Getting past “urgent” to focus on “important”

Posted on August 02, 2011 by Janet Coats

I thought when I left the newsroom, my days of “difficult conversations’’ were over.

That’s human resources directors always called those tough talks when you had to tell someone something unpleasant. In my last years in the newsroom, those talks morphed from unpleasant to downright awful, as the business model crumbled and we went through wave after wave of layoffs.

But now that I was working in the non-profit space, I thought, those days of tough conversations were behind me. And I will admit I have not had to steel myself for any conversations nearly as difficult as telling longtime employees they no longer have a job.

The tough conversations I’ve had to have are focused more on expectations – what people expect of foundations versus the new realities of foundation work in a digital, participatory age.

I recently had an exchange with someone who believed the role of a foundation in enabling journalism innovation was to give direct grants to entrepreneurs, to fund their ongoing work and give them the cushion to build both their content and business plans. I’m not telling any tales out of school here in discussing my thoughts about this exchange; the person who was seeking direct support is a longtime acquaintance, and she agreed I could share the broad outlines of our conversation.

Certainly some foundations have taken the direct funding approach, and there is not a thing wrong with working that way. But in our work in the New Media Journalism Initiative, we decided we wanted to take a different approach.

Rather than enabling individual entrepreneurs with worthy projects, we wanted to help build capacity. My conversational partner of a few weeks back argued that direct grants are a more focused method of empowering innovation, while I countered that we needed more attention to the idea of building the organizational capacity that entrepreneurs need to get over the next hump toward sustainability.

The more I learn from journalism entrepreneurs, the more I am convinced that the need for capacity building is deep. As I work with Michele McLellan to put together the next Block by Block Community News Summit, scheduled for this September in Chicago, I see the need quite starkly in the responses of local news publishers to our queries about what they most need help with in their work.

A minority of these publishers can see a path to sustainability right over the next hill. But developing the capacity to get there – whether in the technology tools that enable community engagement or being able to put enough resources toward revenue generation – is mighty difficult when you are faced with the imperative to stay current in your community coverage every day.

News people are always wrestling with the competing demands of the urgent versus the important. It’s easy to be swallowed by the demands of production, by the relentless cycle of news, by the ever-changing ways that people engage with news and information.

This is where we want to make a difference – by providing the training and the tools that can help publishers focus more on their long-term survival.  Enabling the Block by Block Community News Summit is one step in that direction, and we’re looking at ways to build on what we have learned through Block by Block to provide more intensive support for building business strategies.

If we can find ways to help shift that focus from urgent to important – even just a little – I believe the difference that will make could help far more publishers than a direct grant to a few promising sites ever could.

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