The Anatomy of a News Startup

September seems to be the month of the startup. The Voice of San Diego just began taking the wraps of their new resource center for community-based and nonprofit journalism, “The Hub.” It’s just getting started, but already includes a wealth of lessons and resources. Along those lines, Brad Flora of Windy Citizen, posted “5 Mistakes That Make Local Blogs Fail” over at the PBS Idea Lab. Meanwhile, Paul Biggar compiled his own list of lessons learned from NewsTilt, which failed just two months after it launched. Finally, the New York Times reported that Jeff Jarvis will be announcing the creation of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at CUNY. The center will essentially offer a master of arts for prospective journalism startups. In addition to those headlines and blog posts, there are also two key events happening this month that shine a spotlight on news startups: Georgetown University’s “The Anatomy of a News Startup” and the Block by Block conference.

At the Georgetown event last week Jim Brady the founder and general manager of TBD and Matt Thompson of NPR’s new Project Argo, both of which have launched in the last two months, discussed what it took to get their projects off the ground. The conversation avoided most of the usual future of journalism tropes: there was no “who’s a journalist” questions, no desperate warnings about journalism’s downfall or overly rosy pictures of journalism’s future, there was no discussion of which new gadget would save journalism. Instead, the panel focused on the very concrete nuts and bolts of developing, launching, and maintaining a new web-first newsroom. Both Brady and Thompson addressed these topics with a pragmatic emphasis on the daily life of working journalists.

What did they count as the most important lessons so far?

  • Experimentation: This was discussed in terms of big picture gambles and day to day experiments. Both Brady and Thompson encouraged the group to put fear aside and dive in, make space for good ideas to bubble up, and stretch yourselves and your ideas.
  • People: Over and over we heard that people make the organization – and by this Brady and Thompson meant both the staff of the newsroom and the community around it. Look for people with passion first and skills second, build community, and put the job over personalities.
  • Networks: Both Thompson and Brady are running newsroom projects that depend on and are modeled after networks. TBD has their blog network – where they work with local bloggers in a way that is truly reciprocal – and Project Argo is itself a network of blogs built around NPR’s already existing network of local stations. Both felt strongly that collaboration and networks, and they ethics and practices that accompany those things, were key to any new start up.
  • Community: Both TBD and Project Argo take community engagement very seriously. It’s part of how they do their reporting, how they structure their newsrooms, and how they hope to pay the bills, at least in part.

Below I collected out some of the best tweets from the event and organized them by topic. As I note in one of my tweets below, while these two projects have radically different funding models and modes of working with journalists and communities, they are both examples of innovative new newsrooms developing within longstanding legacy news institutions. Developing these projects within already established news organizations provided both challenges and opportunities. In the future, it’ll be important to compare these lessons with those of independent journalists, trying to develop new newsrooms from the ground up.

Structure and Funding

  • Even at @NPR, revenue diversification is important, @mthomps says. (via @stevebuttry)
  • @jimbradysp When it comes to journalism revenue there is no silver bullet – only shrapnel. (via @jcstearns)
  • @jimbradysp: It’s not a launch, it’s a birth. No one ever says, “My wife just launched an 8-lb. baby.” (via @stevebuttry)
  • Focused nature of Argo sites and emphasis on engagement are aimed at turning visitors into members, says @mthomps re biz model. (via @greglinch)
  • @mthomps Stations in Argo called journalists on projects by different terms. He calls them trailblazers. (via @stevebuttry)
  • @jimbradysp Titles don’t mean a lot at @TBD. We just do our jobs. (via @stevebuttry)
  • Both TBD and Project Argo talk about a key part of their work as creating blog networks. (via @SaveTheNews)
  • Both TBD and Project Argo are examples of innovation inside big institutions/companies. (via @jcstearns)
  • Project Argo decentralized, dispersed. @mthomps hasn’t even met all of those involved. Refreshing – very NPR. (via @mjenkins)
  • #Newsstartup event makes it clear why #netneutrality policy is so important. It’s the 1st amendment of the digital age. (via @SaveTheNews)

