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Entrepreneurship and the Future of News

February 24, 2010  |  Los Angeles, CA

Speech by Jan Schaffer, J-Lab Executive Director

Hosted by USC Annenberg


Entrepreneurship and the Future of News

Thank you for giving me this opportunity to share what J-Lab has been learning in its work. As many of you know, J-Lab funds community news startups and women-led media entrepreneur projects. We reward innovations in journalism, and we build online learning models for professionals and amateurs who want to be new media makers.

I want to tip my hat to your efforts at USC. We were pleased to help fund community news efforts like the South LA Reporting project. We applaud the Knight Digital Media Center for training new media entrepreneurs. Hats off to David Westphal’s blog and the Online Journalism Review as well.

There is a lot to share with you today about the changing ecosystem for news and information. But I want to start with a little story. One that reflects how some citizen journalists are contributing to today’s news landscape. In 2005, J-Lab funded a startup community news site in Deerfield, N.H., a rural community that wasn’t getting much coverage from any of the state’s newspapers. And in 2007 we funded a news site for Chappaqua, N.Y., and its hamlet of New Castle, a well-heeled bedroom community outside of New York City that also got, at best, episodic coverage.

In both places, citizen reporters now regularly cover town meetings and school board meetings that never got consistent coverage. When these people first began showing up, the town leaders didn’t like it very much. “What are you doing here?” they wanted to know, mired in suspicion. Deerfield Forum founders were mostly Democrats in a mostly Republican stronghold. NewCastleNOW founders were former PTA leaders and activists. Surely these folks were up to no good.

But the citizen journalists persisted. They kept writing stories about the meetings. The stories were accurate. They had impact. New faces were elected to the Chappaqua area school board. More voters turned out on election day in Deerfield. People in town learned about some issues before they became done deals. And the town leaders started to relax a bit and even began counting on the coverage.

Now, when their citizen reporter can’t make it to a meeting, the town leaders get a little put out: “Where were you? Why weren’t you there?” they want to know. (How dare these citizen reporters take a vacation or have a conflict on the home front?)

These sites, and scores like them, have developed a reputation for being not just good community news outlets, but also good community stewards. Quite frequently, they are started by people who have long been active in the community and carry a lot of community knowledge.

In Deerfield, N.H., founding editor Maureen Mann was actually elected state representative a couple years ago. She stepped down as managing editor of the five-year-old Deerfield Forum, but she still writes news about the legislature in a very explanatory way, peeling back layers of the onion.

Welcome to the promises and perils of this new breed of citizen journalists. They are not merely bloggers, inveighing against something they don’t like. They are more than photographers or videographers, bearing witness to some catastrophe or breaking news event. They do more than post tweets shouting out some bit of news.

These people have deputized themselves to systematically cover town news as best they can. Some have “beats;” they have formulated rules of governance for their news enterprises; they have guidelines for content; many have sought nonprofit status from the IRS. They edit content that comes from other contributors. They moderate comments on their sites. Many buy libel insurance.

And, for the most part, they are doing this as a labor of love. They are lucky if they can raise enough money to get reimbursed to drive to a town meeting or pay for a babysitter. They are looking to do more than just dispassionately cover their communities. They are seeking to connect and inform people in ways that might help their communities do well. Now, that’s an aspiration that might be out of the comfort zone for some traditional journalists. As important, they feel their efforts are making a difference.

I suggest that their activities are really acts of civic participation as much as citizen journalism. And that’s one reason I prefer to call them citizen media makers instead of citizen journalists. Besides, many of them don’t much cotton to the label “journalist” – some are terrified of it, others don’t respect it…

It’s also one reason why many of them are not as focused on making money as their professional counterparts. Who expects to be paid for being a community volunteer?

The good news is they are doing a pretty responsible job. The not-so-good news is that there is no backup when they can’t be there.

Can you imagine town leaders demanding to know “where were you?” if a professional journalist didn’t show up to cover one of their sessions?

As I look at how the media ecosystem is evolving in communities large and small across the United States, I am more optimistic than pessimistic that citizens will get their information needs met. I also think that traditional journalists will play a smaller – albeit still important – role as the gatherers and disseminators of news. Others, though, will have increasingly important roles to play. They include citizen media makers, but also fact entrepreneurs, creative technologists, philanthropic foundations, universities, advocacy groups and even governments.

In this future, both professional and amateur journalists will need to engage in more than just journalism, however. They must engage in new kinds of “news work” to serve their audiences. News work? Fact entrepreneurs? Credit goes to Columbia University doctoral student Chris Anderson for these new terms. They help us understand that journalism in the future must involve more than just gathering, validating and writing news stories. “News work” also requires such things sharing information, facilitating conversations, crowdsourcing, smart curation and aggregation, data mining and data visualizations, commissioning news games, gathering lists and resources and shouting out your good work to others.

