of what we talked about.
While investigative journalism is the sort of point of the knife for what you’re doing at voiceofsandiego.org, I think there are other aspects of the community that need to be served by local journalism — not just the investigative component of that.
One of the challenges is going to be to figure out is: How do these pieces get packaged for the consumption by the consumer or by the audience? Is investigative journalism sort of a stand-alone product or do you need to cover local high-school football games in order to create a package that has the critical mass of audience engagement that is necessary? The models are very much in flux. voiceofsandiego.org has created a wonderful template, but you need to be careful not to get too comfortable inside the template that you’ve created and whether it’s SDNN or something else, there are going to be many different things that emerge that challenge the business model for local journalism. If you pat yourself on the back too hard for what you’ve done compared to the print media, you may miss the much more relevant next generation of developments in journalism.
I don’t know whether a for-profit model be ultimately be made to work and I was struck by the sort of purity of your mission and I think there’s enormous virtue in being focused on a mission and if that mission remains relevant than I think that by hewing to that mission, you’re going to create enormous value. But I think you have to keep asking yourself whether there’s a variation on that mission that you’re going to have to consider.
You were in a position in business where you had to stay on your toes and you had to make sure you were anticipating what was going to happen as best you could and not pat yourself on the back too much. How did you do it?
You know Eugene Kleiner once said that the top 10 businesses he invested in ended up being successful pursuing a business avenue he didn’t initially invest in. One of the things you have to do is you have to be agile and you have to be aware. What is the fundamental strength of a start-up competing in a market?
Adaptability, yes: The ability to be very quick; to seize on opportunities and to leverage those opportunities and to create response to those opportunities. So it’s sort of like those small furry animals against the dinosaurs. You’ve got to be a small furry animal. But you have to be careful. You have to be adaptable within the framework of a mission.
So there’s always a really delicate balance between being adaptable to circumstances and keeping a steady hand on the tiller. That’s where the art lies in entrepreneurship. It’s being able to utilize both those characteristics.
There’s clearly a crisis in the news industry and crisis creates opportunities. And there’s clearly a vacuum being created by the failure of the traditional media to address the 21st version of local news and local coverage but I don’t think either you or I know what the response to that is going to look like 10 years from now. I believe that like you investigative journalism is going to be a critical component of that.
I think the challenge is: What is the package that investigative journalism has to be delivered in in order to create a strong consumer response? And I don’t think we know the answer to that yet. Right now, for example, voiceofsandiego.org is designed to be consumed on a computer but it is highly likely that the device people consume media on in the future is going to be anything from their television to some type of personal tablet, to an iPhone, to a computer and you want to make sure your product is device-independent and you really want to make sure you’re getting to people in a variety of different device formats.
One of the reasons I was so intrigued to do this is I think it this is sort of one of the fundamental transitions that is happening in the world right now and I think you guys are at the leading edge of that transition. You’ve created a really terrific foundation from which to experience that transition and I’m interested very much in how this transition evolves during the next 10 years and I think you guys are in position to have a 50-yardline seat.
As Eisenhower said, the best way to forecast the future is to create it and I think you are not only in a position to sort of witness it but you’re in a position to, in a profound way, help to create what the future of local journalism looks like 10 years from now. For me, that’s a great thing and — seriously and literally — that’s why I’m here.
As I tried to familiarize myself with some of the innovations you were involved with in the past, it was pretty clear that you were involved at the very beginning with technology that helped develop the internet and make what we do even possible. Is it true that now you’re interested to see what information can be communicated on this amazing system?
I was at Bell Labs in the 1970s when the Arpanet was being developed which was the sort of original Apple computer of the internet and I worked on that. A lot of life is being in the right place at the right time right. So I feel extremely fortunate to be around the world of building communications infrastructure at its very birth. It was fascinating and I loved it and so I threw myself into that and as a result I got kind of swept along by the wave and had the opportunity to participate in several businesses that were instrumental in building the infrastructure of the internet — the nuts and bolts, the stuff that actually makes things work under the hood. So I spent 35 years doing that and it was enormously gratifying.
I loved every minute of it and I wouldn’t trade it for anything but right now that is of considerably less interest.
As you join in our conversation about voiceofsandiego.org what kind of questions are you going to ask?
I think the thing I’m going to personally be most interested in is not the journalism. I don’t know anything about it and you guys seem to be very good at it. I’m very excited to learn about it from you and to see what you do. I’m more useful in helping you decided how to package it. How do you get that journalism — what technologies do you use to deliver it to the audience.
You’re measured by the effectiveness of your journalism. But in the end, the effectiveness of your journalism is dependent on your ability to impact the people who read it and therefore, potentially act upon it. You can’t have journalism in a vacuum.
We see readership as a means to an end rather than an end itself.
It is. It is absolutely a means to an end but if you pull it out of the chain there’s no chain. The greater the degree to which you impact readership, the greater the degree to which your influence will be passed on. I think you guys do a great job of creating hard-hitting investigative journalism. But the challenge is: How do you get the readership to pass what you create on to the next stage?
Art is a big part of your life. Why?
I was a technologist all my life. I really enjoyed my left brain. But I also believe that there is a spirit as well as a brain. To have a full life you have to feed your spirit and your soul — not just your mind and your body. I find, for me personally, that art and music is the food from which my spirit draws its sustenance. I can sit in a performance of music and be transported.
It’s a transcendental experience for me. Music does that for a lot of people and other forms of art do that. That’s why I think, for instance, taking music out of the schools has been a decision with enormous cost for our country.
For me, I worked 100 hours a week but the times when I didn’t work, a big chunk of that was devoted to art and that was where I found the yin to my yang. Everyone needs their own solution to how they find balance in their life. If you find more balance in your life, you’re going to be more effective and more creative in everything you do.
What is InstantEncore.com and what are you trying to accomplish with it?
What we’re saying to the classical music world with InstantEncore.com is “Here’s a toolkit. If you can use it to build a 21st century experience for your audience on that toolkit, then we will have a business.” We call it Orchestra 2.0.
You see, the old world of classical music was created on four legs: the artist, the presenter organization, the audience and the recording industry.
The recording industry spent about a half a billion dollars a year promoting the other three legs and yet now, the recording industry has vaporized. And so now there’s a half a billion dollars a year that is not being spent promoting the industry. And now the industry is imploding because nothing moved into that vacuum.
Well, I think on behalf of the staff, the idea of having someone like you help us think into the future like this is very exciting. So welcome.
You know, I’m a resource. I’m excited to be part of your toolkit. I’m available. I will make myself available. But I’m not going to walk around and interject myself into the process.
It’s your business and so I’m available to make a contribution when and where I can. There’s a fiduciary responsibility that I’m going to be religious about but I wouldn’t have done this if that was the only reason, believe me — that’s not that exciting, it’s the tail of the donkey.