Year of inquiry challenges what I thought I knew

Posted on December 23, 2010 by Janet Coats

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

We began this journey 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 I began my work began. 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 with business models.

When I started doing research for the New Media Journalism Initiative, I formed a set of hypothesis to test. They were based on my own experiences as an editor and what I was learning from interviewing people in all aspects of journalism.

As we enter the second year of the initiative, I've taken a look back at those early ideas and what I've learned in the intervening months:

  • There is a need for connection among journalism innovators. This was an early finding of my research, and I believed that the need was for an innovators’ network that would cut across all types of journalism. I worked partners develop a prototype of just such a network. But testing that idea with potential users led 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 thought leaders I 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 – 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 my work, I conducted more than 100 interviews with entrepreneurs and thought-leaders across the field. I 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 put together Block by Block, a news summit for community journalism entrepreneurs.

I began my work with Patterson confident of my understanding about what journalism is, what it needs and where it might be going. The journey of the past year has shaken that confidence in the best way -- by opening my eyes and my mind to new possibilities, challenging what I thought I knew and causing me to reconsider my own beliefs and experience as a journalist.

Not since I was a student more than 25 years ago have I been as excited about journalism's future. That's as it should be -- because this past year, for me, has been about going back to school. This next year will be about putting that new knowledge into action.

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


Leave a comment

You are commenting as guest.