Author Archives: JTM

After the Pocantico conference on independent journalism

By Stephen Silha

In May 2015 a group of journalists and funders met around the question: How do we cultivate a vibrant, powerful, and resilient independent journalism ecosystem?

The gathering was inspired by a comment by Bill Moyers about the need for an independent journalism trust fund.  As a result of the Pocantico gathering, while we didn’t have any immediate outcomes related to a trust fund, we did establish more urgently the business necessity of addressing race.  Among the many initiatives we are aware of:

The Media Consortium adopted racial equity as its guiding strategic goal for the next five years. Executive Director Jo Ellen Kaiser reports:  “Our members were enthusiastic in embracing this goal; at our annual conference, 60 individuals from 45 outlets attended an all-day racial equity training led by Race Forward. We are pursuing a racial equity fund; a mentorship program for journalists of color; and collaborative work focused on issues of race.”

A new nonprofit journalism collaborative in Boston. During a recent call, Director Chris Faraone said, “The JTM event I attended at Pocantico, without it, there wouldn’t be a BINJ.” He writes:  “Having known almost nothing about nonprofit journalism before being invited to the retreat, I spent the weeks leading up to the conference studying various models. In the process my partner and I hatched a beta version of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and set out to support independent media makers and small publications.  After surveying the landscape and hanging with the learned gang in Rockefeller country for three days, I was hopeful for the first time since the Boston Phoenix shuttered in 2013. …We are mentoring the next generation of enterprise reporters; more than half of our features in the first year were written by first-time long form writers.   We’re launching new projects and initiatives each month, from the Boston Bubble magazine to an upcoming ethics colloquium. We’re still small and scrappy, no doubt about it. But [we made an] enormous contribution to the public dialogue in Boston this past year—more than a dozen features, nearly 100 columns, several neighborhood events.” [This effort also received funding as a result of Pocantico.] What’s more, the BINJ is pioneering in using the online source Medium to create new income streams: https://medium.com/@Fara1/and-now-a-word-from-the-local-journalism-nonprofit-thats-monetizing-on-medium-ac21cd1804b8#.wh6hnnkoq

And, they are spreading the model to other regions: https://medium.com/binj-reports/how-to-start-a-grassroots-nonprofit-journalism-incubator-from-scratch-af335489cda4#.nmasww41w

Information Trust Exchange. Bill Densmore writes: “I connected at Pocantico for the first time with Knight Foundation’s Jennifer Preston, and with Bill Buzenberg, who inspired me and RJI to push on what has become the Information Trust Exchange Project — http://www.infotrust.org  / Nearly a year and five task group meetings later, the creation of a shared user network that helps with privacy, identity, advertising and information commerce is dramatically closer to a reality.  The urgency of the need underscored by the Pocantico gathering, and the broad support for this big — but doable — network idea, the rise of ad blocking and “creepy” ad-surveillance, have all been part of the mix.”

Awareness of diversity.  Kevin Davis said the most important outcome for him was realizing “the importance of diversity, inclusiveness and ensuring that the people we serve are sitting at our table.”

To that end, Esther Kaplan reports, the Nation Institute launched the Ida B. Wells Fellowship to in March 2016 to promote diversity in journalism by helping to create a pipeline of investigative reporters of color who bring diverse backgrounds, experiences, and interests to their work. http://www.theinvestigativefund.org/about/2219/ida_b._wells_fellowship

Redefining “independent journalism”  San Francisco Public Press publisher Michael Stoll writes: There was definitely an undertone of redefining independent as an independence of mind — a willingness to challenge stereotypes, go deeper and take chances that profit-obsessed “mainstream” media wouldn’t.

Sources as narrators, not subjects. One independent journalist who attended, Julie Schwietert Collazo, explains that the Pocantico discussions have impacted her “in both small and big ways, from introducing constructive criticism into collegial conversations about editorial representation, to being more intentional about being representative with my sources and continuing to push toward a personal model of reporting and storytelling that privileges the sources as narrators and protagonists rather than passive subjects. I’ve also reached out to colleagues to develop and disseminate a list of subject matter experts who identify as Latinos/as, distributing this to colleagues who, in particular, complain that they simply don’t know how to be more representative.”  She also wrote an article on pay for independent journalists: http://alldigitocracy.org/how-can-we-fund-independent-journalism/

Culture shift.  Tracie Powell, founder of All Digitocracy, was a Knight Fellow at Stanford: “I made significant headway in figuring out that adding to audience has almost nothing to do with news organizations’ data collection or technology– both are already at our fingertips. The problem is culture. To that end, I’m hoping to conduct a case study, preferably in Philadelphia– both due to the ecosystem and the region’s demographic diversity.  While on fellowship, I also collaborated a bit on an initiative that offers some transparency on how freelance writers are paid.”