It is in this area of news work where there is much experimentation and lots of entrepreneurial opportunities.

So far, we have the advantage of a lot of lessons learned and we have some emerging clues to guide us – if we pay attention to them. Particularly important, I believe, are the clues about what kinds of news and information people want – not only to be smarter about their communities but also to empower them to be active citizens.

Many of these clues suggest that while news consumers certainly need watchdogs, they also need guide dogs as well. While they certainly need news, sometimes all they need is good information. And while they want conversation and participation, they also appreciate a level of connection that demonstrates an attachment and some caring about their community – not detached, clinical observations. They want to know about issues, choices and possible solutions. And they’d also like to know where people agree and not just where they are shouting in disagreement.

Some of these clues, I believe, tell us that professional journalists need to reexamine some of their old habits, their journalistic conventions, to meet the genuine information needs of their communities. More on that in a bit.

For now, we need to keep our eyes on the prize: Is that prize just restoring commercial journalism outlets to profitability? Or is it serving the needs of citizens in ways that are valuable enough to engender their support and engaging enough to elicit their active participation? How you address that question, I believe, will chart your entrepreneurial course.

As we look at journalistic innovations, to date, there are some common threads to many of the newest ideas.

One is an element of filling a need. Many new ideas are simply identifying what’s missing and trying to supply it. Consider these developments.

  • Hundreds of hyperlocal news sites have launched in communities that rarely saw a traditional journalist unless there was a major crime or catastrophe. Citizens just decided to take matters into their own hands. Look at sites like Oakland Local and West Seattle Blog.
  • New state-based investigative news projects are beginning to supplement diminishing watchdog journalism by legacy news outlets. Look at the rise in just the last two years of such things as California Watch, Wisconsin Watch, InvestigateWest. This year even saw the creation of an organizing body for these initiatives called the Investigative News Network.
  • Niche publications are now addressing special interests with a sharp clarity of focus: serves the political junkies in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere. Global Post offers international news and photos. Nieman Lab is giving Jim Romenesko’ blog a run by doing original reporting, not just aggregating links to stories. Indeed, J-Lab has supported a number of niche projects, including StoriesThatFly, about general aviation in Ohio and ChickRX, a soon-to-launch health-care site for young women that is the brainchild of a Harvard MBA student.
  • New “fact entrepreneurs”- be they the Drudge Report’s Matt Drudge or Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall are unearthing information that keeps professional journalists on their toes.

Another characteristic shared by entrepreneurs is an element of liberation. Some of the best news entrepreneurs, to date, have engaged in acts of liberation.

  • Citizen journalists have liberated themselves from journalistic conventions and definitions of news either because they didn’t know any better or didn’t like what they saw traditional journalists doing. They are also responding to different needs in their communities.
  • Professional journalists who have left their old news organizations have been liberated to build new ones from scratch. Look at the Chicago News Cooperative, founded by former Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times editor Jim O’Shea. Pay attention Politico’s sibling, a new Washington, D.C. news site to be launched by Jim Brady, former leader of Practically speaking, if they want to continue practicing journalism, they have to do it differently.
  • founder David Cohn, is trying to liberate himself from old funding models of journalism with a pay-per-story idea model.
  • Universities are benefiting from some of these liberated souls. Look at the Boston Globe’s Walter Robinson, whose students at Northeastern University have managed to get more than a dozen Page One stories in the Globe since he joined academia.

To be a genuine media entrepreneur you need to have a comfort level with moving out of old lockstep ways of doing things and moving into what I call the squirm zone. You need to follow your gut, your hunches, your values systems and let them lead you to what make sense. More often than not, what makes sense for you will make sense for your audiences. This is certainly what citizen journalists are doing. No one taught them a right or wrong way of doing things. They are just trying to be fair and accurate.

This can be a particularly hard thing to do for professional journalists, who don’t quite have the creative instincts of, say, Wall Street investment houses. We’ve grown up with rules and templates that tell us there is a right way to do things: a right way to construct an inverted pyramid story, one way to be objective, codified standards and ethics. We are somewhat imperialistic in our approach and rather self-congratulating about our value to our readers. We don’t easily validate anyone who is not a member of our tribe.

We embrace definitions of “news” that may no longer match citizen definitions. We have habits, such as our competitive streak, that are so ingrained, they may be difficult, if not impossible, to shed. We often think our ethics are unparalleled, even though the public keeps telling us they don’t share that view.

I say we need to re-examine some of those habits and ask: Are they still safeguarding journalism or might they actually be endangering it?

