The Almost Newspaper

Did I ever tell you that I almost founded an online newspaper?  You may wonder what this has to do with Monte Carlo methods; I'll get back around to that before we're through.

In 2008, I was appointed by Missouri's 23rd Circuit Court as a member of a fourteen-person commission tasked with writing a new charter for Jefferson County.  In Missouri there are different types and classes of counties, some with more autonomy from the state than others. A "charter" county is one that has written out its own governmental structure and rules, different from those that are provided for "by default" in the state statutes.  Think of a charter as a little constitution.

Serving on that commission was a rewarding experience. I prevented a few issues from becoming showstoppers by working out compromises in advance. I learned a lot about serving on a committee: procedures, Robert's rules, and all that. I helped write the ballot language.  (Which was its own adventure, involving a nearly-missed filing deadline and the words, "just go right through that stop sign, Iā€™m the guy who would have to prosecute you, and I say go.") I also maintained the web site where all of our work was done in the open, according to Missouri's sunshine law.

Before the Commission really got started, I went to the local newspaper archives and read up on previous charter attempts.  Since the 1970's, people had tried three times and failed. Ours would be the fourth.  One never got off the ground, and another failed because their proposed charter was not very well-conceived. The first attempt, though, had failed mostly because the proponents allowed their efforts to be defined by the opposition; they never recovered. (The opponents did have a slogan that was great in its own way: "No matter how you slice it, charter government is still baloney.")

At my urging, the 2008 commission went way beyond the level of openness that was called for in Missouri's sunshine law.  Not only were our meetings open to the public, but we published online every draft that was discussed, every presentation that was made, all of the agendas and minutes, everything. Several people later told me that the open nature of the process is what allowed it to succeed. People who were interested could see the sausage-making as it progressed, and as a result they had some faith in the document that we wrote.

On November 4, 2008, Jefferson County voters adopted our proposed charter by a two to one margin, which is all but unheard of in a state that generally resists change. (Then again, lots of people voted for hope and change that day.)

As a result of my involvement with the charter, the expectation was that I was "getting into politics." Some expected that I would run for one of the newly created County Council seats. A few asked whether I was interested in running for a state representative seat when the current occupant was term-limited out. But contrary to those expectations, I mostly faded back into private life. (At least for a while.)

I didn't tune completely out, though. I tried to follow along by keeping up with the news, attending a meeting once in a while, and following along with the minutes when I couldn't.  I found this extremely difficult, because most public meetings aren't quite as open as the charter meetings were.  They don't publish their packets online, and newspapers only send reporters if they know there's going to be be some kind of fight.  To make matters worse, the local paper had no web site, and it only printed weekly.

So, in the first months of 2009 I took an interest in the future of journalism. There seemed to be a wave of newspapers ceasing publication or going out of business. Paywalls were going up all over the place. A part of me had started thinking that it might be useful to start an online news outlet covering Jefferson County.  "Nah," I thought, the local newspaper will get around to it eventually.  But in an editorial shortly thereafter, the publisher stated that as long as he was running the paper, they would never operate a web site.

That attitude seemed utterly wrong to me.  I started working on taking matters into my own hands.  I called all of my journalist friends.  I had breakfast with the former editor of another local paper, which had recently stopped publication and fired him. I had lunch with several of the people I'd served with on the charter commission, all of whom were supportive.  I developed some ideas of how big the local ad market might be, and what kind of revenue we might expect to capture, and what kind of staffing levels we would need. I met with some attorney and CPA friends to figure out how we might structure the business and raise the necessary capital. I even had a domain name and a twitter handle picked out.

Then I started writing a proper business plan.  And I got spooked. The numbers could work, but just barely. Based on some educated guesses, we would need to raise somewhere between $600,000 and $800,000, and we wouldn't be profitable for 12-18 months. And that's if everything went according to plan, which I knew it wouldn't. I felt like we could have an edge: we would start with no overhead or legacy operations, and the plan was to involve journalists, technology people and business people and create something new. Since I can speak all three "languages," I would serve as a coordinator and faciliatator.

After hemming and hawing for a couple of months, I decided that the risk was just too much. It wasn't my money; I had people interested in investing. But I couldn't look them in the eye and tell them with any certainty that they would even get their investment back. If it failed, I would have lost a lot of my friends' money. I couldn't even have a sense of the odds; I was just going by my gut.

Ultimately, a good idea got dropped, because I lacked the understanding necessary to be comfortable taking the risk.  If I'd had a usable Monte Carlo tool, I could have made probabilistic estimates of all the factors in my business plan, fed them into a model, and developed a better idea of our chances.  Seeing exactly which variables were most critical might have driven some innovation or contingency planning in key areas, allowing me to reduce the risk. I would have felt much more comfortable asking people to invest. If it worked, we might have changed the future of the county. And if we could generalize it to other markets, we might have done something really amazing.

But we didn't try.

That, ultimately, is my point. This was just one instance of an opportunity lost to uncertainty. And I'm not just talking about journalism. Imagine what great new ideas and new businesses might have gotten off the ground, if we could just "try smarter." If we'd been able to say something about the risks involved that was more meaningful than "man, I just don't know."

I think this doodad I'm working on could do that.