Tag Archives: entrepreneurial journalism

Taking a major leap of faith starting a local news business

I meant to post this here at the time, but perhaps a nearly six-month gap between launching my own local news site and reflecting a little bit about did some good.

Frankly, I’ll admit I’m in way over my head. I’ve spent most of these formative weeks trying to cover the hell out of my community, and I’ve had some successes. But I’m nowhere near where I want to be with this, content-wise, and this is the product I need to build up to get the eyeballs to deliver to advertisers.

My fellow indie publishers say it takes at least a year to feel as though you have any traction, so I’m not getting too panicky.

Mostly, I’m working up the gumption to ask local businesses to support an emerging news source before I have the traffic they might expect. Building some relationships has been helpful, but I’ve barely scratched the surface there.

Why then? This seems nuts, and there are times it does to me. It’s been more apparent to many of us that “we can’t leave the news business to the business side anymore.” I’ve been thinking about doing this for some time, but honestly, I’m absolutely frightened.

Not of failing, I’d like to think. Quite often my biggest fears have come about from having nothing stand between me and the things I want the most. After 30 years in corporate media, there’s nothing more I think I can offer that declining, transforming section of my industry.

No, what I want to do more than anything is to create something for myself—my own news business—as well as for my community, a place where I grew up and that doesn’t have a solid news source of its own. There’s some local and Atlanta media, which are stretched thin and show up for big stories. There are lifestyle magazines that have the advertisers and social media numbers I envy, but sell their readers mostly grandiose consumption.

I know I’m crazy to push the notion that local news still matters, even in an affluent, wired community, but I’m learning from pioneers in this field that you have to be somewhat crazy to take a stab at this in the first place.

I’ve never run a business nor have I attempted before, but I’m giving this my best shot, believing as leaders in my new industry assert that it’s going to be community-minded journalists with an entrepreneurial bent who are going to save what’s left of local news.

We also need to convince those with investment dollars that the one-off, truly local models we’re building are worth funding. Nothing against non-profits, but the critical thing is business development:

“We need money backing business builders because that’s how new engines of prosperity are assembled. This is how dynamic, aggressive competitors are born, how markets change and how jobs are created.”

In 2017 the subject of local news became a frequent topic in the journalism profession, but there’s still precious little investment or patience with rebuilding it online as community newspapers emerged over decades starting in the late 1800s.

Digital advertising is being swallowed whole by Facebook and Google, and even successful web ventures like BuzzFeed are facing grim prospects. Whether the digital media bubble bursts as is being predicted or not, those of us on a much smaller scale have a chance to establish more of the necessary foundation.

But as I learned at a conference this fall for indie online news publishers, most of us are truly on our own. There is money to be made at the hyperlocal level, but getting advertisers to go with us, instead of Facebook, or fading legacy plays, is brutally difficult.

I’ve also spent far too much time making technology fixes and trying to figure out Facebook’s byzantine publishers procedures. So following that first-year-in-hell notion has helped my perspective quite a bit.

These six months have been like dog-paddling, trying to keep my head above water, but I’ve got to splash more decisively in the new year. The first half of 2018 has to be where the big push takes place if this project is going to have the success I’m still bullish about.

 

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Assorted journalism links for May 27

Lots of good links from around the journosphere that I’ve found especially helpful, intriguing or worth paying attention to for other reasons:

A writer’s search for journalism in the age of branding — Maureen Tkacik is a young journalist, but her battered, whirlwind experiences make her sound like my jaded generation of printies. She does wish we would dispense with some outdated notions about holding ourselves outside of a story.

For me, an enduring frustration of traditional journalism is that what training you do get centers on the imperative to discount and dismiss your own experiences in pursuit of some objective ideal, even as journalism simultaneously exposes you to an unusually large variety of experiences. The idea that it might be a good thing to attempt to apply insights gleaned from those experiences to future stories—let alone synthesize it all into any sort of coherent narrative—rarely comes up, unless you’re a columnist. This can be an especially torturous dilemma during the inevitable low point at which the journalist—this one, anyway—comes to believe that the only feasible course of action (given the state of journalism) is to secure a six-figure book deal, and commences filling her off-hours in a feeble attempt to ‘write what you know.’ I know a lot of things, taunts the endless negative feedback loop, but none of them is how to make six figures.”

More than a few readers, by the way, suspect Tkacik isn’t as serious about her ideas for journalism as she is building her own brand. Perhaps it’s a little of both.

