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Ten Steps For Any News Startup

As published in the Quill (registration required).

Professional journalists are launching scores of news startups around the country. Some cover community news, others hone in on special topics; some cover state government, and others aim to generate, and often share, investigative stories. 

But it takes more than an award-winning track record in journalism, a willingness to embrace risk and an ability to dip into your retirement accounts to make a go of a good news site.

You’ll need to develop some new skill sets — and probably some new mindsets. You’ll need to understand that you will be serving customers, not just readers.

J-Lab has funded 65 community and womenled news startups since 2005 (thanks to the Knight and McCormick Foundations). We have observed some sharp entrepreneurs in action. Here are 10 tasks that we’d advise any wannabe entrepreneur to undertake:

1. First, Assess the Landscape

Don’t duplicate. Define the unique value you’ll deliver to your audience. As Mike Orren, founder and publisher of, advised at the 2010 Online News Association convention: “Figure out whose problem you are solving.”

2. Test-drive Your Idea

This is just good old-fashioned reporting. Once you’ve firmed up your idea, seek feedback from your network on whether it resonates: Would readers visit your site? Would advertisers buy an ad on it? Would investors see a business model? Will anyone offer to help you?

3. Develop Your Project “Wireframe” 

Sketch out just how you think your project would work. Who would build a website? Who would do the reporting? The editing? How often will you update? Will you have staff or interns?

4. Decide on the Best Business Structure For You — and File Your Paperwork

Will you be a for-profit business or a non-profit? Will you affiliate with a university? Will you look for a fiscal agent until you spin into your own 501(c)(3)? Check out the step-by-step guide for Launching a Nonprofit News Site on the Knight Citizen News Network for some pros and cons at NewsSiteLaunch. Bottom line: do you want to sell ads, seek grants or woo members? Or do all three?

5. Develop a Business Plan

Start to answer these questions: How will your enterprise be funded to start? What’s your initial budget? How will it grow in a year and beyond? How will people find out about your project? Who are your consumers? Who are your customers? Gather demographic data on your target community: household income, education, broadband connectivity. Pick a name, but do research to avoid latching onto a moniker someone else has trademarked.

6. Refine Your Elevator Pitch

Distill your plan into a one-minute wrap-up that nails what you’re doing and for whom, and why people want it. Then start making your pitch — to donors, funders, advertisers, volunteers. Make sure to tell them what you’re looking for: Do you want them to meet with you? Look at your business plan? Make an introduction? Develop a PowerPoint to hit your highlights.

7. Build a Website

Start with a simple site that you can easily tweak yourself. WordPress is one easy option that will give you something to show quickly. Here’s a J-Lab how-to on launching a WordPress site:

8. Gather Content

Write stories. Commission stories. Recruit guest columnists. Solicit photos. Assemble lists, data and resources. Firm up partners, links and content swaps. Sell, barter or give away your first ads or sponsorships.

9. Launch With Fanfare

Will you have a launch party? Develop a Facebook page? Take out ads? Have a social media campaign? Sponsor a table at a community event? Plan how to get noticed.

10. Start to Tell Your Tale 

In addition to the stories you want to tell in your community, you must begin to flesh out your own story. Start collecting metrics. How many stories have you published? How many contributors have you recruited? Have your stories had any impact? Have your ads worked for your advertisers? Have you grown a network of members, subscribers or donors? How many unique visitors are coming to your site? How long do they stay? How is that growing? Check out this explainer ad kit from

Remember that you are not just a journalist any longer. You’re a marketer, publisher and business leader. Above all, stay focused, but be ready to change on a dime. As a local news entrepreneur, you will need to evolve and evolve. Make the surprises work for you.

What makes for a good grant proposal?

Nearly all funders have guidelines explaining what they fund — and what they don’t fund. Read them. It will save you a lot of wasted effort.

To receive a grant (that is, dollars that were donated for charitable purposes), you must be an official non-profit, not just a project that doesn’t make any money. Commercial or for-profit entities are not eligible for grants, although sometimes they may receive awards or contracts.

Among my pet peeves are journalists who inaccurately refer to everything J-Lab funds as grants. Be precise or just use the fallback term funding.

Be sure you have attained non-profit status before you seek a grant; saying you filed your application with the IRS isn’t good enough. It can take up to six months for the IRS to issue its determination, and there are no guarantees. One way around this is to find a “fiscal agent,” another non-profit that will sponsor your project. The fiscal agent will receive your grant dollars on your behalf but also has a fiduciary responsibility to ensure the dollars are appropriately spent.
Fiscal agents will often take a percentage of the grant — 5 to 10 percent — for their grant administration services. 

Then, in your proposal, hew to the funder’s guidelines. If a foundation says it doesn’t fund youth media projects, don’t pitch training for high school students. If the guidelines limit grants to accredited journalism schools, you won’t make the short list with a proposal for a hyperlocal site unless your fiscal agent is an accredited journalism school. If a funder asks about frequency of updating, you’ll have a stronger proposal if you plan daily updates vs. monthly. A funder will almost always ask how you plan to sustain your project after any grant ends. Be
prepared with an answer.

Some foundations solicit pre-proposals, with deadlines for Letters of Inquiry. These are short pitches, one to two pages, for your idea. If your LOI appeals, you will be invited to make a full proposal. Research these LOI deadlines carefully. They only come a couple of times a year. 

Once you get a grant, pace yourself on a number of fronts:

  • Thank your funder.
  • Deliver on time everything you said you would. 
  • Collect data on participation, outcomes, impact, Web traffic. It’s best to collect this information as you go along rather than try to re-construct it a year later. 
  • Monitor your “burn rate,” the rate at which you are spending down your grant dollars. You certainly don’t want to overspend, but you also don’t want to underspend or you will need to return unspent funds. Many funders require you to stick within a specified range, often 10 percent, of your proposed budget categories. If you find your spending significantly differs from what you proposed, you’ll need to seek a formal budget modification.
  • File your grant reports on time. Better yet, communicate regularly any good news and successes as they occur. Good stewardship of grant dollars is often rewarded with more grant dollars.

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