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.

 

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Comments

I think this is a pretty good list, but I think it is missing a few categories. The aggregators like The Huffington Post (though they could fall under another category as well) and the algorithms or advertising-driven models like Demand Media. Of course a lot of these are being used for news yet, but I think that they still fall under the emerging models category.


I invite you to check out http://www.opednews.com. we’ve evolved rather differently, since we have somewhat unique content management software.

We have 35,000+ registered members, see 1.5 to 2.5 million page views a month, and since going to a MYSQL PHP system in 2005, we’ve published just over 100,000 content items. Our site has 40 volunteer editors who work a queue where members submit about 30-120 articles a day. The queue allows editors to revise, accept, reject articles, always with writer notification.

We have user creatable polls, action pages, events, calendars, group support, our own custom built smart tagging system and directory, a very friendly content submissions system which accepts formatting without the need for HTML. It has integration with twitter and facebook similar to the huffingtonpost and we do it on mid five figures a year.

The site uses the same financial model for writers as huffingtonpost does for bloggers—no pay. I think our site does a better job with creating a member page archive that pulls together the member’s content—articles, diaries, comments, quotations, favorites, etc.


I publish LymeLine - http://www.lymeline.com , which is one of the oldest hyperlocals in Connecticut, if not the country.  We cover two small towns, Lyme (pop. 1,700) and Old Lyme(pop. 7,500), which share a school system. We’re a mix of your first three categories - we’re obviously not a “Big” but we definitely need a revenue model.  We should cover more towns to grow our advertising revenue but then we lose our “smallness”, which readers love ( > 1,000 visits per day average in Nov.) Haven’t solved that conundrum yet. We’re entrepreneurial and so #2 because we have no outside funding (much as we’d welcome it!) but we’re not heavily diversified - no video ... yet.  We’re 100% #3 because we’re all about community - we love it and (we like to think) it loves us, but we have no citizen journalists and still adhere strongly to good, old-fashioned journalism ethics and practices.  My conclusion -  it’s hard to categorize “the chaos that is news” but, despite the fact that we don’t really fit precisely into any of your categories, I think you’ve done a good job.  As some of the big boys, e.g. Patch, local news franchise operations, start to become stronger, the landscape will inevitably change.  Rather than categories, perhaps you should identify features of emerging news organizations, and then check off ‘who’s got what’ and see which set of features offer the greatest chance of success.  Thanks for a thought-provoking article.


Starting up with news today is a perilous endeavor for sure.  Newspapers nationwide are struggling, laying off people, and going belly up.  This is a very tight market right now.  Personally, I think a big chunk of the problem lies with bias in the news.  Most news outlets today go out of their way not to challenge or critique our federal government.  News has become soft, and in many ways, an arm of the white house, and that is just not interesting.


Thanks for linking to me, Michele. Did you see the taped presentations from USC one-day conference “Entrepreneurship and the Community Web?” About two dozen site operators shared into about their biz models, their background, and talked about what their sites hope to accomplish. You can watch the web cast of the presentations at http://www.takeonedigital.com/ASC-webcast/


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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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