When entrepreneurial journalism is neither entrepreneurial nor journalism

I’ve often commented that the future of news will be distributed among smaller, nimbler and collaborative organizations. And when anyone can publish, the point of  “sustainability” – the amount of cash each needs to keep going – will vary wildly.

My former colleague Buddy Nevins today writes about the perfect illustration – an independent blogger in Deerfield Beach, Fla., whose work has led to three indictments of sitting city officials. (Which is, um, three more than my old city-desk staff managed during my tenure.)

Particularly noteworthy: I doubt that Chazz Stevens would fit your definition of “journalist.” Heck, he might not even accept the title if you offered it to him. Nor is his site – the aptly named My Acts of Sedition – anything more than a labor of passion.

My takeaway: If you’re a traditional media operator – or even an entrepreneurial journalist – you have to recognize that others out there can and will survive and publish on far less than you need. Rather than fight them in a race to the bottom, embrace them as potential members of loose content (or even advertising) networks.

H/T to Buddy for his original post – and for the fine, independent journalism he continues to inflict upon* offer to South Florida.

(*I’m betting he’ll consider that a compliment.)

What 18 students taught us

My friend and former colleague Bill Day and I just finished a great six-week course in entrepreneurial journalism for 18 graduate students in American University’s Interactive Journalism master’s program.

We set out to be intentionally provocative, because Bill and I have seen too many great ideas for projects and products turn into smoldering wreckage because of miscommunication between journalists and business folks. (OK, and partly because Bill and I just like being provocative.)

So we taught it as if it were a master’s level business-school class. We used case studies about interesting media start-ups. We taught the ABCs of financial statements (yes: We made journalists look at numbers) and the grandular details of different revenue models. And we required every student to pitch a sustainable news-and-information venture.

We heard some terrific ideas. But as Tom O’Malia*, a serial entrepreneur and director emeritus of the Lloyd Grief Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at USC,  reminds anyone who will listen: Ideas are cheap.

Entrepreneurial ideas are only useful if they can be refined into a workable business concept – one that has real, paying customers, and delivers clear value to those customers.

Tricky distinction, especially for reporters.

No, your audience is usually not a paying customer. (We won’t get into the tiresome paid-content discussion here – but even at newspapers and magazines, subscription fees from the audience are a small portion of revenues, and an even tinier portion of the profits. The real paying customers are the advertisers.)

We were gratified at how quickly the group caught on.

Many of the ideas were terrific, and got only better by the final pitch session. We’re going to be intentionally vague about the specifics – several folks are still working on their ideas with an eye towards actually executing them in the real world. Suffice to say our interest was piqued by proposals to:

  • Mine rich internal archives of entertainment reviews at a major media company
  • Connect reporters and people who have compelling information to, um, share. (“Leak” is such a loaded word, wouldn’t you agree?)
  • Attack a classified-advertising niche that has largely – and strangely – been left untouched. So far, anyway.

Great. But you know what was even better?

The weak ideas – the ones that started life as “Hey, kids! Let’s put on a website!” (All credit to Mark Potts for that line.)

Over just two months, those weak ideas got better. From vague beginnings emerged sharp proposals to create:

  • A unique alliance around a hyperlocal site to provide modest, yet stable, funding that doesn’t rely on local ad dollars.
  • Community and hobby-driven sites that focus on narrow, but attractive, niches. (All I’ll say about one of those niches: The hobbyists scraped together $15 million to construct a building for their pastime?!? That’s a niche I’d like to capture.)
  • A clever blending of non-profit status, cheap technology and Internet cafes to support women in West Africa.

The point here is not that all of these ideas will work. Perhaps none will.

The point is that 18 young people – hard-core traditionalists, inexperienced cubs, even some NGO and government types – innovated. They combined creativity, perseverance and some basic business principles to develop concepts that are worth testing in the marketplace.

And therein lies the future of journalism: Smaller, nimbler, more creative.

*(As an aside: Bill and I owe a huge debt to Tom for graciously sharing his curriculum and research.)

 

All these crickets

I’m feeling guilty about the light (read: non-existent) posting for the past couple of months.

The gang at Muppet Labs and I have been building something new, soon to arrive at PBSNews.org. So while there’s only been the sound of crickets over here, there’s lots of hammers banging and saws whirring over there.

Stay tuned – and as that project gets launched (we refuse to mention a date lest we jinx ourselves), there’ll be more here soon.

Promise.

The kids are alright

Some of them, anyway.

Over the past month or so, I’ve been plowing through an extensive stack of resumes to fill some openings on my new team at PBS.

Many of the resumes were sort of sad – those of journalists with impeccable traditional credentials, and no clue what I meant when I asked for work samples that showed creative use of different digital story forms in service of the content.

Call ‘em The Lifeboaters:  “This digital thing is going to be huge, and I’d be proud to learn it from your team!”  Umm, sorry. The ship that you want left 15 years ago. The good news: New ships leave everyday if you’re willing to swim out to the meet them. WordPress.com offers blogs for free. Start there, keep playing, and we’ll talk in a year.

