News Leadership 3.0

June 04, 2009

Foundations to the rescue as local news organizations diminish?

“New Media Makers” documents a growing role of foundations in supporting new community news outlets to fill information gaps and that holds promise for creating a new news ecosystem that is more diverse and more engaging to citizens as the news industry declines.

A new report pushes back at the notion that the decline of traditional news organizations will inevitably result in a vast wasteland of bloggers with agendas dominating the information stream.
Instead, the Knight Community News Network report finds that new structures for producing journalism are emerging to fill information gaps in local communities, often with support from foundations.
New Media Makers,” says 180 foundations have contributed $128 million to support 115 news projects in 17 states and the District of Columbia since 2005.
“Philanthropic foundations are increasingly embracing the idea that journalism projects can be a funding fit,” says Jan Schaffer, executive director of J-Lab, which operates the Knight Community News Network.
“These are not random acts of journalism, such as eyewitnesses uploading photos or videos of a major catastrophe. Nor are they the rants of Internet cowboys opining on the state of neighborhood affairs in their individual blogs,” the report says. “Rather, these new projects are often organized acts of journalism, constructed with an architecture and a mind-set to investigate discrete topics or cover geographic areas. The projects provide deliberate, accurate and fair accounts of day-to-day happenings in communities that nowadays have little or no daily news coverage.”
The report profiles four news organizations: New Haven Independent, PlanPhilly in Philadelphia., Voice of San Diego in California and the New Castle News & Opinion Weekly in Chappaqua, N.Y.
Perhaps of most interest to established news organizations is a database of foundation-assisted news organizations. Editors can use the database to discover sites in their areas that may be helping to fill coverage gaps.
These emerging organizations may not offer the complete, daily, fine-tuned packages that traditional journalists associate with quality news coverage. But their entry into what could be a more diverse and citizen-engaging news ecology is welcome.
(Disclosure: I coach community news startups as a consultant to the Knight Foundation, which is partnering with local community foundations to fund new initiatives through its Community Information Challenge. New Haven Independent and Voice of San Diego are among the projects receiving funding.)

June 01, 2009

Can journalism adapt?

Columbia dean suggests journalism is falling short in making (and living) the case that it’s indispensable

Journalists are frustrated and angry at the seeming unconcern of the general public as the news industry melts down. That’s understandable. But as someone who has spent a lot of time talking to citizens about journalism, I’ve come to understand the gap: What journalists think they are providing is not necessarily visible (or even present) in the eyes of the public.

Nicholas Lehman captures this idea more eloquently in a speech to Columbia Journalism School grads (posted by Clay Shirky):

“... we have been in the habit of assuming that whatever appears in a newspaper or a magazine or on a broadcast or a news organization’s Web site is available there uniquely, and represents a distinctive and irreplaceable contribution to public life. I spent a lot of my time these days talking to non-journalists about journalism, and I can tell you that we all have to learn to make a more sophisticated argument for ourselves.

“Much of the public that we believe we are serving needs to be persuaded that it cannot find out what’s going on in the world simply by looking at non-journalistic Web sites and blogs—that there is a special value to the work that news organizations do. Conversely, we need to be more precise in our thinking about exactly how we are serving that oft-mentioned cause, the public’s right to know, at a time when, thanks to the Internet, the public has more free unmediated access to information than at any time in the history of the world. It may be that the particulars of how we execute our general mission will have to change quite a lot for us to be able to make the strongest possible case for the value of our profession. We have to be willing to explore all that undefensively, with energy and enthusiasm.

(Emphasis added.)

May 28, 2009

In search of an inner entrepreneur

Here are five steps to finding and cultivating potential entrepreneurs in your newsroom. Step 1: If you’re the boss, recognize that it’s not you.

KDMC’s News Entrepreneur Boot Camp focused on journalists who want to start news and information businesses, for the most part one-person bands at least initially. As I noted earlier this week, journalists can indeed be entrepreneurs. The follow up question: Can traditional news organizations support entrepreneurs in their midst?

Here are five things that will help that happen:

1. Recognize that top bosses are not likely to be entrepreneurs, as worthy a goal as that may be. An executive can be entrepreneurial, and the job entails many of the same visioning and organizing roles that the entrepreneur must play. But the executive is unlikely to be in a position to assume the significant risks of entrepreneurship, especially if the she is heavily involved in the day-to-day operations of the organization, as many editors now are in their newsrooms.

