Unsolicited advice from a vet of journalism’s last war

Posted on October 27, 2010 by Janet Coats

In a recent post for the Knight Digital Media Center’s News Leadership 3.0 blog, Lisa Williams does a simply brilliant job of explaining why Block by Block was so important.

I recommend reading her post in full. But the key point she makes is that community  publishers have been laboring in isolation, each conducting her own experiment in ways how to build a very local news site. That will never be true again after Block by Block, last month’s summit for community news publishers enabled, in part, by funding from The Patterson Foundation.

Lisa, who has been tracking the rise of such sites since 2006 as founder of Placeblogger.com, saw the lack of organization among the publishers as part of the beauty of the movement. The fact that there was not central organizing body meant that many people were trying things on their own, unconstrained by organizational expectations.

“In an era where nobody knows what’s going to work, do as many experiments as possible,’’ Lisa wrote.

At Block by Block, Lisa says, we saw the beginning of a community of practice, where practitioners are learning from the sites that are gaining traction and beginning to replicate those best practices in other markets.

In the month since Block by Block, participants have continued the conversation about how best to draw strength from each other. It’s an exciting time; it feels like the beginning of a new phase of learning and growth.

I’m not a grassroots publisher, and I never have been. But I have had the experience of trying to write a new page for journalism, of being part of the union of like-minded practitioners who believed that challenging the old orthodoxy was absolutely necessary. That movement was the public, or civic, journalism movement of the early to mid 1990s. While we gained some traction, we didn’t accomplish as much as we could have had we been more purposeful about what we were doing – and really understanding how it was different from the status quo.

From that experience, I learned a thing or two about what happens when you trigger the journalism establishment’s immune system. With that experience in mind, I’d humbly offer a little food for thought to the Block by Block participants as they move forward:

Beware of replacing an old orthodoxy with a new one. Sticking to the conventional wisdom is part of what has damaged the relevance of traditional media. Challenging it is part of the power of the new wave of entrepreneurial journalists. But it takes no time at all for what had been fresh and powerful ideas to start to harden into their own form of orthodoxy. I can’t begin to tell the Block by Block participants how that will happen for them, but I can promise that it will.  In the civic journalism movement, we could be a little clubby and a little cliquey – it could be intimidating for those new to the fold to gain entrance and challenge the thinking of the early practitioners. Any group charting a new course needs to listen for the contrary voices, the people who express discomfort when the path seems clear to everyone else. If someone is saying something that irritates you or just plain makes you mad, that’s probably something you need to hear and think about.

Don’t fight the last war, but don’t forget the lessons of it either. In public journalism, we spent so much time fighting the war for what newspaper journalism should be that we missed the rise of the Web – a place that would have been much more hospitable to what we were trying to accomplish. At Block by Block, we spent a lot of time talking about websites and very little talking about mobile. We spent a lot of time talking about conversation and very little talking about data visualization. You have to keep your eye on what’s coming next, and you have to be very thoughtful about applying the lessons you’ve already learned to that next thing. I wish the public journalism movement had been more focused on tracking results of our journalism and applying what we learned to what we needed to do next. I’d encourage the community news site publishers to be very purposeful about tracking and documenting what you are learning.

Make it your business to understand the business. One of the greatest mistakes traditional journalists made was staying willfully ignorant about how the money got made. In a misguided attempt to maintain “purity’’ from the business side, we ceded that turf to the advertising and circulation departments.  When people asked us if public journalism was making a difference on the business side, we always just replied that we couldn’t really document that. I’m not sure we ever really tried hard enough to document the business case for what we were doing – and given the declining engagement with the traditional practice of journalism, there was definitely a business case in our work somewhere, if we’d made it our job to find it. It is a simple fact of life that control of your fate rests with the ability to make money – to know what business models have the most promise, and to be an active participant in building your own financial future.  Don’t cede that to wishful thinking or to hoping someone else will figure it out.

Today’s “enemy’’ may be tomorrow’s partner. If there was any tension in the room at all at Block by Block, it was over the presences of representatives from Patch.com and Yahoo! The presence of Patch.com was particularly problematic for some participants, because they view the AOL network of hyperlocal sites as a potential threat, a heavily financed competitor that may strangle smaller, independent efforts. And perhaps that threat is real. But it is hard to know how the environment will turn and change over time. I found myself on more than one occasion partnering with organizations and individuals I had disparaged; circumstances changed, and we found that we needed each other. While it is always good to be skeptical about the motives of those you see as competitors, it is best to keep that skepticism dispassionate. You may find yourself having to dine on your own words of criticism somewhere down the line.

Think carefully about how you want to lead, and how you want to be led.

One of the things that the Block by Block participants are tiptoeing around a bit is the issue of leadership. As grassroots practitioners, there is a natural resistance to the idea of hierarchy. That impulse is, I think, a good one. The last thing journalism needs is another organization with a ladder of officers who are selected from within a closed system of leadership. But if there is to be a more systematic way of sharing knowledge and drawing strength from each other, it will take leadership to make that happen. Think actively about the models of leadership that appeal to you. Perhaps a servant leadership model is appropriate, or a collaborative leadership structure and style. Then think about how you want to be led: what kind of leadership would resonate with you, would come with the credibility needed to make things happen? It is true that nature abhors a vacuum, and leaders will emerge in this community. Having that happen in a thoughtful way instead of by accident will help ensure the values the community holds dear now have a chance of enduring as this movement grows and stretches.

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