A second pile included people who are incredibly good … at a singular thing. Call ‘em the The One-Skill Wonders: Very adept at slideshows. Or digital video. Or shoveling existing text onto a page. Yes, those are useful skills (and, candidly, they’ve been enough to get very good production jobs at many shops for a long time.) But that’s not what my team is trying to do.

Happily, however, there was a third pile of those resumes: Digital natives (or digital immigrants who work hard to remain conversant) who understand the whiz-bang toys are only useful if they serve the story. They also understand there will be a new whiz-bang tool next year.

My favorite example: One of the candidates is a wizard at a certain vector-graphics program that’s hideously expensive, ridiculously proprietary, notoriously hard to learn – and incredibly useful. Which, of course, leads some to treat it as the Universal Truth to all journalism questions, and to treat themselves as priests.

Not this guy. He wouldn’t bite on my trick question (something about whether this program was the most useful skill he’d ever learned): “The technology is always changing, so I just feel like the ability and willingness to adapt is the best skill someone can have.”

Guess what? He got an interview. So did most of the others in the third pile. They’ll be the ones making up our new team.

It was hard not to notice a few commonalities among them. An awful lot of them passed through Medill at Northwestern, American University in D.C., or Cal-Berkeley. Several also received one of the fabulous summer-long News 21 fellowships.

I’d be horribly remiss if didn’t mention the excellent program at CUNY; as it happens, none of its kids choose to apply. I’d be equally remiss if I didn’t point out that some name-brand journalism schools aren’t on this list – and that’s not an oversight.

The kids in that third stack are solid reporters and great storytellers. When pressed, they talk about technologies as means to an end – tools they can use in service of the story, not as a flashy adornment to it. They also used overly long sentences to offer variations on a motto a longtime colleague used to have on his blog: Semper Gumby – always flexible.)

Of course, one of the people I hired said it far better than I can.

I hope this forms an optimistic riposte to a discerning entry from Wayne MacPhail on PBS’ Media Shift blog. MacPhail makes an impassioned observation that J-schools are failing their students by defaulting to traditional story forms, taught by traditional professors, with barely a mention of the information revolution occurring around us. He’s right.

Too many of my friends – the first-generation digital pioneers now in academe – talk privately about the battles they fight with tenured colleagues who insist that circa-1994 curricula are just fine¸thank you and have served generations of graduates with distinction!

Fortunately for our craft – and for my project – a few schools are taking another path. Some of their grads are going to help us at PBS.

Playing with Storify

The very interesting social-media curation tool Storify was released in private beta on Tuesday at TechCrunch’s Disrupt conference. It neatly twists the idea behind Flipboard.

Flipboard automatically generates a list of stories that might interest you, based on links suggested by people you follow on Twitter or your Facebook friends. Storify reverses the flow – it allows you to easily curate a list of readings you recommend, based on your own (or others’) social-media postings.

It’s still early-release stuff – the UI, while clean, is a bit obscure (especially the flow to save, then edit, a Storify “story.”) And, like all new tools, it’ll take a few weeks for the collective “us” to figure out how to best use it. But it’s a neat mashup of technology and journalism, and it’s worth watching.

Why? Tools like this are part of the emerging news ecosystem – how can we tap the experts out there to surface smart stories on important niche topics? It’s a problem – and opportunity – my skunk-works team at PBS is thinking about a lot.

A sample – which I ginned up in all of three minutes based on the intertwined riffs of newspaper brain drains and the reinvention of what Washington journalism can be:

OK, so a raw feed of pertinent tweets isn’t a “story” in a traditional sense. But marry this with a quick text introduction (which I, um, was a bit too lazy to write) and you’ve got the makings of useful information.

A side note: The smart folks at Storify deserve all the kudos. But I’ll point out that my friends at the Knight Fellowships at Stanford can claim godparent status: co-founder Burt Herman spent the last year as a Knight Fellow, thinking about ways to use technology to reinvent journalism.)

And a big hat-tip to MediaBug‘s Scott Rosenberg for the blog post that tipped me to Storify.

Another drip in the newspaper brain drain

The National Journal is making a major effort to revamp its websites, and it just made a brilliant hire, my old friend and colleague David Beard.

The Journal’s gain, of course, is someone’s loss – the Boston Globe‘s.

Sadly, this is another example of the continuing brain drain of smart digital leaders from traditional newspaper newsrooms. Many who have left talk about the exciting new opportunities at their new organization.

Dave does that – but, as usual, he’s also far more honest about another motivation: “I just didn’t want to live my life managing decline.”

Too true.

Lest we get too maudlin, however: Congrats to Dave for brilliant service to the Boston community for a dozen years, and best wishes on his new adventure.

Been silent lately …

… while I started a new gig. I’m now serving as a senior director and publisher for a news and public affairs project at PBS.org.

My time working with both GrowthSpur and Localist.com has been a blast. But the chance to work with Christine Montgomery and the crew at PBS was too much to pass up.