From journalism to community.  Just as the Pocantico participants moved ethnic journalism, audience and community to the center of its map of the ecology of independent journalism, Journalism That Matters found its center of gravity moving from the world of journalism more squarely into community engagement. Five months after Pocantico, JTM co-hosted the Experience Engagement gathering at the University of Oregon’s Agora Center in Portland.  Out of it came three engagement principles which are being tested as JTM refocuses on media deserts, communities of color and underserved communities:  “Nothing about us without us” / “Listening is our superpower”  /  “Speak truth to empower” https://medium.com/experience-engagement/towards-a-civic-communications-ecosystem-for-thriving-community-f4f75c4ca450#.njhaf448c

Moyers & Company. While the Pocantico gathering was originally inspired by Bill Moyers’ idea of creating a trust fund to support independent journalism, Moyers was unable to attend due to family obligations.  One of his longtime producers, Gail Ablow, attended the gathering and is now working with him on http://billmoyers.com . She continues to contribute ideas and perspectives from the Pocantico discussions to Moyers’ podcasts and speeches, including this one at the New York Public Library: http://billmoyers.com/2015/05/27/bill-moyers-speech-challenge-journalism-survive-plutocracy/

Relationship power.   A number of relationships either created or strengthened at Pocantico have resulted in funding, ongoing collaborations, and “keeping each other informed.”  YES! Magazine’s Sarah Van Gelder reports that Bill Buzenberg has been working with them part-time to strengthen sustainability.  Michelle Garcia is cooking up a new project in Texas.  Jay Harris has carried ideas to his new board role at Free Speech TV. Several funders said Pocantico’s opportunity to spend less-formal time with each other, and with other participants, was useful in their work.

Charting the News Ecology

As they settled in to focus on the current and future challenges in independent journalism, the participants at the gathering Supporting Independent Journalism to Thrive began by trying to map out the news ecosystem, who is in it, and how the various elements relate to one another.

When considering the relationships among media associations, funders, audience, journalists, community, media activists, entrepreneurs, independent media outlets, ethnic media, legacy media and more, it moved those in the room to articulate some hard truths and some pathways to building stronger relationships.

Aggragated Map.IMG_0625The aim was to stimulate a conversation and it did. The discussion was the first step towards the group realizing that no matter how much we explored the relationships between independent journalists and the media outlets they produce news for, or between media associations and funders, for example, it’s the community and the audience that ended up being at the center of the entire news media landscape.

That led them to set aside their chart, which was deemed a work in progress, and recast the news ecosystem in their minds with the “community” and “audience” at its heart as they continued to discuss for two more days how to strengthen independent journalism and make it more resilient to survive the tides of change.

The ultimate conclusion for many by the end of the Pocantico gathering was that audience and community can provide independent journalism with its strength, broaden its power and influence, increase and embolden its allies, and lead to more paths to revenue and economic sustainability.

Questions and comments that surfaced in that initial assessment, some of which were fleshed out some more during the gathering, included:

  • The number and size of media associations, which need to get more resources and out of the silos that prevent them from offering better service to their members.
  • What role does ethnic and community media have or should have in the independent journalism world?
  • A recognition of the often exploitative relationship between freelance journalists and legacy media outlets, and an analysis of how to challenge the status quo.
  • What kind of impact do philanthropic funders of journalism look for and how do you measure it?
  • How the “poverty mentality” and/or the reluctance of editorial folks to embrace and highlight the business side of an endeavor affects working conditions and hurts the sustainability of independent journalism.
  • How media activists, now sometimes forced to advocate for journalists, can be part of a more strategic push for a more resilient independent journalism.
  • For many in the country, ethnic media is general media, not independent media, and their embrace of their role as advocates for their communities and audiences enhances community engagement and, in turn, support from the audience.
  • More independent journalists have to know how or learn to be entrepreneurial in order to operate in this news ecosystem.
  • The audience is now creating content and it no longer has a passive role, but is very much an active means by which journalists and media outlets reach a larger audience.

