I am sure you have heard of Google’s ‘20% time’ concept, enabling engineers to spend one day a week working on projects that aren’t necessarily in their job descriptions. That’s how Gmail, Google News and other big parts of the company were developed.

It became popular after Google went public in 2004. “We encourage our employees, in addition to their regular projects, to spend 20% of their time working on what they think will most benefit Google,” founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page wrote in their IPO letter

The practice was later abandoned. Not entirely, though. After Google Labs shut down, Google X, the moonshot factory was established which is only devoted to future innovation and coming up with so-called “moonshots” that could one day turn into a serious business opportunity.

The point is, that Google seemingly took to heart Steve Jobs’s advice not to be all over the place and focus on a few big things. Also, not everyone gets to work so much on passion projects, on the other hand, some get to work full time on them. According to Harvard Business Review, data suggests that’s the right approach with more effectively desired outcomes.

Why did I start with this example? It took over a decade for Google to figure out that better results from passion projects come if everyone is allowed to pitch them but only a chosen few get to work on them. 

Sure, if looking at the costs at mid-sized and smaller newsrooms this notion is not only laughable but almost crushing as there is no way a team could work on something when there is very high uncertainty of immediate income.

My proposal is not that. Let me lay out a few reasons why taking on projects – from staff and outsiders coming to you – which are not strictly connected to the future income, but at the same time have to be long-term sustainable (that’s what I mean by ‘nonprofit’ in the headline).

Reason 1: Differentiate your brand

At the beginning of May, the Pulitzer Prize winners were announced. In Slovakia, the Journalism prize was recently announced as well (Denník N took home the most awards).

Following both over the years, there is a distinct group of projects that are being awarded – either long-term reporting with labour-intensive data gathering or simply taking on hard topics which are important for the community but might not be “viral news material”.

Basically, the types of projects that have clearly no immediate result and in many cases, you will never get a return on investment, especially when we are talking about a multi-year investigative project.

Investigative journalism is just one example of what I am talking about. The Slovak online news outlet Aktuality.sk, where the murdered investigative journalist Ján Kuciak used to work, was awarded for reporting on a “Chinese money laundering scheme” which took two years to uncover.

Investigative journalism has helped the outlet to position itself over the years among the public as a home for deep, analytical reporting on top of daily news.

For smaller outlets, maybe this can be more difficult, but doing something that can distinguish your work in the eyes of the audience from other outlets is almost priceless. You can build on your membership strategy or crowdfunding campaigns.

Reason 2: Keep an innovation culture alive

Google started the ‘20% time’ for passion projects concept to keep innovation alive and center within the whole company.

Innovation isn’t just about coming up with something new, it means very different things for various industries. Outlets with innovation in their DNA were among the first ones to go through the print-to-digital transformation and are doing better.

Also, not everyone in your newsroom is eager to be an innovator. That’s fine. Although I am sure any newsroom has at least one person wondering “what if we tried doing this” or “what if we tried doing it this way”.

Five years ago, I wondered the same when I saw The New York Times started doing a daily news podcast and was given the opportunity to develop one and it took off.

Reason 3: Helps you stay open-minded

The thing with “nonprofit” projects is that you never know how they will turn out to be. There isn’t a strict rule on how to make sure they are successful and many times they won’t be. It’s a process.

But giving a team member the opportunity to work on a passion project that aligns with your newsroom’s goals and appears to have at least the opportunity that if successful can win an award, serve your community and audience and at the same time become a talking point for you (or your PR team), that’s a chance you should carefully consider.

Newsrooms get also pitched many projects by outsiders – companies, individuals, and nonprofit organisations.

In my experience, many of them lack the sustainability part, meaning they are one-offs, “develop it, because we got grant money for it and that’s it”, no long-term thinking or return on the investment, not even an idea of how to keep the project alive in the future.

Sure, in terms of doing an investigative piece, that’s it, it’s published, gets promoted, distributed and maybe serves as the basis for future reporting.

However, I am also thinking of projects like trackers (of quotes for example, like the running list of misleading claims by Donald Trump from The Washington Post), maps and others.

Still, a good start for any news organisations not taking on projects like these would be setting up a process of pitching such ideas (quarterly idea hackathon, yearly innovation award…), outlining the goals, possible resources that could be set aside, basic workflows that should be followed and, as I mentioned before, requiring a plan for longterm sustainability for the project.

Photo by Werner Du plessis on Unsplash