Next week, when more than 100 independent local news publishers gather in Chicago for the third Block by Block Community News Summit, the focus will be on moving from surviving to thriving.
That emphasis is something we at The Patterson Foundation can appreciate. In all of our work, we want to enable individuals and organizations seeking to push their work to the next level, from sustaining to blossoming. Nowhere has this been more true that in the New Media Journalism Initiative.
When I began work on this initiative three years ago, we had a blank sheet of paper. In my first few months of exploration, I was struck by two immediate themes: the amazing rate of innovation in journalism, and the deep need for all of those innovators to connect with each other so that they could learn from both their successes and their failures.
It was only after we helped enable that connection with the first Block by Block Community News Summit in 2010 that the third theme became clear to me, like the final leg on the stool: the need to help these innovators build a business.
As a refugee from traditional media, I knew a lot about how the accelerating transition to digital platforms was challenging the financial models for newspapers and television news. But I wasn’t familiar at all with the challenges facing the entrepreneurs who are building new models for local news.
I knew after that first Block by Block that we wanted to help these publishers find ways to build thriving businesses to support the journalism they were creating and enabling in their communities.
Two years later, we’ve been working on doing just that. Our efforts are just a small piece of what is needed. But with our partners Vikki Porter at Knight Digital Media Center and Michele McLellan, we’ve identified some practices that we think can begin to make a difference.
This year’s Block by Block agenda reflects what we’ve learned. All of the sessions this year focus on practices that contribute to business success; many of them are led by the coaches we used in our Super Camp publisher mentoring program.
Topics for discussion include:
- Building an actionable business plan
- Learning what to measure to gauge progress and success
- Building relationships with customers and community, and maintaining them systematically.
- Diversifying revenue streams, to avoid relying too much on funding sources such as grants
- The importance of realistic budgeting
One of the most potent topics for discussion, I think, centers on learning the difference between being the business and running a business. So many of journalism’s innovators are motivated by a sense of mission. While that passion can spark creativity and deepen connection to community, it sometimes clouds business judgment. One of the important lessons we’ve learned in the last year is the need to develop some distance, for publishers to appraise what they are doing with a dispassionate eye and evaluate how to best marry mission and money.
That’s a lesson that has application not just for the Block by Block community, but for everyone who is trying to adapt to the digital age. The sense of mission we derive from our work matters, and should be at the heart of what we do. But we have to look at the new realities around us and understand that we need to express our mission in different ways.
And at the core, we have to understand that no matter how noble our mission, without the ability to thrive financially, we won’t be able to fulfill it.