For some, the news ecosystem should be looked at as a “hub and spoke” model functioning like the internet, where if certain elements fail, it keeps functioning and moving forward. Still others saw the independent journalism world as a constellation of entities, all with large differences and varying degrees of subtle successes, who needed to be connected to share ideas and work together to gain strength and influence.

But by the time people left The Pocantico Center, there was no denying that many looked to the audience and the community as the heart to give it strength and to keep it all going.

Explore Acquiring a Legacy Media Outlet

Some Pocantico participants decided to explore the acquisition of legacy media outlets that have continued to be profitable even though there have been year-over-year declines. They will initially focus on a local newspaper with deep roots in a community, but there could be other opportunities.

They will be assessing the viability of this approach and doing the necessary research to see what might be a legacy media outlet ripe for this, why previous proposals of this type succeeded or failed, and what information and potential funders or investors would be needed to come up with a plan.

The goal is to improve the quality of local news by changing the mission from just making money to enrich for-profit companies to supporting and sustaining journalism and community information, more in line with parts of the independent journalism ecosystem.

Aciton-Acquisition

Taking the lead on this effort:

Martin Reynolds, Senior Editor – Community Engagement, Bay Area News Group

Michael Stoll, Executive Director and Editor, San Francisco Public Press

Others who pledged to help in the effort:

Kevin Davis, MakingNews.Biz, formerly of Investigative News Network (INN)

Craig Aaron, President and CEO, FreePress

Ricardo Sandoval-Palos, President, Board of Directors, Fund for Investigative Journalism

Michelle Garcia, freelance journalist and filmmaker

For more details, please refer to:

 

Complete an Audit of Independent Journalism Workers

Some Pocantico attendees said a grant-funded audit of journalism workers by an entity with credibility in the journalism industry, such as Neiman or Poynter, needs to be completed to document and expose (1) freelance reporter/producer pay, rights, protections, benefits; and (2) staff reporter/producer pay, benefits, workload and productivity.

Action-Audit The audit would detail all of these working conditions as well as document how these hamper the quality of the journalism being produced. The level of diversity among freelancers vis-à-vis staff journalists could also be assessed and the reasons for that.

The aim is for the audit to be completed by late 2016.

Volunteers to see this through are:

  • Jeff Yang, Columnist, Wall Street Journal online
  • Esther Kaplan, Editor, The Investigative Fund, The Nation Institute
  • Valeria Fernandez, independent journalist
  • Ricardo Sandoval-Palos, President Board of Directors, Fund for Investigative Journalism

Timeline

June 30 – Identify potential partner/sponsor

  1. Poynter, Pew, Glassdoor – Jeff Yang will contact
  2. Journalism schools – Valeria Fernandez will contact
  3. Knight at Stanford, Fund for Investigative Journalism, Investigative Reporters and Editors, Nieman Fellowships, other journalism schools – Ricardo Sandoval-Palos will contact
  4. The Nation Institute – Esther Kaplan will contact

July 30 – Outreach, gauge interest, build budget and plans – Jeff Yang and Ricardo Sandoval-Palos

September – Blueprint and Team, Phase 1, 2, and 3 – Esther Kaplan, Valeria Fernandez, Jeff Yang, Ricardo Sandoval-Palos

December – Funding, Phase 1

Fall 2016 – Audit and Delivery

For more details, please refer to Not Free As In Beer or Free As In Speech, Free As In Lance: Is Organizing Independent Journalists A Game Changer?

Explore New Potential Sources of Revenue for Independent Journalism

It was clear for many that the challenge of figuring out how to get more individual, philanthropic and government/public support for independent journalism would take more discussion and experiments in the future, and the recruitment of more allies to make progress.

Some of the Pocantico attendees committed to moving ahead immediately on five areas regarding revenue. The volunteers are:

  • Craig Aaron, President and CEO, FreePress
  • Jay Harris, President, Public Intelligence Inc., formerly with Mother Jones
  • Richard Tofel, President, ProPublica
  • Linda Jue, Executive Director/Editor, G.W. Williams Center for Independent Journalism
  • Molly de Aguiar, Program Director, Media & Communications, Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation
  • Kevin Davis, KLJD Consulting, formerly with Investigative News Network (INN)
  • Esther Kaplan, Editor, The Investigative Fund, The Nation Institute

They have agreed to do the following in the near future.

Working group. Establish a working group on revenue development. Members are Craig Aaron, Linda Jue, Kevin Davis, and Jay Harris.