2. Identify the entrepreneurs in your midst. Here’s my favorite definition: “A risk-taker who has the skills and initiative to establish a business.” Look for the early adopter who is passionate about ideas, willing to buck conventional wisdom - perhaps even annoyingly so -  and has the commitment and discipline to see an idea through.

3. Dedicate time. Give the newsroom entrepreneur with a promising idea time to work on it. Schedule regular but not overly frequent check-ins (weekly). Be clear about timelines and expectations. As long as there’s sufficient progress and the premise is holding up, think of the effort as you would a potential Pulitzer-level investigation. No dawdling. But give it time to pay off.

4. Allow room for failure. Of course, not every idea will pay off. Most won’t. Recognize that you are investing in a learning curve as much as in a specific idea. The better and faster your inner entrepreneur can fail, the better and faster she will create the next big thing. So when something doesn’t work out, ask the entrepreneur what she learned rather than what went wrong.

5. Learn how to foster innovation in your organization. Create an atmosphere in which people support entrepreneurship and want to be part of it. Here’s a great list of tips to get you started.

I’m sure this list is incomplete. How can news executives foster entrepreneurs in their organizations? Please share your ideas in the comments.

May 26, 2009

Can journalists be entrepreneurs?

Knight Digital Media Center’s News Entrepreneur Boot Camp brings demonstrates that journalists have skills that will help them adapt to entrepreneurship. But the risk-averse culture of the profession also poses challenges.

Can journalists be entrepreneurs?
If last week’s KDMC News Entrepreneur Boot Camp is any indication, the answer is a resounding “Yes.”
The center brought together 15 journalists who are putting together news and information start ups for an intensive course of training and coaching in business, marketing and product development. There is no telling how many of their projects will succeed. But if willingness to march up a steep learning curve is a factor, these entrepreneurs should do well. (See Robert Niles’ ideas on the Boot Camp on the OJR blog.)

The sessions brought into relief some of the advantages that journalists bring to entrepreneurship along with a couple of drawbacks.
Here’s my short list (with apologies in advance for some broad generalizations).
1. Brains. Many journalists are smart and creative.
2. Persistence. Good journalists are persistent. The entrepreneur needs persistence, a lot of it. Virtually every entrepreneur who spoke to the Boot Camp mentioned at least one previous failed start up or years of wrenching twists and turns on the road to success.
3. Networks. Journalists may be able to tap into a wide array of useful contacts. Shoba Purushothaman, Chairman and Co-Founder of The NewsMarket, said that losing touch with her sources when she left journalism for business was one of her biggest mistakes.  “We don’t recognize the power of the network,” Purushothaman told the fellows, “Network, and network outside your own sector.”

1. Traditional thinking. Journalists tend to have trouble thinking outside the box of journalistic convention (the rules, not the princples, as Geneva Overholser recently pointed out).  Either way, the tried-and-true holds most journalists in a firm grip and, as we have seen in the news business, perfecting the familiar gets more attention than re-inventing the model. Breaking away from that grip requires a willingness to take risks, something that is not well developed in the culture of a typical news organization.

It’s especially challenging because no one knows what the new box or boxes are going to look like. Discussing the business model for news, media analyst Ken Doctor told the fellows: “We have some idea of the elements that are going to be part of it. We don’t know the proportions of each or how they’re going to fit together. ... It’s an ecosystem that we can’t see yet because it doesn’t exist.”

Another piece of traditional thinking is the idea that only newspaper newsrooms as we have known them can deliver good journalism. Most of the new ventures will start very small and build on success.

2. Business phobia. Journalists are squeamish about business. The attitude that news and information is a public good for which people should pay will hold many would-be journo-preneurs back. They must recognize instead that the job is to create a service that will sell.

3. Math phobia. Journalists are math-challenged and that weakness will cost them in entrepreneurial roles. As Doctor said: “A problem we have here is that if we don’t do math, other people do it for us.”

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Exploring innovation, transformation and leadership in a new ecosystem of news, by journalist and change advocate Michele McLellan.

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