McGuire on Media

Adrian Holovaty is all he's cracked up to be

Adrian Holovaty, web journalist, provocateur, inventor, entrepreneur and all around new media rock god visited the Cronkite School Thursday. He’ is everything he’s been built up to be, except he’s funnier, a lot funnier. That wonderful sense of humor shouldn’t fool anyone. There was never any doubt in my mind who was the smartest guy in the room of twenty or so faculty, students and local professionals. It was Holovaty, and he’s probably the smartest guy in any room. 

His powerful intellect merges with his innate sense about what is news, what is journalism, and how to tell them apart. Holovaty has certainly not lacked for publicity. His interview with Al Tompkins the day EveryBlock launched set the parameters for the site. One blogger even assembled all the positive and critical comments about Everyblock. In my Business and Future class we discuss his work from the Lawrence (Ks) Journal World and Chicagocrime.org. He’s been the talk of the online and journalism world for several years now and it is obvious why.

Self-deprecating humor about being a “geek” and “pathetic’ because of the technical stuff that excites him does not disguise the fact that this guy understands “readers need to determine their own story.” The entire concept of EveryBlock is based on the idea that big media can report on “journalism,” but there needs to be a more effective outlet for the news of what’s happening in your neighborhood.

Holovaty says he’s constructing “a news feed for your block.” The amount of data he can generate with his algorithms and public data records is stunning. Everything from business openings to graffiti cleanups to zoning changes to  filmmaking permits to crime data can find its way onto EveryBlock. It can be connected to your neighborhood and your block with a spiffy mapping system. He explains that mapping approach beautifully. I can’t.

His enthusiasm for what he has created infused his audience as Holovaty held equally rapt the data geeks, the students and the older, decidedly less technical oriented folk. At the same time the young entrepreneur tried to explain what his site lacks.

  • He said it is not ever going to replace a newspaper. He described it as complimentary to mainstream media because he can cover micro news, but not the potential impact of the Olympics on Chicago.  
  • It is not a site for community contributed news. He deliberately decided not to even introduce that element because he believed crowd sourcing would overshadow the importance of what he is doing.
  • A long-term sustainability plan is not obvious right now.  Holovaty received a $1.1 million Knight Foundation News Challenge grant for two years. Knight Foundation executives should be puffing out their chest over that grant. The amazing part of that deal is that at the end of two years everything Holovaty and his team has done becomes open source so anybody can replicate this exciting work.

Holovaty made three observation every newspaper executive should recite 100 times a day:

  1. He says he was, and is, constantly astonished at how many people newspapers dedicate to technology and how little gets done. He said small teams are good. Speed obviously matters to this young man and he converts it into a competitive strength.
  2. Every new media and old media operation should “push things as close to automation as possible.” He said we should always look for database solutions.  Holovaty says we should compare automation possibilities to what humans are good at doing. He added, the things humans are good at are the things they WANT to do.
  3. Newspaper executives should delegate to employees the things the employees are good at and concentrate on coaching the value of risk.

Adrian Holovaty knows risk. He knows news. He knows machines can complement the value-add humans can provide.  I felt a lot better about the future after an hour with him.