(h/t Kyle Whelliston)

• Death of a newspaper career — Oregon print journalist Adam Sparks stopped taking the newspaper after returning from vacation, and eventually he stopped going into his old office at the Register-Guard in Eugene — by choice:

“It’s scary to lose your job and have your livelihood taken away, and, I’m not gonna lie, it’s a bit terrifying to be stepping away voluntarily without a landing place lined up. I’ve had my career goals in place since high school, and it’s unsettling that, after all this time, I have no specific aspirations. I’ve got a lot of ideas, and have already encountered a few possibilities, but this is still a giant leap into the unknown, without a parachute or a safety net.

“There’s a reason it’s called a ‘comfort zone,’ and a reason most people don’t seek to leave it.”

Sparks has started his own news site, and is seeking freelance work. Welcome to the diaspora.

3 Underrated but essential skills for journalists — Mark Luckie of the fine 10,000 Words blog says they’re math, design and interpersonal skills, the often-caricatured unHoly Trinity of  the ink-stained wretches. I could definitely improve in all three, but the “people-person” reference didn’t help articulate his final point. Any good grizzled editor would strike that as a lame and vague reference and ask, not entirely sarcastically: “What does that mean?”

I think the point  is to better serve readers. You do that by having conversation and exchanging ideas, typically now via blogs and social media. As for “the ability to communicate with a total stranger,” this is not a new skill. It is about building relationships, as that cliché goes, and it is the essence of good reporting and source-building, no matter the platform. Traditional journalists who successfully have done that in print and “old media” — with sources, officials and readers — are doing it in the digital realm.

An investor’s tips for budding news entrepreneurs — On the heels of the Knight Digital Media Center’s News Entrepreneur Boot Camp comes some smart advice from early-stage investor Robert Arholt. I especially like his remarks on the advantages of bootstrappers who want to stay independent:

“They continue to hold their destiny in their own hands. Having investors means bringing in not only capital, but additional perspectives and goals.”

Journalism/Media/Web links for April 27

8 Ways for Entrepreneurial Journalists to Think Like Business People:

“Many, many businesses have failed where the income statement showed things were great, but they didn’t have cash. Cash flow is ‘the lifeblood of your business.’ ”

Bias Or Balance: Media Wrestle With Faltering Trust:

“Five or 10 years ago, the conversation about trust and the media would have triggered different results. But people no longer volunteer so many complaints about reporters making up stories, as they did in the wake of the scandals involving Jayson Blair at The New York Times and Jack Kelley at USA Today. And concern over how stories are slanted no longer comes just from conservatives. It comes from all quarters.”

72 Marietta — I Still Love You:

The Journal and Constitution hated each other then — a deep, healthy hatred that was a beautiful thing. The first time in history when the Constitution out-circulated the Journal was on Aug. 17, 1977, when the morning rag reported Elvis Presley’s death. I never forgave Elvis for dying on Constitution time.”

Terry Gross: What I Read:

“I really don’t keep up with bloggers. I suppose I should feel guilty about that but my goal in life is to get away from the computer. Time spent reading blogs takes away from the time I should be spending preparing for guests. It’s hard when you’re doing a show like Fresh Air and you’re talking to musicians, theater people, actors and experts on every subject. You have to make peace with the fact that you can’t keep up with everything. It’s more information than you can possibly absorb.”

Think Again: The Internet:

“Today’s Internet is a world where homophobic activists in Serbia are turning to Facebook to organize against gay rights, and where social conservatives in Saudi Arabia are setting up online equivalents of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. So much for the ‘freedom to connect’ lauded by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in her much-ballyhooed speech on the Internet and human rights. Sadly enough, a networked world is not inherently a more just world.”

Facebook Further Reduces Your Control Over Personal Information:

“The new connections features benefit Facebook and its business partners, with little benefit to you. But what are you going to do about it? Facebook has consistently ignored demands from its users to create an easy ‘exit plan’ for migrating their personal data to another social networking website, even as it has continued — one small privacy policy update after another — to reduce its users’ control over their information.”

More adventures in media dog-paddling

I’ve expressed here before that the ubiquitous “follow your passion” enthusiasts don’t always acknowledge that not everyone can really follow their heart’s desire because, quite frankly, every desire doesn’t quite translate into ample revenue streams.

Web wine impresario Gary Vaynerchuk (read halfway down on that previous link) has expanded that mantra in a new book that explains his success and encourages others that they can enjoy the same.