Match for political spending. Initiate an effort to connect with the Democracy Alliance to explore the idea of persuading donors to political campaigns, especially those appalled by current campaign spending madness, to commit to contributing $1 to “fighting and fixing” the problem (efforts that include journalism) for every dollar they contribute to political races. Volunteers working on this: Richard Tofel, Esther Kaplan and Jay Harris.

Government/public funding. Some of the participants decided to start a process now of discussing and advocating for public funding, acknowledging that it could take 5-10 years to get anywhere. Craig Aaron will lead that discussion.

Community foundations. Volunteers will initiate efforts to get independent journalism on the radar of community foundations, ultimately to cultivate them as potential sources of revenue. Down the road, the effort might involve delegations of journalists and community leaders as the focus increases on this relatively untapped resource.

Branding campaign. Develop idea of a branding campaign for independent journalism (c.f., the “Red” campaign). Kevin Davis.

For more information, please refer to:

 

Create a Convening of ALL Independent News Media

A committee of the Pocantico participants agreed to convene a conference of independent, community and ethnic and foreign-language media in spring 2016 to connect these colleagues, and facilitate, disrupt and create explosive collaborations that will transform what people believe is news and explore how working together can mutually strengthen them all.

The conference would be a way to break down the silos most in these sectors are in, strengthen the flow of information between different members of these sectors, smooth the pathways for editorial collaborations, and create a peer-to-peer network for sharing business ideas and funders.

It also seeks to create concrete ways for community media to expand their voices and specific action steps for them to step up to another level in business practice.

The committee envisions a conference that would principally invite editors and publishers of foreign-language, black, Hispanic, and other media associations and outlets by and for people of color, along with editors and publishers who belong to The Media Consortium, the Association of Alternative Newspapers (AAN), the Institute for Nonprofit News (INN), the Alliance for Community Media (ACM), the National Federation of Community Broadcasters (NFCB), the Local Independent Online News Publishers (LION), and freelance journalists and media associations.

Participants who committed to this effort and to recruiting others to be involved in making this happen are:

  • Jo Ellen Green Kaiser, Executive Director, The Medium Consortium
  • Juana Ponce de León, Director of Media Diversity Relations, NYC Council Speaker’s Office, formerly with the NY Independent Press Association
  • Chris Faraone, News and Features Editor, DigBoston
  • Richard Logan, President, The Reva and David Logan Foundation.

They aspire to get 1) funding to visit several communities around the country to get journalists from these media outlets to buy in to the idea and attend, 2) sponsorship for the actual conference, and 3) funding for post-conference activities, such as editorial collaborations and other joint planning work on infrastructure, training and other areas.

Timeline and Commitments:

May 2015:     Identify hosts for the conference (talk esp to CUNY and NAM) and potential stage 1 funders—Jo Ellen and Juana

June 2015      Grow Committee to represent all stakeholders—Jo Ellen, Juana, Chris

June 2015    Separately, Jo Ellen to set up quarterly meeting of heads of independent news organizations: June, Sept, Dec, March

June 2015      Write proposal for Stage 1 funding –Jo Ellen, Chris, Richard to review

July-Oct 2015   Travel to different communities to talk to local community media about what would bring them to a national conference—Jo Ellen plus organizer (hopefully from foreign language media)

Aug 2015      Set conference date; Set conference location; Create conference website; Identify venue—Jo Ellen with input from committee.

Sept-Dec 2015    Sell sponsorships and exhibit areas for conference—tbd; Plan program—Committee to be formed; Write proposal to funders for travel money and for post-conference work.

Dec-Feb 2016     Marketing campaign to bring as many individuals as possible to conference; Continue to sell sponsorships, etc.; Plan strategy for post-conference projects.

Feb-Apr 2016     Conference

May 2016     Follow-up tbd by what happens during pre-conference planning and conference itself.

For more information, please refer to Create a Convening of ALL Independent News Media

Guiding Principles

After a day and a half of discussions as one group and in 11 smaller group sessions, the Pocantico participants molded six themes and guiding principles that they considered essential when considering how to help independent journalism become stronger and more resilient in the face of such transformation in the news media ecosystem.

The mix of journalism, academic and philanthropy professionals gathered there used these principles to determine what target areas needed to be explored further and what action steps they would settle on before leaving the Pocantico gathering.

