News Leadership 3.0

December 01, 2009

The amazing chaos that is news

Here are five types of emerging news organizations. Help me refine this and build a list of examples.

Very little is certain about the online news experiments we’re seeing except their stunning diversity and verve.

imageLast month, I spent two days talking to start up owners in Seattle and another day at J-Lab‘s New Media Women Entrepreneur summit in Washington, DC. I also coach news startups as a consultant to the Knight Foundation and here at Knight Digital Media Center. All of this has spurred a lot of thinking on my part about how the Reynolds Journalism Institute, where I am a fellow, and others can help these start ups.

It might help to categorize them and build a list of them that may offer lessons in content, civic engagement, transparency and sustainability. I think it’s a good way to bring some order to a chaotic young universe and elevate a conversation that often pits old media against upstarts in the blogosphere. This lis may also help identify strengths and areas where news sites might need help.

So here’s a first run at five categories. I acknowledge the overlaps at the outset as well as the exceptions.  I hope you’ll help me identify gaps and suggest more examples.

1. The bigs. Although not typically as big as a major metro or regional newspaper, these sites tend to have multiple reporters and editors and their aim is to produce highly professional content. Examples: MinnPost, Voice of San Diego, and The Texas Tribune. Although not strictly a start up, the online-only Seattle Post Intelligencer might fall in this group.

What do they need most? A revenue model. Most started with help from philanthropists and foundations. They are strong players in journalism but their financial future is uncertain. What can we learn from them? The value of focus. Unlike general interest newspapers, these sites tend to focus heavily on just a few important topics rather than trying to cover the entire playing field. For example, Voice of San Diego stresses coverage of housing, education, environment, economy and local government and politics, science and public safety, and doesn’t spend much time on other topics.

2. The local news entrepreneurs.
Many of the online news start ups, large and small, are entrepreneurial. In my book, the local news entrepreneurs are small local start ups that are heavily focused on finding a workable business model for their news ventures. They often diversify, mixing tech services and platforms with their local and neighborhood news endeavors. A couple of examples from Seattle:  My Ballard, Capitol Hill Blog, Oakland Local is another highly entrepreneurial venture that also makes community-building a priority (which means it could fit in category #3 as well).

What they need most: Caffeine. What we can learn from them: The value of Web and tech expertise and business diversification. My money is on these folks to figure local news out for the rest of us.

3. The community lovers. These folks see news and information as a vehicle for strengthening their communities. They often fill gaps left by legacy media but they do not see themselves are a replacement. They are the most likely to have non-professional contributors, although many do hire journalists. Many have received start up funding from Knight Foundation and other foundations but are looking for revenue models. Example: TheRapidian. What they need most? Many need help learning best practices of accuracy and transparency and managing citizen contributors, as well as navigating the Web and social media. What can we learn from them? The value of listening to, understanding and engaging community as the right thing to do and make money.

4. The niches. I’m thinking here about topic or service niches as much or more than than geographic ones. Like the entrepreneurs, these are often focus heavily on developing a business model. Many are journalists who have left traditional news organizations in recent years. Examples: Julia Scott’s BargainBabe and Elaine Helm Norton’s NW Navy News, which is both local and niche.

What they need most: Business expertise. What we can learn from them: The power of depth, branding, and how to connect with users.

5. The personals. These are the persona-driven sites and blogs that typically do not have large followings or much expectation of impact (which is not saying they don’t have value). Most turn over quickly. What they need most: I’m probably over generalizing here but I think these sites will largely do what they’re going to do without much help. What we can learn from them: The power of branding.

You’ll notice I didn’t separate for-profit from nonprofit models and I didn’t separate those who use user content and those that don’t. Those are both important distinctions in the old world, but they will blur over time. Shared interests trump differences.

Have I got the right categories? Please suggest additional categories or distinctions in the comments. For example, should ethnic media be one category or do other site features matter more? (Many in the ethnic press are both entrepreneurial and community-loving, but are only now moving online.)

And please help me build a list of the best sites. I’ll write about criteria for the list later this week.



November 11, 2009

Six trends in community journalism

American University and J-Lab produce a study about how the movement to create entrepreneurial community Web sites may changing the rules of engagement with news.

American University just completed a mini-study of women news consumers and women who have created news Web sites. The research, by Assistant Professor Maria Ivancin in partnership with J-Lab, offers an intriguing glimpse of changes under way as a new ecosystem of news forms online.

Ivancin described these findings (based on focus groups and interviews):

1. Community journalism is evolving as an exercise in participation, not merely observation. “It’s not just covering community, it’s actually being the community,” Ivancin said this week at J-Lab’s New Media Women Entrepreneurs summit.

2. The traditional emphasis on objectivity is giving way to a focus on broader definitions of news and the inclusion of different voices. New media site founders often felt “objectivity really is not truthful. Top down objectivity you really don’t have an understanding of what’s happening in your community. They felt objectivity can come in a different way, from participation,” she said.

3. Building community rather than simply covering community is the impetus for launching community news sites. “It’s not just looking at what’s happening. It’s doing things to change that community, help that community.”

4. Community news sites rise to fill gaps in news coverage. “There is an unfulfilled need. Whether the local paper was not covering it, or no longer covered it….  The need can be geographic, the need can be audience based or interest based,” Ivancin said. One news site creator called it a need for “a community water cooler.”

5. New media entrepreneurs are motivated by a frustration with old media’s pace of innovation and change. “New media creators saw the changes as opportunities whereas they thought traditional media saw them as threats,” Ivancin. “The competition did not look kindly at these” news startups, including one outlet that r an editorial attaching the new site.

