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How Smaller Gets Bigger

The Columbia Journalism Review asked me to pen a response to the new report on digital news economics, “The Story So Far: What We Know About the Business of Digital Journalism.”  Here are my thoughts. “The future of journalism will be a tale of smaller and smaller organizations making a bigger and bigger impact,” asserts Lisa Williams, founder of I couldn’t agree more. They will rise and fall, collaborate and compete, succeed and fail — and be replaced by new startups. So what does this mean for the business of digital journalism? For one thing, it means we have to do business in dramatically different ways — not just collecting money differently. So here are three places to start. Many of these things are already happening and could add to “The Story So Far.” Identify the players and mind the gaps: Traditional news organizations should take more cues from independent news startups. Value sells. And value derives from engagement and from unique kinds of content.

  • Identify the gaps in news coverage and find ways to fill them. This may mean you create a niche product but it could also mean you enter a news partnership with another journalistic outlet that is covering something you’re not.
  • Instead of trying to cover twenty areas poorly, pick six to eight and own them. Partner with other news creators locally or nationally for the rest.
  • Make sure you know who’s doing what in your community. Map the media assets that you have. Know who the emerging power players are. I have found it shocking how some traditional news outlets are not paying attention to their own news ecosystem. As far as they are concerned, they are the only game in town. Yet we are beginning to see hyperlocal sites (not just expanding to start new sites in nearby towns.
  • Nurture the nickels, not just the dimes. Multiple revenue streams begin to add up. Some of the independent news startups are looking at more than just grants and/or advertising. They are cultivating consulting income (web and social media development), content syndication, niche products, and event income that can include registrations fees and corporate sponsorships. These events can produce new kinds of knowledge networks in communities and open the doors for different kinds of support.

While there is much fretting about how new online news outlets have not fully taken the place of traditional news organizations, the fact is that many hyperlocal sites are covering communities that never had much, or any, coverage before. And a growing roster of statewide investigative journalism initiatives are doing some remarkable accountability journalism — and sharing it with other news organizations in their states. Incubate your competitors. A radical thought or a new opportunity? Nurture not just what’s good for your company but also what’s good for the community and give it buzz. Make your competitors your collaborators.

  • Pull a J-Lab. It may sound counterintuitive but invest $150,000 in a greenhouse fund to nurture the best of your local news providers with micro grants tied to collaboration opportunities. I guarantee you will raise the bar for everyone and begin to connect the news silos that are cropping up.
  • Put out a call for collaborative enterprise stories. Since last fall, J-Lab helped to seed fourteen Philadelphia stories that are running on multiple platforms with only $70,000 in funding from the William Penn Foundation. You can do this, too.
  • Take those empty desks in the newsroom and turn them into them into co-working spaces. Invite community site founders to work alongside you and even pay a token rent. See what ideas that proximity fosters. Know and nurture the ideas in your community before they blindside you.
  • Develop citywide Networked Journalism initiatives. For instance, J-Lab’s Net-J pilot project, funded by the Knight foundation, helps support a community manager at a mainstream news organization and provides small stipends to at least five local news sites willing to try collaborating for a year. The Seattle Times has grown its network from five hyperlocal sites to thirty-nine sites; The Charlotte Observer from five to sixteen. The Portland Oregonian just launched its network with seven smaller news sites that want to partner.

As we learned in a recent survey to gauge Seattle readers’ perceptions of these networks, eight in ten of the 996 respondents said they valued both the network of partners and The Seattle Times itself for making it easier to connect with community news. Times editors said the partnerships had bolstered their brand, even if its website did not see a direct traffic gain. Once you start erecting an infrastructure that helps all media, you are in a position to leverage different kinds of support. Initiate a different “ask.” So far in the digital journalism world, we have asked people to be advertisers or to be subscribers. We have asked them to be donors or funders. We have asked them to be citizen journalists or poorly paid professional journalists. We have asked them to rate and share our stories. We have not asked them to do something that might have more appeal: to be “media players” — media players who are charged with being good stewards of a robust local news and information landscape. It rang so true to me when Batavian editor Howard Owens explained, in “The Story So Far,” that many of his local advertisers don’t care about click-throughs, they just want to support the community. We’ve heard that from many startups. What would such civic stewardship begin to look like? It could take the form of participating in a knowledge network — a series of events in which people meet and learn about civic issues, literary news, legislative priorities, and fun folks in town. It helps if your events generate some water-cooler chitchat. Don’t laugh: The Texas Tribune has brought in more than $500,000 in event revenue in the last two years. Many of its events are now the place to be, and the Tribune is breaking news that others news organizations find they must cover. Media players could also belong to statewide Journalism Trusts, donating funds, advice, and their non-journalism expertise (event production, anyone?) to foster robust news and information. Check out the early Vermont Journalism Trust. Asking people to participate in ways that don’t require professional journalism skills helps re-channel energies and dampen concerns about authority or the accuracy of amateur journalists. And it gets a different kind of attention from prospective funders. To be sure, the business of digital journalism gives us much to wring our hands about, as the Tow Center report attests. But having judged several journalism awards contests this year, I’m seeing some of the strongest entries coming from new journalism sites, not the traditional players. I’ve just finished vetting another 378 proposals from women media entrepreneurs; the ideas are enormously varied and the applicants’ skills run deep. What I see missing from so many of the conversations about how we garner support for the future of journalism is the recognition of the low-hanging fruit growing in many communities — independent news entities that are going to continue to launch. We need more new thinking that validates and engages them in the overall enterprise.

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