New Ways of Reporting

  • @jimbradysp Skills not as important as mindset. You need to hear new idea & say how you’ll make it work, not why it won’t work (via @stevebuttry)
  • @mthomps W/ explosion of info, journos provide great value by sorting through, filtering, helping “navigate that thicket.” (via @stevebuttry)
  • @jimbradysp: Journalism is changing fast. Stay flexible and open-minded. Don’t get tied to the form of delivery. (via @mjenkins)
  • @mthomps advice to student journos: Skill of building & engaging a community will never steer you wrong. // #newsstartup Being able to engage and build a community online, draw an audience and build your true fans are key skills, says @mthomps (via @stevebuttry and @greglinch)
  • Get over your fear of failure. Just try it. Good advice from @jimbradysp (via @kkemple)
  • Acknowledging that journalism is a process and we can report it together with the community as a process. Says @Jimbradysp (via @jcstearns)
  • “You can make anything destroy journalism if you limit it to three steps.” @Jimbradysp (via @jcstearns)

A few days after this event Howard Owens began tweeting a few ideas and suggestions for news startups and they seemed so relevant to this discussion I wanted to include them here:

  • Seeing more and more local news start ups doing the “newspaper design” home page. Story hierarchy, Headlines and links. This is a mistake. (via @howardowens)
  • Seeing more local news start ups place Google Ads/Ad Networks on their site. This is a mistake. (via @howardowens)
  • Local news start up should build brand that’s all about local community. Non-local ads diminish brand. (via @howardowens)

Howard Owens is one of the people attending next week’s startup summit in Chicago. Journalism startups from around the country will be gathering in the windy city for Block by Block, a community news summit sponsored by the Reynolds Journalism Institute and orchestrated by Michele McLellan and Jay Rosen. The event promises to be an important gathering, where journalism innovators and entrepreneurs will gather to share best practices and talk about how to sustain this new generation of newsrooms.

Finally, if you are thinking about starting a new journalism project or just thinking about startups in general be sure to check out the in-depth FAQ page over at Voice of San Diego, Jay Rosen’s “flying seminar” on the future of news, the Knight report Seeking Sustainability, Ken Doctor’s Newsonomics, The Big Thaw from the Media Consortium and the blogs: Nieman Journalism Lab and PBS MediaShift and Idea Lab.

I know I’ve left out a lot here – blogs, twitter accounts, other reports – so help me fill in the list below.

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6 thoughts on “The Anatomy of a News Startup

  1. Pingback: Technology By Day » The Anatomy of a News Startup « Groundswell

  2. Also worth looking at is the 152-page report on the future of news that Bill Mitchell of Poynter edited for the International Press Institute (IPI). The report, “Brave News Worlds: Navigating the New Media Landscape,” was published last week. See Mitchell’s post: 10 Ways Journalism Around the World Is Being Revived and Reinvented.

    http://www.poynter.org/column.asp?id=131&aid=190466

    Another good read from awhile back is Amanda Michel’s reflective piece about her crowdsourcing effort at the Huffington Post, published in CJR.

    http://www.cjr.org/feature/get_off_the_bus.php

    Be sure to check out this study: Community news site users more satisfied compared to their local mainstream news sources.

    http://www.rjionline.org/events/stories/mclellan-sept-event/new-survey.php

    And read David Cohn’s Anaylsis of Six Journalism Startups over at MediaShift:

    http://www.pbs.org/idealab/2010/09/an-anaylsis-of-six-journalism-startups263.html

  3. Pingback: So, who says there are no successful models for online-only local news sites? – Tell Peoria Online Media

  4. Josh,

    Enjoyed the post.

    There’s a start up out of Toronto called ScribbleLive which has created a platform of brings social media into the coverage of live events.

    Interesting to see how you curated tweets in this particular post. A media property called TheScore uses ScribbleLive to automate the curation of tweets based on a set a rules for sporting events when no superfan is available to address “by hand.”

    If you’re interested in more information, give me a shout at LHoffman@Hoffman.com.

  5. Two more posts from this week:

    Sleeping Around: The Nonprofit Edge – http://www.npjhub.org/sleeping-around-the-nonprofit-edge

    Do local online news sites fail because there is no revenue model? I suggest an alternative explanation: Online start ups often struggle because their leaders don’t know enough about running a business or making money on the Web (and some don’t want to learn)

    http://www.knightdigitalmediacenter.org/leadership_blog/comments/20100922_audience_engagement_and_business_sense_are_essential_to_success_of/

  6. Pingback: Top Posts and Stats in 2010 « Groundswell

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