They are:

Diversifying and Democratizing Impact

  • End white supremacy in journalism
  • Democratize:
    • Who is a journalist
    • What kind of journalism is produced
    • Who is a trusted source
  • Journalists who fully represent this country’s myriad realities
  • Journalism that fully captures the on-the-ground impact of government policies, corporate misdeeds, etc.

Broad-based Funding Mechanisms

  • Recurring
  • Independent of special government interests
  • Accountable, democratic distribution
  • Multi-platform outlets
  • Contributions small enough to be affordable

Empower Your Community

  • Put community and its information needs at the heart of you work
  • Move away from unidirectional journalism (We produce, you consume.)
  • Listen more, assume less
  • Generate revenue and impact

Grow Public Awareness of the Value of Independent Journalism

  • Develop branding and messaging
  • Target, Test
  • Disseminate

How?

– Social media
– Advertising and PR
– Advocacy
– Community Convening and Engagement
– Media literacy and education
– Monetize

Recognize and Communicate Best Practices and Failed Experiments

  • Identify services, entities, networks that can share and communicate…
    • Freelancers Union
    • Outlet Associations like TMC, INN, AAN, etc.
    • NAHJ, NABJ, etc.
  • Foster services, entities, peer-to-peer networks where they don’t already exist
  • Invite/Bring new players to the table
    • Millenials
    • Hackers
    • Community

Develop Brands with National Reach and Impact

  • Build more media brands with significant national audiences:
    • D. existing organizations with talent, leadership, strategy and addressable weaknesses
    • Resources commensurate with needs
    • Sustain support, subject to reasonable objectives over a reasonable timeframe

Rockefellerization of the News

Saturday morning, May 16

Host: Martin Reynolds, The VOICES Project, Bay Area News Group

Attending: Michael Stoll, SF Public Press

Reynolds: Will explore the acquisition of profitable legacy media outlets by nonprofits. We’ll focus on newspapers in this instance but there could be other opportunities. Get a sense of the research out there. What might be a property ripe for this? It could be big or small.

Planning by June 15 a convening call of interested participants from Pocantico gathering. In the meantime, we’ll research past proposals for acquisitions by Media Workers Guild and others:

*Speak to key sources who can provide context and director before call:

  • Community foundations
  • Media finance consultants
  • Union people
  • Tax professionals
  • Large donors

This is really about assessing the viability of this approach.

Outcomes: Improve the quality of local news by changing the mission from just making money to enrich for-profit companies … to supporting and sustaining journalism and community information.

Reynolds: In a specific market that I’m very familiar with, the organization has continued to be profitable even though there have been year-over-year declines. My experience has been with a number of these markets, there is still great opportunity there for viable business if you embrace some of what we’re talking about. There is some real potential there.

Michael Stoll: There is the possibility of foundations making program-related investments that would and could be involved in buying a profitable business.   This has been talked about at different properties. It would be good to survey them to find out why they did not work. Smart people thought about making it almost work and it didn’t.

Taking the lead on this will be Martin Reynolds, Senior Editor – Community Engagement, The VOICES Project, Bay Area News Group; and Michael Stoll, Executive Director and Editor, San Francisco Public Press

The Pocantico participants Kevin Davis, formerly of Investigative News Network, Craig Aaron of FreePress and Ricardo Sandoval-Palos of the Fund for Investigative Journalism pledged to help with this. Michelle Garcia, freelance journalist and filmmaker, also agreed to assist where she could in some of the research. There is a nice collective group to explore this.

Who Does What by When?  

Action Steps:

  1. James Head – East Bay Community Foundation – Michael Stoll
  2. Chris McKay – Ownership Associates – Finance consultant for media – Martin Reynolds
  3. Carl Hall – Martin Reynolds
  4. Mark Carter – Get contact from Bain Capital
  5. Clint Riley – Sued the Chronicle twice
    1. Molly de Aguiar, from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation will talk to folks at the Silicon Valley Foundation on our behalf.

Independent Media Acquiring Legacy Outlets

Friday afternoon, May 15

Host: Martin Reynolds, The VOICES Project, Bay Area News Group

Attending: Michael Stoll, SF Public Press

What needs to happen

The idea:

A rich person buys it, takes it from private sector and then turns it over to the public sector. Need to make it appetizing for owners of these assets to give them up.

Why it could work:

  • You’re not cutting to make quarterly profits.
  • Make it easier for the organization to stay afloat.

Need answers to these questions:

What is the value in the legacy media that might be prospects?

Why would a rich individual give someone the money to do this?

