Lessons learned from a year exploring new media journalism

Posted on December 21, 2010 by The Patterson Foundation

By Janet Coats, New Media Journalism Initiative Manager

One year ago, The Patterson Foundation began an exploration of new media journalism in hopes of finding ways to enable and sustain innovation.

This journey began at a time of great change, even chaos, in the world of journalism. Traditional news organizations were coming off a year of devastating staffing reductions.  Startups were proliferating representing a wondrous variety of journalism forms, from investigative reporting to neighborhood-level coverage.  Journalism schools were starting new programs focused on entrepreneurial skills for young practitioners who could no longer count on the old organizations or the old career ladder.

Foundations had rushed into the breach as well, providing financial support for sustaining journalistic practices, for developing coverage of particular topics or communities, and for incubating new organizations and methods. At the same time, foundations were beginning to question their funding focus, as they looked for ways to better quantify impact.

This was the scene as The Patterson Foundation New Media Journalism Initiative began its survey. The journalism world seemed to be one in search of some unifying connection, some way of building on the innovation that was happening across so many spheres as a means of creating solid momentum for promising practices that could lift all boats.

A year later, the world of journalism is still filled with its own brand of turmoil. News organizations, coming off a year of relative stability, face a difficult 2011 and the prospect of another round of staffing reductions. Startups are still proliferating in a thousand different directions, but there are signs of emerging standards of practice that may help improve both the quality of journalism and the prospects of sustainability. Journalism schools are beginning to realize that entrepreneurship means more than having a good idea and using smart tools - it takes a business plan.  And foundations are focusing more intensely on innovation instead of invention, and on the need to innovate not just with content but also with business models.

As we enter the second year of the New Media Journalism Initiative, we have tested these hypotheses and derived these lessons:

  • There is a need for connection among journalism innovators. This was an early finding of our research, and we believed that the need was for an innovators' network that would cut across all types of journalism. We worked with the University of Missouri Reynolds Journalism Institute and its fellow Lisa Skube to build a prototype of such a network. But testing that prototype with potential users led us to a different conclusion. The best, most effective innovation networks will be those that focus on a targeted community of journalists who share common goals and values. Trying to provide connection across all innovators in all aspects of journalism is impractical and likely destined to be so broad as to be useless.
  • As a result, we are focusing our efforts on enabling a number of small, targeted networks in a more organic, bottom-up way.
  • Sharing innovative practices across craft issues and technology is the greatest need for journalism startups. There is a real need for craft development among journalism innovators. A number of the experts we talked with expressed deep concern about the state of craft and whether the journalism being incubated through innovation is deep enough to sustain communities. But the most urgent need for developing innovation is in sustainability and business practices. Sustainability and craft are strongly linked; developing and testing ideas for business models that sustain substantive journalism is the most vital work in the space currently.
  • Those in need of most support are those at the earliest stages of innovation. There has been a real focus in developing funding for startups. There is a dearth of resources and support for entrepreneurs who have made it past infancy to the adolescent stage - those who have survived their first year or two, have shown promise at developing audience and content that is valuable, but need support taking their idea to sustainability. As we move into year two, we are looking at supporting communities that either fit that adolescent model or are more mature communities looking to collaborate in new ways.
  • We want to focus on entrepreneurs who are working in community journalism. There is no doubt that there are interesting and worthy entrepreneurial efforts ongoing across all topics and types of journalism. Foundation support has tended to gravitate in two directions: investigative efforts and enterprises that are focused on developing new tools and technology. The entrepreneurs who are trying to fill the space created by the reductions in community coverage by traditional media, along with those serving communities that have never been adequately covered by news organizations, are developing the connective tissue needed to keep serious dialogue on intensely local issues alive.
  • Our work will be powered through collaboration. Our work has been collaborative from the start, and we have learned much from those who have shared their knowledge and experience with us. In the process of our work, I conducted more than 100 interviews with entrepreneurs and thought-leaders across the field. We have worked directly with Reynolds Journalism Institute fellow Lisa Skube and a team of technology developers to build an online collaboration tool. We have developed a working partnership with the Reynolds Journalism Institute and the University of Missouri. We have worked with RJI Fellow Michele McLellan to organize Block by Block, a news summit for community journalism entrepreneurs. We look forward to partnering with the Knight Digital Media Center to develop training tools and to working more formally with the Knight Foundation to provide resources for the Block by Block community.

Our work product in 2010

The Journalism Accelerator

The first part of 2010, from January through April, was focused on learning and developing ideas for further testing and development. Through this process, we decided to focus on building an innovator's network to connect journalists across all parts of the field.

Our research led us to the Reynolds Journalism Institute, where one of the 2010-11 RJI fellows was planning to pursue just such a network. We worked with RJI fellow Lisa Skube through the summer and early fall to build an online collaboration tool, called the Journalism Accelerator, that would be the hub of a larger enterprise called the NewStory Network.

After testing that tool with potential users in September, we determined that our focus needed to shift. Rather than trying to build a broad-based network of journalism innovators, we determined that we should focus on developing smaller networks within targeted communities.

As we move into 2011, we are exploring a way to use the Journalism Accelerator within just such a targeted community, the Journalism That Matters group.

Block by Block Community News Summit

One of our early interviews during the research phase was with Michele McLellan, a longtime consultant and trainer in the entrepreneurial journalism community. Michele was serving as a fellow at the Reynolds Journalism Institute, focused on identifying promising community news publishers.

Michele had surveyed the community news space and identified approximately 150 promising publishers. Her research had identified three primary areas of need: content development, technology and infrastructure, business models. She wanted to bring together the publishers, creating an opportunity for the publishers to meet together for the first

time to share and learn from each other.