Perhaps I’m suspending my skepticism a bit, but his easy-to-absorb, 142-page “Crush It!” fully outlines his case in ways that videos and short blog posts and online articles can’t. But Vaynerchuk is careful to point out that this isn’t a get-rich-quick scheme, and that using social media isn’t an end in itself. They’re tools to build and grow a business, just like traditional advertising and public relations, and not merely shiny new toys.

He leads the chapter “A Whole New World” with the upheavals in the news media, and how that can be a good thing for journalists with a passion to go beyond traditional newsroom limitations. Indeed, he states as simply and clearly and realistically as anything I’ve read on this subject the imperative for journalists to become news entrepreneurs:

“News has always been functioning under a communistic regime, but capitalism always wins. . . . The changes affecting the news business are permanent. . . . And, like it or not, many people’s respect for quality reporting has eroded. This upsets me as much as the next guy, but the fact is that it’s a trend that is having a huge impact on business and needs to be noticed and accepted. . . . I assure you, this is how things are going to roll.

“The only arguments I get in this debate, by the way, are from journalists and individuals with an emotional attachment to the idea of ink on paper and the romance of sipping a cup of coffee while reading the Sunday Times. Most business people know I’m right.”

That last sentence I think is as essential to keep in mind because it’s a point that most journalists are not accustomed to considering. We fret and get all sentimental about how newspapers aren’t what they used to be. But so many of us outside that world don’t consider the ways in which we can create news businesses of our own, as fledgling as most may be during a dramatic period of transformation.

In light of all this, I really needed to read such a level-headed refresher to think and act proactively, with no nostalgia or excuse-making attached:

“If the traditional platforms are sinking ships, then journalists are sailors who need to jump. If they’re not strong enough to get to the new ships, yes, they’re going to drown. But those who are great swimmers are going to sail very, very far. That is the way business has always played and always will.”

The evolution of sports journalism online

While I remain deeply involved in the development and forthcoming launch of a sports news site, I’ve found encouragement from others who are embarking on similar endeavors, and for similar reasons. C. Trent Rosecrans, whom I first met when he was a student journalist at the University of Georgia a decade ago, has started a sports news site in Cincinnati, and I love his approach:

“There are no jobs in media right now, nobody’s hiring. I could sit around and complain, or try to do something else. What I am trying to do is starting from the ground up. These are people who know this scene. I’ve lived here for six years now, and have only lived one place longer in my life. This is my home now, and I want to stay here and be part of this community.”

That’s just one example of someone I know who’s trying to continue his passion in face of layoffs and the daunting odds of bootstrapping.

At the same time, the National Sports Journalism Center has opened in Indianapolis, and its Website is flush with fresh, relevant material about the need for sports journalists to learn online skills and concepts while strengthening their grasp of the fundamentals of the profession.

For a tribe that can be rather grouchy and retrograde about the newspaper industry and the future of media, this is a very welcome development. It’s time to grow up, stop complaining about what’s happening in the business and get on with doing what we love.

So what might be the next major step for online sports journalism? I’m hoping there might be something along the lines of the News Entrepreneur Boot Camp that the Knight Digital Media Center is offering up again this spring. While this and other similar programs are great opportunities for journalists to develop business skills and business models, they seem to be limited to local news projects “in the public interest.”

I’ve thought of applying for this program because I’ve heard so many good things about it from those who attended a year ago, but I wonder if a sports topic wouldn’t be deemed serious enough for consideration. While I’m fine-tuning the content model for my site — which is my area of strength — I’m also boning up on e-mail marketing, approaching potential vendors and freelancers, laying out long-range plans and suggesting revenue models.

There are several other journalists who also have begun sites in my sliver of the niche sports universe. While it makes my project more challenging, it’s a terrific sign of the interest and need to help replace what’s disappearing from newspapers. But the business end of this is all new stuff for many of us.

The extension of good sports journalism online may not be vital to democracy, but it’s certainly something that attracts great interest from the public.

Between the corporate dominance of ESPN and the cynicism and snark of Deadspin is plenty of fertile ground for vibrant, independent voices to emerge.

10 good links about journalism’s past, present and future

There’s no intentional attempt at symmetry here, but in my Delicious collection I’ve noticed an almost equal number of journalism-related links lately that either 1) weep for the state of newspapers and cross their fingers at how they might survive, or 2) say goodbye to all that and march defiantly into the future.