  • Need to rally the richest of America, preferably those who have social conscience and perhaps have a stake in the local community.
  • Have to come up with a very appetizing reason for financiers to put up the money.
  • Must make the case that there is value in taking something out of the private sector and putting it into the public sector.

More likely to convince individuals than many foundations that are growing endowments but giving away less and less.

Could we get Congress to pitch into something like this?

Example: CalMatters raised $2.5 million, hired a bunch of reporters who have names and then going to build an audience. It’s starting from scratch and will likely blow through $2.5 million. What if she would have raised $20 million and bought the SacBee?

What are the assets?

  • Archive
  • Circulation list, current and old
  • Advertising base, a terrible website, traffic and brand recognition

Other options besides newspapers:

  • Radio has an even lower price point, and radio often comes with multiple signals and those are very valuable assets. The model could be scaled at the low bandwidth signals and scale that up.
  • Free Speech Television – Started off as a channel satellite companies had to give.
  • What if that were able to be turned into a 24/7 platform.
  • Link TV is a good example of one channel that is doing good work.
  • The C-Span and other are of those, university-based radio and publications.

Downside:

  • Buying a newspaper would be a much more expensive proposition.
  • So in order to buy distressed newspaper products, someone is going to have to eat the debt.
  • Hybridizing the model, the media company is for-profit but the news gathering is non-profit.

Funding options for exploration:

  • Media Development Investment Fund, NYC
  • Trying to keep media free by giving loans, costs are higher, harder to secure.
  • There are a lot of people who say they want to do social-mission lending.
  • Low cost, low margin assets, have a digital and analog strategy for content and monetization.
  • Start this effort in smaller, underserved markets and prove out the model and scale to larger markets with bigger outlets.

Substantial network of social investors who might be open to supporting such an effort.

Always admonished the players in town, but the some argue that “these are the people we’re writing about.”

Ethical Conclusion:

The funder/buyer would have to pay for a complete transaction and not sit at the board table.

Yeah, but that’s like raising a kid and then allowing him to loud talk you in front of important guests. Is a billionaire really going to be willing to do that?

Important in the approach:

Part of this being successful is to look for journalists or people involved in media business who know particular communities. No swooping in. People need to be from the community, at least on the editorial side. The business side could be different.

In independent media space too many people are expecting people to do jobs they are not equipped to do.

Key Questions/Concluding thoughts:

Would need to know what the cost of acquisition would be and the time it would take. And whether could you put funding together to let it operate independently.

For profit sales, web, marketing team, but a content team working for the non-profit side.

Examine the cost basis of legacy media so we can assess whether this makes sense.

Unlike with new media, there is no way to determine what has history financially.

Philanthropist, we get painted by the source of the money, but that might be a subset of funders that has less potential.

Mary Babcock Reynolds Foundation that is very dedicated to a region, have funded a lot of activists, but be able to address systemic problems of media deserts, might put up some funding, and direct you to other funders.

One thing would need to do is assemble some small team of people, media company valuations to help determine what the opportunities be in these spaces? Are there arbitrage opportunities out there?

Should be convening people who have done significant Media Acquisition work.

Railroads got eminent domain, but what is potential with lobbying to get laws passed to get current owners and holders of troubled assets and in exchange get really sweet tax breaks.

That could open up a whole wave of publicly owned media outlets.

Owned by a b-corp, not profit driven but mission driven.

Indy media is all small ball. Play big ball and still keep our morals. Tends to get really caught up in minutia and need to think big and bold.

After this discovery period, determining the quality of asset, could you think through structure enough to really see if it could work? Some very conscious effort to set up the governance in a way that allows them to be entrepreneurial and serve the community?

Current owners of these assets want out and we want them to do it in a way, what do they need to do to give up that asset? It’s almost like we have to start using techniques that developers use to get what they want.

What constituents are essential for a successful independent journalism organization?

Friday morning, May 15

Host: Richard Logan, The Reva and David Logan Foundation

Participants:
Robert Rosenthal, Center for Investigative Reporting
Ricardo Sandoval-Palos, Fund for Investigative Journalism
Kevin Davis, KLJD Consulting, formerly with Investigative News Network (INN)
Jay Harris, Public Intelligence, Inc., formerly with Mother Jones
Richard Tofel, ProPublica
Linda Jue, G.W. Williams Center for Independent Journalism

Note taker: Ricardo Sandoval-Palos, Fund for Investigative Journalism

(Note-taker’s note:  This version is not contemporaneous or a verbatim re-creation of our gathering.  I am hitting the highlights, focusing on the part of the discussion that highlighted the tips start-ups and non-profits need to get off the ground and stay above water.)