I remain involved with GrowthSpur as a member of its advisory board. The team there has better insight than just about anyone into the growth of independent journalism in the blogosphere (and the economic challenges those independent blogs place), and is doing vital work to help invent the future of journalism.

The same could be said about my new work, too. More on that in the coming weeks. Suffice to say that my new social-networking avatar is the guy on the left here.

Astute Muppet watchers will recognize him as Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, chief scientist at Muppet Labs, “Where the future is being invented today.” How cool is that? I mean, what could possibly go wrong?

If the prospect of being Beaker-ed doesn’t scare you, I’m still looking for a couple of savvy digital producers who join the new team. Details are at pbs.org/jobs.

ONA parachute training in Birmingham

My friends at the Online News Association put together a terrific program at the University of Alabama-Birmingham for entrepreneurial journalists and others interested in starting news and information sites. (Thanks to the Gannett Foundation for the necessary financial support.) 

I spoke a bit about emerging business models to support these kinds of sites (and – plug warning – the work of my partners at GrowthSpur).

You should search on Twitter for the #ONAUAB hash for some of the fascinating discussions that grew out of the sessions. Less fascinating, perhaps, was my presentation – but for those who asked for it, it’s here.

(Why, yes – I used Prezi. My friend Tim Windsor snarks that Prezi screams 2009 the same way a Yamaha DX7 synthesizer screams 1983. But, hey, I liked a-ha.)

Also: Here’s Robert Hernandez‘s excellent presentation on how journalists can use social media tools (both to build audience, and to be better reporters).

And @DannySanchez’s informative riff on free tools doesn’t have a perfect online analog – but he writes about nearly all of those tools (and even more) on his blog, Journalistopia.com.

Why independence matters (Chap. 4,312)

When you check out Tigers.com this morning, you see video of a brilliant catch … but not of a badly botched call that cost a team a perfect game.

Similarly, if you check out TwinsBaseball.com, you see video of home runs … but not an equally botched call that cost the Twins (disclosure: my favorite team) the game.

All credit to MLB Advanced Media: The glaring videos are available on the sites. You just have to hunt for them. (The Tiggers’ video is on the story-level page; the Twins/Mariners’ um, “infield single” is utterly buried on the site’s video ghetto.) Frankly, YouTube was easier. (Wondering if MLBAM has take-down notices flying this morning.)

A small thing, perhaps, in a world where cellphone and surveillance video is used as a publicity weapon in an international incident, and a major oil company is behaving like Keystone Kops in the Gulf – but one more tiny example of odd results when the economics of publishing change.

Resources for journopreneurs

The Knight Digital Media Center’s entrepeneurial bootcamp at USC has been terrific. (Search #uscnewsbiz on Twitter to get a feel for how terrific.)

Here’s a bucket o’ links and resources I referred to in the discussion at the Knight Digital Media Center’s Entrepreneurial Boot Camp. (They may be useful, of course, to other journopreneurs.)

  • First and foremost: As you think about revenue, don’t fixate on one source – no successful media outlet ever has. Look for several – specific ideas in this link .
  • I freely admit that I’m a history geek (How many Virginians does it take to change a light bulb? Four – one to unscrew, three to give you the history of the old one all the way back to the landing of the first English colonists at Jamestown.) If you want to understand the context of today’s media revolution, here are some terrific (I’d say essential) readings.
  • The number of independent news and information sites is exploding. To keep up – and to spot trends in sustainability – three sites are particularly helpful:

J-Lab at American University

The New Business Models for News project run by Jeff Jarvis at CUNY

The Collaboratory run by the Reynolds Journalism Institute at University of Missouri

  • Several specific essays and blog posts have become intellectual watersheds of the independent-site phenomenon. I’d encourage you to read Jay Rosen’s “the people formerly known as the audience” piece – it reads like a manifesto. Similarly, Jeff Jarvis’  notion of “do what you do best, link to the rest” is critical. If you ever need to remind anyone of what’s at stake, Clay Shirky’s talk at Harvard in late 2009 is calmly frightening. Scared? Good. Now, for a glimmer of hope, read James Fallows’ piece on how Google just might not be the enemy Rupert et al think it to be.
  • Enough of the intellectual stuff. Let’s get to work. And because we’re broke entrepreneurs, we’ve got to do it cheaply. Here’s some free and low-cost stuff.
  • Finally, something to keep an eye on. It’s no exaggeration to say that Journal Register Company historically ran some of the worst newspapers in America – small-town dailies and weeklies with antiquated equipment, dispirited staffs, crushing debt and Dickensian management policies. New CEO John Paton is dragging it out of bankruptcy with a refreshing “question everything” style. JRC’s Ben Franklin Project set a goal of publishing an existing daily and weekly using nothing but free and open-source tools – and succeeded. It’s brilliant experimentation, worth stealing.

Also: Here’s the link Susan Mernit mentioned to Brad Feld’s VC site.