Perhaps it sums up some of the conflicting feelings I have for my craft, although I largely come down on the side of the latter. Thought I’d share these links here, and offer some comments as a full calendar year outside the confines of a newsroom comes to a close for me.

If I sound a bit too sardonic, my apologies. While I’ve shed most of my mournfulness about what’s happened to newspapers, I think helps to be mindful of what’s being lost. Building something better is impossible without that understanding.

Looking back, and hoping:

Twilight of the American newspaper (Harper’s) — I’ve been wanting to cut down on linking to obituaries like this one. But journalist and PBS NewsHour contributor Richard Rodriguez’ elegy for the San Francisco Chronicle he grew up reading is well-written and laced with the kind of emotion that only a devoted reader can summon. There’s some terrific history here of that city’s papers and what they meant for the generations who read them.

The print catharsis will continue in 2010, so it’s only proper to mourn, at least for a short while, whether you agree with Rodriguez or not:

“We will end up with one and a half cities in America — Washington, D.C., and American Idol. We will all live in Washington, D.C., where the conversation is a droning, never advancing, debate between ‘conservatives’ and ‘liberals.’ We will not read about newlyweds. We will not read about the death of salesmen. We will not read about prize Holsteins or new novels. We are a nation dismantling the structures of intellectual property and all critical apparatus. We are without professional book reviewers and art critics and essays about what it might mean that our local newspaper has died.”

(via Doug Fisher)

What Are You Willing to Give Up from Journalism? (Time, via Mich Sineath) — James Poniewozik asks newspaper readers — as if they haven’t sacrificed enough — what else they wouldn’t mind doing without as newsroom staffs get smaller.

• When Will a Web Editor Lead a Major Newsroom? (the soon-to-be-shuttered Editor & Publisher, ironically enough) — I believe this is a rhetorical question.

• Putting bite back in newspapers (Reflections of a Newsosaur) — More salient advice for traditional journalists that will go unheeded in neutered newsrooms.

• On leaving the newsroom (Tina Kelly Poetry) — A departing New York Times staffer reflects about being part of a journalistic tribe that has had “an honored front row seat in life.” Indeed.

Moving on, and looking forward:

• With or without publishers, local online continues to grow: (Journalism 2.0) — “If you’re a forward-thinker and an optimist, it’s exciting.” Some of us are, but far too many are not.

• Next year’s news about the news: What we’ll be fighting about in 2010 (Nieman Journalism Lab) — How about dispensing with the phrase “news ecosystem” for starters?

• 8 Must-Have Traits of Tomorrow’s Journalist (Mashable) — Business and entrepreneurial skills, above all, for fairly obvious reasons.

10 tips for would-be online journalism entrepreneurs (news: rewired) — “Don’t assume anything you do will be unique.” The key to all the others.

The future is nearer than you think (Xark) — “While I wish the future’s self-employed small-business journalists well, here’s a warning: Watch out for that next wave of disruptive development, because it’s likely to wash your job — and your mortgage — out to sea.”

Between nostalgia and the future of news

I’ve got so many links on journalism and media topics here from the last week to share, especially as they pertain to old-media journalists being confronted with the realities of the new media universe, voluntarily or not. As traditionalists continue their nostalgia tour of the late, great newsroom, the vitality and energy that have departed the premises is cropping up in outside precincts in a variety of new endeavors.

I’mtrying not to get too excited, because the prospects for bootstrapping remain daunting (via @ckrewson). Still, I love hear about the fight that’s left in so many people, in spite of their circumstances and their odds for staying in the profession.

• Travel editor Chris Gray Faust was among those laid off at USA Today last week, despite being an experienced travel editor and newsroom manager who jumped all over the Web. She’s eager to move on, based on what she observed from those outside the “newsroom bubble:”

“I’d go to conferences and meet people who were making it just fine on their own. Some were creating niche businesses, busting up the paradigm. Others were parlaying old school media talents into fresh ventures, with a moxie that made me wish I had the freedom to emulate them. The air inside USAT’s towers on Jones Branch Drive always seemed a little stale after that.

These freelancers-slash-entrepreneurs are smart. They are nimble. And now they are my role models, as I join their ranks.

