Introduction by Janet Coats
When I first started thinking about the possibility of offering intensive business mentoring to independent community publishers, my biggest worry was were we’d find the coaches with the right skill sets to be helpful.
That’s when I turned to my husband and business partner, Rusty Coats, to tap into his deep knowledge of the business side of media. Given the quality of the coaches he’s recruited for every session, I clearly had no reason to be concerned.
We’ve heard from most of the participants that the coaches make the difference, both in their skill set and their commitment to working 1:1 with the publishers. Joe Michaud has been a coach in each of our sessions, and served as “head coach’’ in helping us to organize the recent New Jersey Community Journalism Executive Training program.
Joe, who has his own consultancy called Local Interactive Strategies, has written on his blog about his impressions from working with these entrepreneurial publishers, and we’re sharing his post here:
On May 16, we launched our third Community Journalism Executive Training, this one involving 20 news sites in New Jersey, hosted by the New Jersey News Commons at Montclair State University. (Credits and kudos at the end of this post.)
Now that I’ve been involved in three of these programs, each very different, with about 70 journalists in total, I feel like I’ve seen enough of a sampling to identify a few patterns and trends in independent local/regional news sites.
There’s no substitute for passion – for your local community. Being passionate about journalism isn’t enough. In fact, in CJET we’ve seen a number of people who have no journalism background develop respected, popular, ethical – and hopefully sustainable – local news operations. The key is personal engagement: being in the community, of the community, speaking for the community’s concerns. You cannot fake this. The expression “hyperlocal won’t scale” usually is spoken as a problem. It’s not a problem. It’s simply a reality that personal local engagement is critical, and you can’t “scale” that. For these entrepreneurs, the CJET program is about building a local news business on that passion and engagement.
Few, if any, entrepreneurial journalists have ever run a business. In developing the CJET program, we keep trying to understand what these startup journalists need, one by one and group by group. In some cases, they’re running the “business” out of their checkbook (positive balance? yay!). So showing them how and why to use a system like Quickbooks is a revelation. For others, the need is longer-term strategy – where do I want to go with this? Or figuring out how to price ads or talk with a prospective customer. The gaps can be overwhelming, but we try to put them on a path to continuous learning, so that even when the program ends, they have a plan to keep building their own knowledge. The strongest prospects are those committed to personal learning and growing.
The vast majority of entrepreneurial journalists have no management experience. This is a serious gap. In my career, I have seen over and over that while some people are natural leaders, natural managers are extremely rare. Becoming an effective manager of employees – and/or freelancers – involves two key dynamics: making painful (and sometimes expensive) mistakes, and having a support system to minimize the impact of those mistakes, or maybe even help avoid them. In larger organizations, making or avoiding a bad hire is a learning experience for a manager. For a solo journalist making his/her first hire, a bad decision could bring the enterprise down. Some of our most important and impactful work in CJET has been coaching participants around specific management challenges and hiring decisions.
The firewall between editorial decisions and advertising interests has created a huge knowledge gap. In most news organizations, news staff are culturally forbidden from engaging with the ad staff. Is there a written policy to this effect? No, but there might as well be, and it was a core tenet of journalism schools until very recently. This firewall has been enforced so fanatically that journalists have no idea how the “business side” works. Most entrepreneurial journalists come from newspapers, and they don’t understand or value the newspaper’s traditional role as a connector of a community’s businesses and residents. Fortunately, most of the for-profit startup news operators are open to the concept, and open to learning how to make that happen for their operations. For these, CJET begins filling the knowledge gap, and helps these entrepreneurs see how their interviewing skills, for example, can help discover unmet needs among local businesses.
That same firewall leads to a fantasy that society owes journalists a living. This sometimes leads to journalists setting up a nonprofit news site with the expectation that foundations and donors will support their work. In many cases, these journalists consider advertising to be a necessary evil for legacy media, and an avoidable source of ethical conflict. In the CJET program, we assume there isn’t enough foundation and donor money to support all the local journalism that’s needed in the U.S., and that local journalism will have to be funded in part, or entirely, with local advertising and related business services. So CJET focuses on helping these journalists pursue a mix of funding from donors and from “earned income,” including managing the time required for both business development and grant-writing.
There’s an optimal “staff” size for a sustainable local news operation. And it’s not “one.” Even if one person is good at everything, there’s just too much to do in a normal 80-hour workweek. The risk factor is burnout, more than finances. Two people can make it work, especially if one is strong on content and the other on sales. Two people plus some occasional backup is a model that allows weekends off and sometimes a vacation, and offsets the risk of the news site collapsing because someone gets sick. Part of our focus in CJET is to help the solo operator figure out the steps to grow beyond just him/herself. Again, a big piece of this is mapping a long-term strategy with immediate action steps to get unstuck from the daily routine.
Huge thank you’s
The NJ CJET program was funded by The Patterson Foundation and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation to help these critical New Jersey news sources along their path to sustainability.
These CJET programs have been not only hugely impactful to those attending (from what they tell us in followup), but I personally have learned a tremendous amount from the participants, coaches and organizers.
Janet and Rusty Coats are the creators and wranglers of CJET, masters at navigating the waters of funders, hosts and constituencies, gathering participants and assembling us coaches.
NJ CJET coaches were Emily Lowrey, Eleanor Cippel, Denise Civiletti and myself. It was hugely gratifying to me that Denise came in as a coach, since she was a member of the first CJET class (then called Supercamp) and I was her coach. Also in that class was Debbie Galant, also one of my coachees, who now is director of the NJ News Commons and pulled this program together. Very cool.
To contact Joe Michaud, visit www.joemichaud.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org
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