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The “Long Nose” for Economic Development

May 22, 2012 By Lee Egerstrom, Economic Development Fellow

I’m sending this week’s dispatch from our nation’s capital, where a few hundred thinkers and economic innovators have their noses to the wind.

Why, you ask?

If there is a common denominator for conference attendees, it is the “theory of the long nose,” coined by Bill Buxton, a computer graphics pioneer and key Microsoft researcher.

Buxton often talks about those “wow” moments when someone reexamines an existing piece of technology and develops a new product. That, he insisted, leads to real innovation. Think about certain iPhone apps.

From the Minnesota countryside perspective, global positioning systems are a case in point. Satellite technology increases food production efficiency while providing environmental benefits from more efficient farm practices. Much of this adaptation and innovation came from a former Edina-based company, Ag-Chem Equipment, and Cargill’s Willmar unit.

Torger Reve, a Norwegian professor of strategy and industrial competitiveness, told an audience at the Humphrey School of Public Policy recently that Minnesota should assess its strengths and build “knowledge hubs” of innovators and workforces around these growth areas, according to Pioneer Press coverage. Medical tech and the food and ag sectors are areas where knowledge hubs have evolved in Minnesota and continue to spur further innovation.

But some businesses and public service providers whose products are needed are still struggling financially. Here at the Americans for Community Development (ACD) conference in Washington D.C., economic innovators and civic leaders are looking for those “wow” moment tools to help communities, organizations and enterprises serving a community good.

Some of the development tools have been sitting on the shelf, others are new, emerging, hybrid and lesser-known business models. Comparative discussions were scheduled on the B Corp, Benefit Corp, Flexible Purpose/Social Purpose corporations, L3Cs, and cooperative models—the latter being the reason this writer was a participant.

One of the panels looked at how different models might be used to save or strengthen community journalism. Former Twin Cities Newspaper Guild executive Bernie Lunzer, now the president of The Newspaper Guild-CWA, was a fellow panelist.

Journalism is one of Minnesota's strengths, based on product output. No one claims, however, that it is on comparable financial footing with the state’s med tech and food and ag industries. However, there is a "long nose" application for both new media and old-school print journalism.

On the new tech front, an accomplished former newspaper and magazine editor has launched an experimental program, the Banyan Project, which is creating a reader/member owned web news cooperative at Haverhill, Mass. Its local newspaper and radio station went out of business. Tom Stites, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, has developed that business model.

On the ink-stained front, three Swift County newspapers in west-central Minnesota are finding ways to operate like a cooperative even though they haven’t set up a  formal business entity. Reed Anfinson, Swift County Monitor-News editor and publisher, and his counterparts—Appleton Press and Kerkhoven Banner—share news that has countywide importance.

On top of that, the Appleton and Kerkhoven papers pay Anfinson for providing coverage of the Swift County Board of Commissioners that meets at Benson, the county seat. This is essentially a free lance arrangement, Anfinson said, but it leads to better community news and journalism for all newspaper subscribers in the county.

Similar arrangements are being adapted informally throughout rural Minnesota. Meanwhile, these newspaper publishers are still looking for ways to blend online news with traditional print so that advertisers and the news customers pay news gathering expenses.

Anfinson is worried about community journalism folding, leaving what Stites calls “news deserts” in large parts of the country, and the threat that poses for democracy. The Minnesota newspaper executive also has a platform to explore issues and seek solutions; he is president of the National Newspaper Association.

No matter how future journalism takes shape, a lot of sniffing around with the long nose of innovation will be needed. That includes assessing business model tools.

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