In an entrepreneurial environment, I believe that we can liberate the journalism itself, not just the delivery platforms and the news creators, and re-imagine it in ways that will improve its usefulness to our readers.

Enterpreneurial Phases

For me, some of the most exciting journalism ideas got off the ground just six years ago, with the launch of independent, professional news ventures like Voice of San Diego. Today this nonprofit site does good coverage on a good half-dozen issues with an annual operating budget of a $1 million-plus in grants, sponsorships and donations.

Around the same time, J-Lab began funding community news start-ups. We now award grants of $25,000 over two years.

We funded 45 of these New Voices projects and have a call for proposals in the field right now to fund another nine. Deadline is Monday. Since we started, we’ve received 1,249 proposals, an eye-popping indication of how readily people can envision meeting news and information opportunities in their communities.

Since then the news ecosystem has given rise to many different developments, including:

  • Skyrocketing numbers of individual bloggers, several of whom have made names for themselves like Markos Moulitsas of the DailyKos and Andrew Sullivan who writes the Daily Dish.
  • Eyewitness photos and videos of breaking news, from the London bombings to Hurricane Katrina to the Virginia Tech shootings and the earthquake in Haiti.
  • The blossoming of community news sites, launched both by individuals and companies such as AOL’s
  • Traditional news outlets trying to foster citizen journalism, such as the New York Times’ Local sections.
  • The rise of respected advocacy news sites, from the likes of the Sunlight Foundation, to the Council on Foreign Relations. In Chicago and Philadelphia, local news sites such as Chicago’s Catalyst report on education while advocating for good schools.
  • The emergence of statewide news collaborations, such as the Ohio News Organization’s partnership among the state’s eight major dailies.
  • And birth of several independent metro news sites. We now have at least 10 sites that have paid staffs providing professional reporting for metro or regional areas. In addition to Voice of San Diego, they are the Texas Tribune, MinnPost, St. Louis Beacon, Gotham Gazette, New Haven Independent, Bay Area News Coop, the Chicago News Coop, CTMirror, and

As we begin a new decade, I see at least six important trends that will affect how people get news and information. They include:

  • The increasing participation of creative technologists in building innovative news applications that expand the definition of “news work.” Last year, the New York Times won our Knight-Batten Awards for Innovations in Journalism with a body of work built on computer programming skills. They included such things as Document Cloud to read documents online, Word Train to track key words, and Represent to track your elected officials. A special distinction award went to See Click Fix is now being used on numerous local news sites to report on potholes and other issues. Talk about “news work!”
  • The rise of statewide news ventures, may of them focused on covering a state capital and many with an investigative bent. These include things like the newly launched CTMirror, NJ Spotlight in Trenton and one about to be launched in Harrisburg.
  • The growth of more university-based news sites such as Mission Local at Berkeley, Madison Commons at the University of Wisconsin, Fulton Hill News at Virginia Commonwealth, Grand Avenue News at the U-Miami, GrossePointToday at Wayne State and your own South LA Reports.
  • We will increasingly see collaboration, instead of competition, not just among legacy news organizations, but also between old media and new media makers.

About six months ago, J-Lab funded a Networked Journalism pilot project that paired legacy news organizations in Seattle, Miami, Charlotte, Asheville and Tucson with five local news sites in their communities. We partially funded a coordinator and paid each of the news sites $5,000 in thank-you money.

I wasn’t sure whether these new media makers would be insulted with our token payments. But the collaborations seem to be cooking. Seattle Times reports that its partnership has grown from five to 19 and they are about to embark on a regional collaborative reporting project on graffiti; Miami now has eight partners. Charlotte expects to add more university sites in its region., a web-only site, partnered with sports bloggers. Truthfully, I was a little nervous about this at first. But these five partners are not only beating the local newspaper in town, but papers in Phoenix have now asked to begin trading content. So stay tuned.

The remaining trends include:

  • The rise of even more metro news initiatives. Consider that four of the existing 10 have launched in just the last six months — Texas Tribune, the Chicago News Coop, the Bay Area News Coop and CTMirror.
  • Finally, there is growing appetite by philanthropic foundations for supporting community information needs. Foundations once worried about funding projects that might compete with fragile legacy news organizations. In the last two years, however, they have become so alarmed at the diminishing news coming from downsized local news outlets that they are seeking ways to intervene.

The Knight Foundation has certainly pioneered efforts to incentivize community foundations to fund news and information projects by offering to match the dollars they pledge. Now we see the Chicago Community Trust issuing innovative requests to fund ideas from local media makers.

J-Lab has now documented at least $142 million in grants going into news projects, large and small, just since 2005. And we’re working on verifying many more. Mind you, this doesn’t include grants to public radio or television, which receive funding for many non-news activities.