We provided financial support for the summit, called Block by Block. But we also modeled our approach to collaboration: beyond money, we provided Initiative Manager Janet Coats' time and expertise to develop the program. Janet put together one major panel and three breakout groups for the event. She also programmed and facilitated the Saturday morning wrap-up session.

Block by Block received rave reviews from participants, who have continued to work together to share ideas and experiences. The group already has built a website to enable further connection and has developed a suite of social medial tools that allow them to continue the conversations begun at Block by Block.


Coming in 2011 - A focus on enabling targeted innovation networks

In 2011, our focus will be on enabling deeper network development within smaller, targeted journalism communities. We initially will focus on two targets: The Block by Block Community and the Journalism That Matters community.

The Block by Block Community

We should feel a great sense of pride and more than a little ownership in the Block by Block Community. This name describes the entrepreneurial community news publishers who attended the Block by Block News Summit in September and those like them.

Our financial support enabled travel scholarships for publishers who otherwise could not have afforded to attend. Initiative Manager Coats put together all of the business sustainability segments of the program.

As we continue to help this community develop, we are applying the lessons learned in our research and in the development of the Journalism Accelerator to network development for Block by Block publishers.

Our road map for this community is as follows:

  • Establish a "listening post'' within the community to help us evaluate needs and opportunities.
  • Enable publishers to seek out those with similar problems and approaches so that they can share potential solutions and better practices. This will be accomplished by developing a typology of the community publishers.
  • Enable collaboration and communication tools for the community.
  • Identify better practices for sustainability and develop the learning/training methodology that can seed the field with those practices.

This is the kind of approach that focuses on helping the publishers build toward sustainability. It is a tightly focused effort that will build a lasting infrastructure, one that the publishers can sustain through their own increasing revenues long after Patterson has moved in another direction.  We have taken these steps to move forward on our road map:

"The Listening Post:" New Media Journalism Advisory Committee

We have recruited a committee of five community publishers and editors to work with us to help identify needs and opportunities. This committee met for the first time in December and will continue to meet at least monthly to help set direction, correct our course and evaluate our efforts.

"The Typology:" Community News Publishers Database/ "Michele's List''

The list of community sites identified through Michele McLellan's fellowship was important in helping to focus on publishers who might have a real shot at developing substantive, sustainable models for community journalism. Now the goal is to continue identifying those promising practitioners and to learn more deeply about their work. In December, we worked with Michele to develop a survey tool to gather more information from the community publishers she has already identified. That survey will go into the field in late 2010 or early 2011. We also intend to work with Michele and the Reynolds Journalism Institute to identify additional promising publishers and survey them. The goal will be to create a searchable, mappable database, so that publishers can better network and share their work with each other. The database will be the keystone of a website for the community news publishers, where they can share ideas and problems with each other.

"The Collaboration Tools:" Community Management

The community of publishers is widespread and diverse, and they use a variety of web and social media tools to talk about their work. For the community to build a network, it needs a dedicated community manager who can search out these information and discussion threads and weave them together into a coherent whole. Patterson will fund a dedicated, part-time community manager, who will manage this dialogue and work with us to identify common themes and opportunities for tools and training. The advisory committee already has provided criteria that will form a job description and will serve to screen and interview candidates.

"Seeding the Field:" Training and Tools Development

Training and tools development for this community is seriously lacking. We learned that at Block by Block; when given the opportunity to talk together, the publishers identified needs and areas of competence that do not generally surface in more broadly focused training. Using our advisory committee and the themes discovered by the community manager, we will identify training specifically for this community. The Knight Digital Media Center already has entrepreneurial boot camps and has agreed in principle to work with us to find ways to take that model into this community.   We will work with KDMC to identify a range of other potential training partners who can cover broader topics and geography.  Initially, we will focus most closely on sustainability and business model opportunities. What we learn through this process will help inform a second Block by Block Community News Summit in fall 2011.

Our second community focus will be the Journalism That Matters Community.

Unlike the Block by Block Community, Journalism That Matters (JTM) is a longstanding network, started in 2001. This network has been focused on cultivating strong interaction among journalists, educators, reformers and community members. The goal is to help professional journalists take full advantage of the emerging wave of citizen journalists to create a richer, more collaborative information source for communities.

The JTM community has a strong understanding of its goals and shared values. It is now trying to move to new levels of collaboration through a revised website and more focus on digital interaction. JTM has expressed interest in using the Journalism Accelerator tool we developed with RJI Fellow Lisa Skube as a centerpiece of that effort.

Our roadmap for working with JTM is as follows:

  • Identify how JTM would use the tool within their existing web infrastructure - how would it connect with its existing technology.
  • Identify and refine interaction goals for the JTM community.
  • Identify and refine content goals for the JTM community.
  • Develop a plan for building and sustaining relationships and interaction within the Journalism Accelerator.

Because we have already done the heavy lifting of developing the underlying technology of the Journalism Accelerator, our work with JTM is really focused on how a collaboration tool can work to develop connection and deepen knowledge sharing within a targeted network.  In late 2010, we were in the early stages of conversation with JTM to further define the opportunity.

The circle of connection

All of this returns us to the need we identified early in 2010: The need for a network of innovation.

Our approach has changed: We have moved from developing an overall network to focusing on smaller, more targeted efforts. But what we have learned about the needs of journalism innovators remains the same:

  • A need to identify other practitioners who share your goals, your va

    lues and your challenges

  • A need for those practitioners to collaborate in real time, across distance
  • A need to have that collaboration inform training, learning and tools development
  • A need to archive learnings and make them searchable, so that practitioners can build on a base of shared knowledge.

How communities express those needs will vary. In 2011, we will learn about what collaboration looks like in two very distinct communities. Our learnings will inform the work of both of those communities, and we hope, will be useful in seeding the principles of healthy network development in other journalism communities.

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