Lessons from mentoring local independent publishers about business

Posted on October 22, 2012 by The Patterson Foundation

When local independent news publishers gathered for the first Block by Block Community News Summit in September 2010, we heard two recurring themes:

First, publishers needed to connect so that they could learn, share and provide each other much-needed moral support. Second, publishers told us they needed help figuring out how to sustain their sites and themselves financially.

At The Patterson Foundation, we took those two ideas and married them for an experiment in testing how a combination of peer learning and business mentoring might help build the groundwork for more financially stable independent news operations.

That’s how Super Camp was born.

Partnering with Knight Digital Media Center, The Patterson Foundation developed a curriculum for a year of intensive business mentoring for a dozen Block by Block sites.

The goal? There were two:

1) Get inside the inner workings of both for-profit and non-profit sites and learn what methods can best help those publishers improve their business practices.

2) To take what we learn from working with those publishers and apply it more broadly to the community.

Our year of mentoring began with a four-day session at the conclusion of Block by Block 2011. What we learned during the mentoring sessions formed the core of the Community Journalism Executive Training program (CJET), a partnership of the Investigative News Network, Knight Digital Media Center and The Knight Foundation.

The Lessons of Super Camp

  • Lifeguards make a big difference. Find a mentor, coach or advisor who will hold you accountable to your goals and action plan. Writers need editors; business leaders need mentors.
  • Be the boss. Your role is to lead the business; as publisher, you are CEO. Learn to delegate duties as much as you can and to hold people accountable to their role in helping the business succeed.
  • Diversify revenue streams. Regardless of your tax status, relying on a single source of revenue – whether it’s foundation grants or banner ads – is a foolish bet. Conversely, don’t chase every dime. Define your revenue wheel.
  • Metrics matter. How people are using your site helps you improve the site’s user interface, educate your social media strategy and gives you concrete facts to tell donors and advertisers. Bonus: They come with pretty graphics.
  • Investors are not donors. Investors invest because they want a return. That means a piece of your annual profit, to be paid back with interest, or to own a large chunk of your company. Forget this, and they will own it all.
  • Act (locally) like a business. Many publishers ignore opportunities to join local business groups, which are teeming with experience, networking opportunities, story ideas and new advertisers. 
  • Utilize tools to track customers. Whether it’s a full-blown CRM (Customer Relationship Management) such as SaleForce.com or just a spreadsheet, these tools help grow existing clients into bigger ones. 
  • Be clear on expectations for employees and contractors – and be clear on the legal differences between “employee” and “contractor.” More time spent training new hires means less time cleaning up messes later. This goes doubly true for when hiring friends or family. 

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


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