6. News site creators and consumers express excitement and regret over changes confronting established media. People said they “miss the pleasure of reading the newspaper,” and worry that the ability to select news will mean people don’t get the fuller picture provided in the newspaper, Ivancin said.  Also, it’s more difficult to to judge credibility. New media creators are concerned about losing investigative reporting. Benefits include speed and convenience, more voices and perspectives, selectivity and ability to get depth on topics of most interest, she said.

It will be interesting and important to see whether these trends hold true as traditional media outlets shrink and new experiments come onto the field. Certainly developments in community media are important to established news organizations. The start ups change the playing field of media in many communities and they may be harbingers of new attitudes and practices that traditional journalists and news outlets will want to adopt to stay relevant and fulfill the role of town forum.

November 09, 2009

Good ideas from J-Lab’s New Media Women Entrepreneurs summit

Dozens of women gather in DC to hear ideas and best practices from women who have started community news Web sites and are learning how to make them thrive

I’m at J-Lab‘s New Media Women Entrepreneurs 2009 Summit in Washington, D.C., where women who have started community news Web sites are talking about what they’ve learned and what works. It’s a packed room packed with great ideas. Here are some that I’ve heard so far:

* The way to get people to cover community events is to let them know that an event they want covered won’t be covered unless they do it. Several speakers emphasized this, including and
* Edit them so they don’t need to feel self conscious about coming off as bragging about their kid or an activity they’re involved in., edits all stories, often asking for revisions, and then copy edits them.
* At the beginning, people are suspicious when someone from a new community news site shows up to cover a meeting or event. Later, if someone from the news site doesn’t show up, people ask where they were. This is the case at
* Founders are often most concerned about opening up community debate in small towns where the power structure is fairly closed. say this was a primary factor in their starting up. also sought to open political discourse and participation.
* These sites often are all or mostly volunteer, a mix of non-profits and sites that sell advertising. Those who sell ads say they have to educate those who use print advertising about how interactive online advertising will work for them. One site, made $50,000 the first year
* Prospective citizen journalists do not have time for deep journalism training. At minimum, train citizens who want to report in basic journalistic principles of fairness, accuracy and transparency. If they want more, offer training in constructing and writing stories. also offers training in opinion writing for those who want to write blogs. training includes how to cover government, how to do podcasts.
* Training for citizen journalists is as much about bettering civic discourse as it is about recruiting contributors for the site at Training that focuses on doing works better than training that focuses on learning.
* Transparency is important with citizen reporters. They often will want to write about something they know a lot about. Make sure their connection to what they are writing about is disclosed.
* In larger communities such as Madison and Twin Cities, community sites aggregate and republish in addition to creating their own content. aggregates and curates content tries to feature good blogs and nonprofit reports on the front page of the site with permission.
* Unedited reader contributions are labeled as such. puts these contributions in a “Free Speech Zone” with a disclaimer.

(Please excuse mislinks. Terriible wifi here so I’m not checking them before posting.)

November 03, 2009

Western Citizen: News site seeks to connect and engage

This bootstrapped site in the Rocky Mountains wants to bring more citizens into discussions about politics, environment, health and economic issues

Here’s an ambitious formula for a new kind of news site: “Combine investigative reporting with online tools to empower citizens to discover their own opportunities for direct action and to publicly deliberate on finding solutions to community problems.”

That’s Wendy Norris talking about her just-launched Western Citizen news site that will cover culture, politics, the environment, health care and economic issues across the Rocky Mountain States.

Her motivation: She just got tired of watching television broadcasts or reading newspaper stories that didn’t give her any way to take action on issues she cared about. “I would watch on TV and all I could do was throw a sock at the television set. They never said what else I could do. I want to bridge that gap.”

Norris agenda is simple:
- Tell the truth
- Promote action, context and relevancy
- Demand transparency

Norris sees a role for her site in the Rockies, where many of the issues she’s covering interconnect across the states and many solutions come from interstate discussions and compacts at state and local levels that play out well below the radar of the average citizen. Norris wants to give more citizens access to that information via the Web and, down the road, mobile.

“In the West, the land mass is so enormous. It’s hard to get people together.” Norris also hopes to develop tools that enable citizens to interact around information and engage in debate in more meaningful ways than throwing a sock at the TV.

Right now, the site features a news feed aggregating stories from around the region (Norris notes that many dailies and weeklies in the Rockies do not have Web sites, only PDF e-editions) and a blog by Norris highlighting important stories. She has incorporated Apture into the site to offer users context and “help them explore the breadth of an issue.”

She’s working on a hybrid business model: News gathering will be non-profit and she will seek grants and donations to pay for beats. She’ll form a separate business to create applications for citizen engagement and find other commercial revenue. In addition to offering news content, she hopes to develop resources to teach citizens how to blog, crowdsource and otherwise make their voices heard.

She is bootstrapping her site and has spent only a few hundred dollars incorporating her business and building the (she did her own coding) while supporting herself with freelance assignments for national publications.

I met Norris in May, Norris when she was a fellow at Knight Digital Media Center’s News Entrepreneur Boot Camp, funded by the Knight Foundation. Now, as a fellow at the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the Missouri School of Journalism, I’m eager to see how she develops the civic engagement aspects of her site.

Norris’ wasn’t the only site that launched Tuesday. There’s a lot to like about the just-launched non-profit Texas Tribune news Web site, which also has Knight Foundation support. I suggest you check out the site and this post on Nieman Journalism Lab for an overview.

I want to focus on one feature, TribWire, which you will find on the right hand column of the home page. This is an aggregation feed of important stories from other publications and sources, selected by the staff of the Tribune. If you don’t have a feature like this on your news site, you are missing a chance to provide a great service to readers and help establish your site as a place to get all the important news on your franchise topics.



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

Get in touch with Michele at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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