What helps news startups?

What helps news startups?

Posted on May 22, 2013 by Janet Coats

One of the best things about my life after newspapers has been the way it has changed my connections within journalism.

Journalism is a tribal industry, and for years my tribe consisted pretty much exclusively of print newspaper editors – folks whose experiences and world view was very much like my own. There certainly was comfort and familiarity there, but there wasn’t a lot of thinking that was challenging the orthodoxy about the primacy of print. As we’ve seen dramatically in the last few years, it was a primacy that needed challenging.

Moving beyond the walls of the newspaper industry has introduced me to a whole new world of smart and provocative thinkers, people who come from different places and who view journalism through different lenses than my own. One of those smart people is Lisa Williams, CEO and founder of Placeblogger, which is the world’s largest searchable index of local weblogs.

Lisa’s deep knowledge of what has been happening at the very local level among news entrepreneurs has been invaluable to me in my own learning about that world. She has been gracious in sharing what she knows, including working with The Patterson Foundation’s very first class on business mentoring for community news publishers (a gathering we dubbed Super Camp).

Lisa’s written a piece on our latest business mentoring effort, the New Jersey Community Journalism Executive Training Program that appeared on Knight Digital Media Center’s site, and we wanted to share her perspective on this work and how it fits in the bigger picture of journalism’s financial future.


The News Ecosystem - What helps news startups?

The fate of the New York Times, the New Orleans Times-Picayune's decision to cut the print edition to three times a weekrumors that the conservative billionaire Koch brothers may make a run at acquiring the Tribune Company, giving them the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, and other newspapers in major American cities -- all of these get a lot of attention.

But you can't get a complete picture of what we might call the news ecosystem by looking only at the largest organizations, any more than you could get a picture of the ecosystem of whales while ignoring the existence of plankton.

So what about small news organizations?  Well, for one thing, there are a lot of them: when I started tracking them in 2007, 1 in 8 Americans lived in a city or town with an independent online local news site.  By 2010, that number was 1 in 2.  That's faster growth than cable TV.

However, the churn rate -- the rate at which independent local news sites are created and wink out of existence is also quite high. Observers quite rightly wring their hands a bit and throw around the s-word: Sustainability.

The challenges that face the operators of local news sites are substantial: in addition to all the problems that their larger cousins have, they face lack of access to startup capital or business loans, an almost complete lack of an exit market, and all the other challenges that any other small business owner faces.* Even when a local news site succeeds to the point where they find a buyer for the business, that's no guarantee of sustainability either.  

Unlike media moguls who can ride a private-equity funded golden parachute to the next phase of their lives even while the companies they preside over declare bankruptcy and have massive layoffs, local news entrepreneurs are like a passage out of Emerson's Self-Reliance:

If our young men miscarry in their first enterprises, they lose all heart. If the young merchant fails, men say he is ruined... A sturdy lad from New Hampshire or Vermont, who in turn tries all the professions, who teams it,  farms it, peddles, keeps a school, preaches, edits a newspaper, goes to Congress, buys a township, and so forth, in successive years, and always, like a cat, falls on his feet, is worth a hundred of these city dolls... He has not one chance, but a hundred chances.

We might say the same of local news entrepreneurs and the churn rate of their enterprises; though any one might fail, there are still 99 more chances and plenty of people to take them -- the problem is, a news entrepreneur might not realize where her best chances lie, and what options she has in taking them.

That's where CJET (Community Journalism Executive Training) comes in. CJET started out as a program to bring news entrepreneurs together, give them some basic training in elements of business they might not have much experience in, and help them build a 100-day plan to grow their enterprise. CJET was originally developed with Knight Digital Media Center and The Patterson Foundation as Block by Block Super Camp in 2011-12. A first class of CJET was held in 2012 with sponsorship by the Investigative News Network with support from Knight and Patterson foundations.

Debbie Galant, director of the New Jersey News Commons,  talks about what makes the New Jersey class in mid-May different from previous cohorts --  unlike previous classes, this one is regional, which gives participants the opportunity to form long-lasting bonds with fellow entrepreneurs that they could see in person even after the program is over.

"Our interests converge with [The Patterson Foundation's] because, like them, we are very interested in supporting the younger sprouts in the news ecosystem. Patterson is very interested in seeing how the dynamic changes when the sites are geographically linked. We both hope to see a lot of peer-to-peer follow-up afterwards."

Galant is a graduate of Super Camp and formed tight bonds with fellow entrepreneurs, something she thinks will happen even more in a regional context. "This is the kind of long-term association that produces long-term, unanticipated rewards," she says.

Janet Coats of The Patterson Foundation says, "We're interested in getting to critical mass with publishers with a lot of different types to find out if there are approaches that can make a difference, and make a difference across the field." Patterson and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation are the funders.

To that end, despite having New Jersey in common, the publications themselves are diverse, both in how developed they are and in their aims.  "We have two organizations that focus exclusively on arts (NJ Arts News and Morris Beats)," says Galant, "and two sites in Newark  that consider themselves competitors (Newark Pulse and Glocally Newark). Plus a statewide food site, NJ Bites, which is coming up against its first major competitor. Then we have a group of strong hyperlocals, mostly well-known, and NJ Spotlight, which claims the same space in the news ecosystem that the Texas Tribune does in the Lone Star State."

Self reliance will get you started -- but community (and skills) keep you going.

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