On Monday, Inc. went virtual, beginning a month-long experiment during which our entire editorial staff will work remotely. I explained our rationale for doing this in a blog post yesterday. Virtual companies can be cheaper, more productive, and kinder to the environment. So we decided to test it out rather than simply write about it.
The experiment has generated lots of great comments from entrepreneurs and some nice press. And then there was this from the Columbia Journalism Review.
The CJR, for those of you not in the media business, is a serious, scholarly publication that takes as its mission the defense of the American press. It's an admirable cause these days, when newspapers and magazines are struggling to stay afloat. Unfortunately, the CJR can also be paranoid and uptight:
"If I were a staff member at Inc.," writes Alexandra Fenwick. "I'm not sure if I would be approaching this experiment [as] a clever bit of participatory journalism, an innovative, cost-cutting measure that could help save the future of the ailing magazine industry, or just be really freaked out that it sounds eerily like what happens when a title in said industry goes to that virtual workplace in the sky and shuts down for good."
Now, I doubt that our little virtual work experiment holds the key to the future of print media, but I do think that the CJR's reaction to it highlights one of the main problems in the beleaguered publishing industry and, perhaps, in businesses of all kinds. Namely, we love technological innovations, but we're suspicious of process innovations. Inc. tries something new--dare I say, innovative--and the CJR cynically suggests that working virtually is one step away from not working at all.
At the same time, the press has been head over heels about Apple's iPad and a host of new tablets, e-readers, and smart phones. The hope is basically that some new gadget will cause readers to magically start paying for articles that they currently get for free. It may yet happen, but it seems silly to pin the hopes of an industry on technology alone. Every industry needs iPads, but we also need innovations in the way we work.
Is working virtually a process innovation? I think it is. Will it work for magazines? Over the next few weeks, we should get an inkling.
Let me know what you think (through email or the comments below) and stay tuned.
Last updated: Feb 5, 2010
Senior contributing writer MAX CHAFKIN has profiled companies such as Yelp, Zappos, Twitter,
Threadless, and Tesla for the magazine. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. @chafkin