CJET coaches: Beyond the usual suspects

CJET coaches: Beyond the usual suspects

Posted on November 16, 2012 by Rusty Coats

Long before the Community Journalism Executive Training (CJET) brought together 32 non-profit and for-profit news entrepreneurs for intensive business training, I started recruiting coaches. And I knew from the outset that, for the program to be successful, I’d need to look beyond the usual suspects.

It was a challenging task, given the diverse field of applicants. Some news publishers are mom & pop operations with budgets written in Microsoft Word; others are large nonprofits with a monthly burn rate in excess of $1 million.

CJET was funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and administered through the Investigative News Network. It was based on the innovative Super Camp program The Patterson Foundation funded for 12 hyperlocal publishers at Block by Block. Because of the huge impact Super Camp had in building paths to sustainability for independent news publishers, Knight, through INN, wanted to expand the work to a broader base.

As head coach and developer of the curriculum for Super Camp, I knew that the real magic was in the coaching. Entrepreneurs build business plans all the time; one CJET participant admitted to downloading more than a dozen business plan templates from the web, but never got past the first few questions. But when you add a coach – someone who will challenge, goad and inspire you, someone who will hold you accountable to your word – everything gets real.

The participants needed coaches with business savvy ranging from sales management to grant writing, basic accounting, strategic and tactical thinking, hands-on management skills for hiring/training/firing. They also needed coaches who would (quite gracefully) recognize the presence of malarkey and suggest adjustments.

I needed business pros. But I also needed people who felt, to their bones, the importance of news in serving and informing communities.

I started with my three coaches at Super Camp. They knew the program and brought diverse skills and talents.

They were:

  • Joe Michaud. Veteran of online media who launched MaineToday.com, volunteer mentor in Maine’s entrepreneur training program, consultant and principal of his own startup, ConcertRat.com.
  • Emily Lowrey. Parlayed her biz-dev/sales experience with big media companies and her newly minted MBA to launch Magic City Post, a hyperlocal news and shopping site in Birmingham.
  • Eleanor Cippel. Sales ninja who runs sales and business development for the E.W. Scripps company and former director of innovation, where she managed an entrepreneurial fund.

To fill the other four slots, my recruiting pitch went something like this: “I’d like you to be a coach for CJET. (Insert explanation of CJET.) Yes, I know you’ve never done anything like this. That’s why you’ll be perfect. You won’t get paid a lot. You’re going to work your tail off. And you’ll have your fingerprints on the transformation of local and investigative journalism. You’ll change the world.”

(OK. So, my father sold cars. I learned something along the way about sales.)

Everyone I asked signed on:

  • Kirk Read. Media innovator who has worked as small-town publisher, founder of TBO.com, corporate interactive president and director of strategic investments in digital pure-play businesses.
  • Elaine Zinngrabe. VP of affiliate sales for Cars.com, held posts running product and revenue development for several big media companies and once head of the hyperlocal YourHub.com.
  • Kathy Merritt. Public-media journalist who now administers investments in the Radio Program Fund at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which invests in digital, diversity and dialogue.
  • Jane Jansen. Media product development and marketing veteran who ran TribLocal.com for the Chicago Tribune, a startup that took the second city’s newspaper into the hyperlocal arena.

They were not the folks you’d expect to find at a non-profit or indie-publisher gathering. They’re not on the speaker list for foundations. In fact, some folks in the foundation world questioned the choices, saying, “I’ve never heard of these people.” That was the point.

We paired coaches with attendees whose needs – stated and unstated – best matched the skills and talents of the coaches. (There was also some social engineering at work, but that’s another story.) And they were great!

I knew they’d be great – and they were. And CJET attendees came ready to be coached, ready to be challenged. The post-session evaluations were so glowing as to be a bit (for a Midwesterner) embarrassing.

But it’s the aftermath that has inspired me the most.

Most coaches have set up – without funding, without being asked – ongoing calls with CJET attendees. They’ve formed relationships and, in some case, friendships. New bonds. New – if you speak TPF – connective tissue.

Looking beyond the usual suspects can create breakthrough results. It can also create new connections that will last long into the future.

  • Learn about these and other concepts used in TPF's approach to philanthropy.


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