Main points: Essential advice on a checklist of things prospective commercial and non-profit independent media operations need before the lights are turned on for the first time.

  • Understand what you DON’T KNOW about your business, and about people, money and time management.
  • Learn it, rent it or hire it to the original team, so the “don’t knows” become a natural part of the original team.
  • Learn how to LEAD. And this means knowing your own limitations and how you can best add the needed knowledge to your team before you begin.
  • This is especially true when it comes to business side management and SOCIAL MEDIA.
  • Don’t forget your “MARKETING/COMMUNICATIONS”. Someone on the team needs to be PR savvy and know how to market and communicate your product, your stories and your overall mission.
  • And, you cannot start any of this without first knowing and intimately understanding your AUDIENCE/COMMUNITY. Who are you targeting? Why? Are you limiting your options/possible revenue by not fully understanding your community?
  • With all this in hand you must then make sure that each of the three lines is robust enough to support 100 percent of your TOTAL OPERATIONAL COSTS (if there is an economic downturn or a failure of one or both of your other sources).

This is a formula that not only allows an enterprise to begin, but allows you to scale (or not scale up and stay small, niche).
Conversation highlights:

Logan: If you’re looking to start something that goes beyond the home-based freelance gig, you need some basics of business beyond the journalism. You need to be able answer questions about all manner of insurance, accounting, managing budgets and all the other required legal and administrative duties.

Harris: But first you do need that great idea to start with.  And you need the passion to push that idea – without the two you are nowhere.

Davis: While at INN posed the following as an example of a non-profit start up:
–Suggest a head-count of at least five people; Three in editorial and two on the business side.
–The breakdown would be manager/editor/reporter, and on the business side, someone who manages the enterprise as though it were a business, and someone to liaison with the money.

Rosenthal: So then you get into the brass tacks of what you need.
In our world, non-profit investigative news operations, what’s most important is to have a good development team on board, someone who comes to the table with a good list of contacts in philanthropy and wealthy donors. Then you also need someone who is the “closer”, who can go to these contacts once a relationship is built and you’ve pitched – to seal the deal.

And, don’t forget that in the realm of development, you also need to have either people working on Public Relations, Marketing and Communications, or a sharp individual who can do all three.  You don’t want your editorial people trying to do this part-time for their own stories and projects, and your business people are not likely to be able to do the job with the kind of focus it needs.  But it’s vital, given that you need to get yourself and your work out into social media and on radio, TV and in print. It all brings eyes and ears back to your sites and that is essential when you talk to investors and donors about the kind of impact your stories have generated.

Davis: Of course, all this starts with the right CEO.  You actually do need someone who runs the entire organization.  Sometimes it’s not you, as the founder or original investor.  But it’s got to be someone who knows how to get their hands dirty on all fronts. Someone able to meet with donors and investors and then apply the funds to the right enterprise; someone who’s responsible to the auditor and to the board. And it has to be someone who goes to an editorial meeting, right after meeting with the development team and your PR/Mar/Coms folk.

Rosenthal: On the Development team leader or individual, you need that person to be someone who can own the challenge of finding money to keep the enterprise going. You (we) are the great journalists, but more likely than not, you will have no clue about what the hell you’re doing on the business side.

Which begs the question: How do you lead? There is a lot of success out there today, but it is difficult to identify a formula that works for everyone.

Harris: Comes down to needing someone to lead your team who knows how to close all the loops in your operation; someone who may be called upon to do some fill-in work on any one of these matters.

Davis: The reality is that there are a lot of small groups that have started, all trying to keep journalism alive. And we’ve told them that what you need to start with is a board with the leadership skills to help your mission.  If you’re out of synch with the board, nothing happens.

Logan: But what is leadership?

Rosenthal: It’s someone open to collaboration in key areas such as 1) Journalism…goes without saying. 2) Understanding bsuiness 3) Employing technology (not just journalism technology, like how to run a Word Press blog.) And you have to blend it all within a support system that goes from the board down to interns.

Harris: BUT DOES THIS ALL MAKE A DIFFERENCE ON A BOTTOM LINE? You still have to attract an audience and someone has to pay you so you can pay your people and keep the lights on, and even pay yourself.