• Public relations maven George Snell is predicting that the Gray Fausts of the world will infuse non-newsroom journalism with some badly-needed vibrancy (via Dan Kennedy) and help create a blogging “Renaissance.” He didn’t delve into how they might be able to make a living:

“Former journalists like Chris Gray Faust are going to take their journalism expertise to blogging. They no longer will be blogging part-time as a supplement to their ‘day jobs’ as journalists. They are going to be blogging full-time – trying to make careers out of it. This surge of professional writers and reporters to the ranks of blogging is going to take blogging in new and creative directions.”

• Not long ago I wrote here about the fallacies of neutering the newsroom. In her latest piece for the Nieman Journalism Lab, Gina Chen explains how she finally was deprogrammed out of the cult of objectivity — after leaving her newspaper, of course:

“By not telling people what I thought or felt or believed, I may have been avoiding the near occasion of subjectivity, but I wasn’t being a better journalist. I wasn’t building trust with readers. Refraining to tell readers where I was coming from didn’t make me objective. It just failed to make me transparent.”

Amen.

• Then there are social media policies that some news organizations have employed to put their august journalists in another kind of straitjacket:

“The notion that jour­nal­ists don’t have per­sonal lives or opin­ions, that they shouldn’t reveal polit­i­cal pref­er­ences or engage in civic causes regard­less of their beat, that they should be shielded from direct inter­ac­tion with the pub­lic for fear of dis­clos­ing a com­pro­mis­ing point of view — this is sheer lunacy. If news­pa­pers die, it will be because they splayed them­selves on the altar of objec­tiv­ity rather than mov­ing to a new kind of rela­tion­ship that the pub­lic is clearly crav­ing for.”

• What impact might these restrictions have on a younger generation of journalists? Plenty, and this appraisal is hardly encouraging:

“If young journalists choose to revolt against convention, they will likely be rejected by the group. This means isolation within the workplace, or outright dismissal. Pushing the limits of the organization can result in a very real cost for younger journalists. It’s high risk, with potentially few rewards.”

• Meanwhile, some journalists wrapping themselves up in the cloak of traditionalism continue crabby diatribes against threats to their careers without examining how they might adapt to the media world as it is:

“We advocate abolishing the term ‘citizen journalist.’ These people can call themselves ‘citizen news gatherers,’ but it is no more appropriate to call them citizen journalists than it would be to sit before a citizen judge or be operated on by a citizen brain surgeon.”

• One newspaper old-timer I’ll give a bit of a pass to is Pete Hamill. For all of his nostalgia about the way newspapers were, he does provide a bit of bracing realism about his beloved craft, and is clear-eyed about what he likes, and doesn’t like about journalism emerging on the Web:

“I love Charlie Sennett’s globalpost.com. I did a piece for them on the 20th anniversary of the fall of communism behind the Iron Curtain because I was there. So I think the beginning of that is happening. You can see with the Wall Street Journal what the format might be. They are now charging for the Internet version which is a hell of a lot cheaper than finding a newsstand to carry it.

“We have some others. The Huffingtonpost.com does not pay its writers. Tina Browns’ thedailybeast.com does pay its writers. You have to be paid because this is not a hobby. You have to keep that standard. You can’t ask grandpa to loan you money because you have to go to Afghanistan. I walked the picket line for that to continue.”

• Also getting some traditionalists uptight is a reorganization announced last week at the Dallas Morning News that has some news managers — in entertainment, sports, travel, automotive and typically ad-oriented verticals — reporting to business and sales staff. Mathew Ingram has mixed feelings about this that I share:

“Should the Chinese wall between editorial and advertising become more porous, or be torn down completely? I’m torn on the subject, frankly. I realize that journalism needs to bend and evolve, and that harsh business realities have to be taken into account, but I’ve also seen the damage that can be done when ad concerns drive — or even shape — coverage of a story.”

• However, for those of us now on our own or who are part of independent news ventures, no such wall exists. We’ve got to make it pay, or we go on to something else. Those still in newsrooms who are shocked by the wall crumbling need to break out of the cocoon, and soon. Among the challenges for news entrepreneurs, this is the one that I think might be the most important — and probably the most difficult — to reach:

“Don’t assume anything you do will be unique. No matter how clever the idea or the underlying technology, someone else can easily set up in competition to you. The internet makes it much easier to self-publish, but it makes it easier for everyone not just you! Being the first to do something is not necessarily good. You will do all the work creating a marketplace that others will then exploit. But if you are in a niche and fairly innovative space, competition is a good thing. It spreads the burden of building consumer confidence in your business model and should prevent you becoming complacent.”