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Mainstream Media and Entrepreneurial News Startups: Bridging the Silos

A keynote presentation by Jan Schaffer at the BBC Connecting Communities Conference, Salford, U.K., May 24, 2012

It’s remarkable to hear about the parallels between U.S. news startups and U.K. news startups. It’s a lively scene.

Today, I hope we can discuss equally lively happenings – in particular, how mainstream media outlets and entrepreneurial news startups are mixing it up. A lot is happening on that front.

Who would have thought just seven years ago when new journalism news sites started launching in earnest in the U.S. how things would evolve.

In those days – we’re talking late 2004 – the fledgling news sites were disdainful of legacy media. They thought the big media players were doing a lousy job of covering their communities – and in some cases totally blowing the facts. The newbies identified significant gaps in coverage and aimed to do a better job of filling them.

Those gaps usually involved a community or neighborhood – or a particular topic, such as education, health and the environment.

For the longest time, legacy media players didn’t pay much attention to these upstarts.

I remember just a little over two years ago interviewing top editors at a major metro newspaper for a foundation study. We asked the editors about several new, and rather robust, sites that were covering things like education and city planning – right under their noses.

The editors were pretty clueless about what was happening. One even went so far as to declare that these small initiatives didn’t matter. “We’re the only game in town,” he said.

Well, a lot has changed since then. Many of the newcomers started breaking major stories, winning prizes and getting traction in their specific areas. Indeed, the highest honor in U.S. journalism, the Pulitzer Prizes, have gone to the likes of Pro Publica and the Huffington Post.

Mainstream news outlets, on the other hand, kept getting smaller and smaller, forced to downsize staffs and their products amid declining readers, revenues and a recession. As a result, their value proposition got slimmer and slimmer. Why should someone pay to subscribe when there’s not much there?

Before long, at least three epiphanies set in:

  • For one, MSM outlets have more than a business-model problem. They really need to beef up their content and recruit some more feet on the street to continue to have a valuable product.
  • At the same time, the news startups also had some epiphanies: Scoops, alone, were not enough to make it in the digital-first news world. They needed a megaphone – some ways to amplify their good journalism. And some ways to have more impact and more opportunities for support – be it from sponsors, funders, or advertisers.
  • Third, both old- and new-media outlets started to see that collaboration is the new competition. If they didn’t start to negotiate partnership agreements with one another, other players would start nailing deals and exclude them.

Many of these things involve some degree of working together. The challenges, then, and the opportunities involve marrying collaboration with the competitive framework that has driven most news outlets for over a century.

Today, I want to talk about at least FIVE models of collaboration I see shaping the relationships between old and new media.

I see at least five models of collaboration shaping the relationships between old and new media.

They are:

  • Distributive partnerships. Involving republishing content that one news organization creates by others who want to run the story.
  • Co-reporting partnerships. Involving working together on newsgathering. This could entail localizing a national story divvying up reporting tasks, or assigning a corps of correspondents to help gather the information to build a story.
  • Content-creation partnerships. This usually involves a news startup sharing content, or creating content, especially for a legacy media partner.
  • Networked journalism partnerships. These usually entail formal agreements to belong to a metro network of blogs or news sites, often anchored by a legacy news outlet.
  • Civic engagement partnerships. These involve media outlets collaborating with others to actually juice the involvement of citizens in public hearings or issues.

Now, of course, some of the models overlap with one another, but let’s take a closer look.

Distributive partnerships are sort of like mini-wire services, often for a geographic region. They almost always involve a digital news startup allowing others to pick up and republish their content – with attribution, of course.

Key examples include Pro Publica and the Texas Tribune, which openly invite users to republish their stories. There are rules to obey. These new journalism entities will let you use their content if you:

  • Don’t edit.
  • Use all internal links.
  • Ask special permission for photos, which may have separate copyrights.
  • Don’t sell ads against their stories.
  • Don’t resell the story itself
  • Give credit
  • Link back to their sites.

Sometimes these distribution agreements are set up from the very start, others work on a story-by-story basis.

Why would news outlets give away their stories? As you can see by the rules of use, these news sites are looking for some distribution juice, ways to get a megaphone for their stories. It’s a form of guerilla marketing for them.

Other media outlets however, are not giving their stories away. Instead, they are discovering they can monetize their content with their partners.