While journalists give lip service to transparency, not all of the new media makers are so readily transparent about their sources of funding. Some don’t want to disclose where their grants are coming from because they don’t want others to compete with them for that funding. Some funders don’t want to disclose that they are giving grants to news projects because they don’t want to be deluged with grant requests. They need to get over this because the public has a right to know who’s funding news projects.

J-Lab has recently wrapped up a project that touched on three of these trends – the participation of a foundation, the idea of collaboration, and possibilities for a new metro new site. I’ll share our recommendations with you.

I was invited by the William Penn Foundation to map media assets in the city of Philadelphia and come up with some media investment recommendations. The foundation has a stellar track record of supporting news projects, including the Public School Notebook, which writes about schools, and, which covers planning and preservation in that historic city. It also has supported election and city hall reporting initiatives involving the Philadelphia Daily News, and WHYY public television and radio.

What we uncovered prompted us to recommend a blueprint for a new kind of public affairs news initiative that we think has promise for more than just Philadelphia.

We did content analyses of the two daily newspapers and four commercial television stations. No one was surprised that coverage of public affairs issues – such topics as ethics, reform, schools, city council, the mayor and the budget – had tanked in the last three years.

But we were surprised to find a rather robust online community – 260 blogs and Web sites. About 60 of them had some journalistic DNA in that they reported, not just weighed in, on news and included several niche sites on transportation, technology, politics and more.

We found an entrepreneurial journalism school at Temple University, a public broadcaster on the move, and two interesting data initiatives. We also found another gem: a robust and organized creative technology community centered around IndyHall, a collaborative workspace.

Between the foundation’s grantees, student journalists covering Philadelphia neighborhoods, and niche reporting sites, there were more than 100 reporters working in their own journalistic silos throughout the city. But these silos were not well known to all Philadelphians.

Was there a way to amplify their good work? More important is there a way to aggregate the varied audiences for different issues so that city residents collectively could learn about things that were not in their individual interest zones?

Here’s what we recommended:

We suggested the creation of a new, nonprofit public affairs Web site that, like a Voice of San Diego, would not pretend to cover everything, but would produce original stories strongly focused on six to eight issues – such as politics, city hall, the creative arts and technology communities, regional narratives, the local economy.

But unlike Voice, we suggested that this new site collaborate, or network, with some of the existing journalism efforts. It should curate and aggregate links to the best content and send additional eyeballs their way.

To cement the partnership with these affiliates, we suggested the creation of an Enterprise Reporting Fund that would distribute reporting awards to partners so they could quickly hire a freelancer to pursue a story that needed to turn quickly. And we suggested a back-end support system offering help in such things as payroll processing to ad sales.

We suggested pursuing opportunities to license the network’s content to a national news outlet as a way to set a high bar for quality and generate revenues for partners.

We especially urged the involvement of the city’s creative technologists, recommending “Pitch-It” competitions that would invite proposals for news applications, fund their development, and test them on the any of the network’s member sites.

Will all this happen? The good news is that, after meeting last month, a critical mass of potential partners said they wanted to participate. So stay tuned. So what have I learned in my journeys through this new media world? Here are a few takeaways.

For those wanting to launch community news sites, frequency of fresh content is critical. It needs to be a daily exercise. Civility is valued and it’s one reason why so many community news sites moderate their comments.

You need to build a community before you can monetize it. I believe that our Network Journalism pilot projects will find a way to attract revenue to their content-sharing efforts.

Don’t make the mistake of accusing citizen journalists of not being Big-J professional journalists. Their ethical codes might teach journalists a few things or two. While they aspire to be fair and accurate, they also aspire to do less harm in their communities. And as they try to seek out truth, they are less focused on “gotcha” quotes – what people said – and more willing to listen to what people meant to say.

Finally, and most importantly, I think the changes facing the news industry are not just about the delivery of news, they also involve the fundamental way that people use news and perceive news.

New media makers, with their intimate ties to their communities, are ushering in entirely new forms of journalism. From research we released last fall, we found that this journalism is characterized by a deliberate shift in the definition of objectivity, allowing for reports that build on the community knowledge many of these site founders hold.

I see journalism on these local news sites increasingly becoming an act of participation not just an act of observation, even soliciting readers to participate in a breaking story as it unravels. News stories are seldom framed around conflict. There is virtually no scorecard journalism. There is less he said/she said reporting.

Consumers of news on these sites are not only looking to be informed, they are also looking to strengthen their connection and their involvement in their community. The lesson, I think, for us Big-J journalists is this: We need to pay attention to these clues because the community seems to find value here. I believe we can still do good journalism, but we should try to do it in ways that turn our communities on, not off.

Thank you very much.

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