California Watch now has agreements with 11 newspapers and five radio stations in the state. They pay a membership fee based on their size that allows them to use California Watch content. Some of the partners might localize the stories; and some work with California Watch to help report.

Likewise, the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, a center of Boston University launched by two journalists, is getting revenue from a number of news organizations in the Northeastern United States that subscribe to the monthly Public Eye feed of investigative stories.

We are also seeing major players get into the act. Bloomberg News is now providing content, for a fee, to such newspapers as the Washington Post, which had cut back greatly on its business coverage. Kaiser Health News stories are also appearing in newspapers around the country.

Co-reporting partnerships are aimed specifically at getting journalists from different news outlets to collaborate on reporting a story.

Pro Publica has really perfected this in a number of ways. In its “Dialing for Docs” investigation, at least 10 other news organizations developed their own stories using Pro Publica data and Pro Publica links to those stories on its site. Its investigation of brain injuries in active-duty military was done jointly with National Public Radio and the partners turned the report into an Amazon Kindle Single.

Content-creation partnerships usually involve a new startup specifically creating content for use by another media partner. A key example of this involves the deals The New York Times established with several statewide news startups in the U.S.

The Texas Tribune, for instance, provides theTimes with enough stories and columns to fill two pages each on Fridays and Sundays in the editions of the Times that circulate in the Southwestern United States. The Tribune even hired a person to produce arts and culture stories for this collaboration because the Times wants such coverage but it is not part of the Trib’s portfolio, which focuses on government, politics and state issues. The Times pays the Trib, although not a lot.

Two of these partnerships recently ended after less than two years. One of the first sites to ink a deal with the Times, the Chicago News Cooperative, went belly up a few months ago. The other, The Bay Citizen in San Francisco, recently mergedwith the Center for Investigative Reporting and ended the Times deal.

The Times’ relationship brought all these sites significant validation although there does not appear to be much ad or syndication revenue flowing into the online news sites.

One caveat here is you have to be careful not to get into a situation where the tail wags the dog and you’re just on a treadmill of producing copy for The Times. Startup news sites don’t have a lot of resources and do need to focus on building their own brand.

Now, on a local level, the Public School Notebook, a site that covers public education in Philadelphia, has a very interesting relationship with WHYY, one of the city’s public radio stations.

WHYY actually pays for part of the salary of a school reporter who does stories that appear on both and on WHYY’s website The Notebook is the assigning editor in this relationship. WHYY gets excellent school coverage that is a product of the Notebook’s extensive knowledge and network of sources. And they have beaten the city’s major newspapers on a number of stories.

Meanwhile, the Voice of San Diego website has been creating content and video reports, often explainers, for the local NBC affiliate that has been so successful that NBC expanded that model to several other places around the country and is pleased with the results.

Networked journalism partnerships entail a formal agreement to belong to a blog or hyperlocal news-site network that is usually anchored by a legacy news outlet.

J-Lab over the past couple of years funded nine networked journalism pilot projects in which a legacy new organization was asked to partner with at least five local startups. We didn’t tell them how to do it, and interestingly every site took a different approach. Six have done very well. One started strong and is now limping along. Two didn’t make it.

What do the successes look like? In Seattle, The Seattle Times started with five local partners and it’s now grown to 45. The Times doesn’t publish stories from these sites, but publishes headlines and links, driving traffic and giving added credibility to the mostly hyperlocal startups.

The Times has given the network a dedicated presence on its homepage and publishes headlines and links to important stories seven days a weeks. When a partner link is featured, the site gets a noticeable bump in traffic.

The partners seem to be happy with the network and the newspaper discovered, in a survey we fielded, that it was benefitting from significant good will in the community as a result of the initiative.

What is especially interesting is that this is happening in a city where at least two other media organizations, KOMO-TV and the, are also working with networks of local news sites.

The editor of the newspaper credits their participation in this project with triggering a cultural sea change in his newsroom. Before, his staff turned up their noses at these new sites; now they see the benefits of working with them.

Similarly, in Portland, the network has grown to about a dozen sites and earlier this year merged with a larger group of topic and arts and culture blogs.

In Pittsburgh, the Post-Gazette newspaper designed a network built around a topic: the controversial drilling for natural gas in a swath of sedimentary rock known as the Marcellus Shale. Their partners have been less visible, but include a public radio show that has really helped broadcast stories and a data-tracking site. They have won a number of awards and again the editor credits the partnership with helping to transform his newsroom.

So what does success look like? There have been some common characteristics of the projects that have done very well.

The anchor news organizations:

  • Honored the independence of the smaller sites.
  • Gave the network partners visibility on their home pages or in house ads in the newspaper.
  • Provided a community editor to spearhead the effort.
  • And in most cases provided some training – in social media, in selling ads, in legal issues – for the smaller sites.

Where the networks did not do well, we found:

  • The anchor news organizations required their small news partners to use a specific content management system.
  • Leadership changed: editors or community managers disappeared over the course of the project.
  • Resources disappeared.
  • And the network was kind of secret – not marketed well in the community.

More takeaways will be in our report, targeted for early summer. However, I will add one thing: The hope that these networks would aggregate advertising as well as content is still a nut that needs to be cracked. Seattle experimented with an ad network headed by the KING television station, but closed it down after about a year. The Miami Herald gave its partners ad spots to sell on channels on its website and the partners never sold them.

Finally, I want to wrap up with the fifth kind of media collaboration: Civic engagement partnerships.

I am seeing some new-media organizations partnering with others to fortify the participation of people in local issues.

I am seeing some new-media organizations partnering with others to fortify the participation of people in local issues. One of the most interesting is a site called NowcastSA in San Antonio, Texas, which launched a couple years ago to livestream and webcast public meetings.

City leaders have begun to credit Nowcast’s presence with higher turnout at public meetings. And city agencies are now hiring Nowcast to videotape their meetings, integrate online chat capabilities, and archive the sessions on Nowcast’s site. Nonprofits are even writing funding for Nowcast into their grant proposals as part of their formal strategy for “civic engagement.”

Audience engagement itself is another nut to be cracked. There’s been a lot attention on building new business models in the evolving news ecosystem, but not much attention of what constitutes meaning engagement.

It is becoming clearer that there is a difference between superficial interaction with users and engagement that drives users to support news operations and drives citizens to be citizens.

A report we are releasing next week is based on online survey responses of 278 mostly small digital-first news sites. They were very generous with their open-ended answers.

The nut graph: While they are adept at using social media tools to distribute and market their stories they are not able to corral the kinds of data that would tell them wither they are converting their users into to become donors, advertisers, content contributors, even volunteers. These roles are critical to the future survival of these news startups. We make some recommendations in the report and it will be available online at

Before I conclude, I want to give a shout out for public media, which in the U.S. is working on building a portfolio of local-news offerings, often by partnering with local news startups.

Some quick examples: In San Francisco, as part of our Networked Journalism pilot project, KQED public radio is working with a number of hyperlocal sites and putting reporters on the air to do debriefs on local stories.

Likewise in Philadelphia, WHYY’s is partnering with sites that cover city neighborhoods, contemporary art, and city planning, among others. Partners like are even doing podcasts for WHYY’s new 6 p.m. newscast.

In New Orleans, Nola Vie, an arts and culture site that J-Lab funded is both doing content for, the website of the Times-Picayune newspaper. It also has its own site and is doing programming for the local public radio station.

To wrap up, we have seen the dissolving of one barrier to mainstream media working with entrepreneurial news startups. That is the question of whether the newcomers are doing responsible journalism. We are long past the days of the Bloggers vs. Journalists debates. The news and information being created in the new ecosystems has been generally quite good. It has a lot of journalistic DNA and in some cases has had greater impact then some conventional forms of journalism.

There are two barriers left:

We know that the sum of the parts gives us a much greater and richer whole. The next challenge is to make collaboration work for all the stakeholders.

Thank you for having me.

  • One is the mindset of mainstream newsrooms. There, too, I think the old scratchiness towards the new digital news sites is also falling away, in part because a lot of news startups are being launched by journalists who have left their newsrooms – either in voluntary buyouts of involuntary downsizings.
  • Still to be worked out, frankly, is the question of metrics. Counting metrics – who’s visiting, reading, commenting, tweeting – is important to advertisers, to funders, to the ability of an entrepreneurial news startup to tell its own story. Everyone still wants the unique-visitor counts, the page views, the Facebook likes and the Twitter comments. Collaboration often means you will be driving eyeballs to the work of others and they will get the analytics juice, not you. This is where the audience-engagement metrics factor in.

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