Rosenthal: We do make a difference, yet the public still largely distrusts the media as a whole. The question becomes how we can tap into all that, collectively, and deliver a message from here, as a group?

Davis: The problem may be that our own marketing seems often to be aimed more at funders. But they (the funders) actually want to know how you are aiming at your community and audience.  Have you identified that before you launch?  If not, there’s trouble ahead pretty quickly.

Rosenthal: There are also too many folks going into ventures just with great ideas. That’s not enough. You need to have identified the sources of revenue for your operation. Lots of people overlook that important step.

Davis: Some organizations can work as viable mom and pop operations. Yet even the small ones have to ask just how sustainable their idea is. But for them it may not take much, especially if they’re not interested in becoming a larger enterprise. But for those that do want to grow, the obvious questions become how to you elevate your game? How do you grow your audience? So you need to think of the audience as your primary source or most leveragable asset for revenue.

Rosenthal: As a group, independents are always looking for ways to economize — to get services that might be too expensive for them to do on their own. So should we provide back office services?  Should we create a clearinghouse? Clearinghouse ideas have not worked so far.

Davis: Yes, even though people hoped they would work.

Rosenthal: We had our own hopes. It was a big goal, but it was tough.  Our California Watch Platform was good stuff. People did pay us. But in the end they didn’t want to pay, but wanted to give us stuff to put out there. For them CIR had become like a wheel-and-spoke entity.  But we found that great journalism alone is not enough to draw sustainable funding.

With Reveal, however, it was a platform that we did not initially feel comfortable with. It is about collaboration and commentary and we had to bring in talents that we didn’t have.  It did give a chance for some branding, though.  And that’s another thing a start-up should seek. How do you get the audience and have them know it’s you.  For us, it was important that they support/recognize Reveal and not think it was CNN or NPR coming at them. And now, we’re getting the numbers of outlets and entities coming to us to participate. Like Netflix and others. It’s crazy (good).

Davis: So there is the other lesson when you consider what it is that you need to start a non-profit. You have to identify how your collaborations and products will generate separate revenue streams. You want THREE separate revenue streams identified — each of which, if need be, could provide up to 100 percent of the funding your venture needs. That ought to be the goal. This is why you need someone on board with you, from the start, who has that business acumen – a CFO who can identify those revenue streams for you; a communications expert to get that out and could help with the development side so you can reach donors – the people who could be touched by your product, who care about public service journalism.

Logan: Yes, but you still have to engage the audience. How does that small organization engage and then sustain that engagement to survive?

Davis: Even if you’re just one-inch wide, you still have to be miles deep (i.e. very specialized). You have to have the authority and power. In the entertainment world, it’s the studio that creates products. For a CIR, it’s like a studio now and has created a brand with Reveal.

Rosenthal: Independent journalists can coalesce – start up – around interest areas and create content that is at least resonant with a community and audience that you have identified; all the while you or someone remains in charge and tends to the business aspects.

Harris: And you want to be able to show the IMPACT you’re having on your audience. How you’ve made or are making a difference. This will also help you when say you’ve identified an audience that can help sustain you.

Logan: You could say that as funders, we make investments in civil society to get organizations to the point where they’re making an impact.

Harris: This brings me back to the disconnect. Often in independent journalism, we know we need to do something, but then we drop the ball or can’t really afford to go out and find the expertise that can do that thing for you – the expertise in specific areas.  Maybe you can rent it, or find a place where you can tap into the expertise without having to invest in something full-time.

Rosenthal: Another thing you need to start up, something we all think we know a thing or two about and therefore don’t to worry about: social media. We think we know how to do social media, but it’s changing and growing all the time, and new opportunities come up as fast as the one you just learned no longer works the way you thought. You need someone who’s on that around the clock.

Davis: And that’s a tough spot for independent media because we’re having to compete for talent in that world and we can’t compete right now with what others are able to pay.

Harris: That’s why it’s important that we generate some market dynamics here so that competition somehow continues to push innovation. There are a number of talented thinkers here, who could push innovation.

Tofel: Two things come to mind. Out-of-the-box thinking on revenue streams and on ideas that will lead to revenue. And, a successful operation is able to take advantage of technology to help spread its work, and to develop ideas and stories and that drives up IMPACT.

At the end, Linda Jue came over and gave us all a good example of how great intentions and good plans don’t always lead to sustainable fruit. She described the goal; the rise and flattening out the Independent Publishers Association – which was one of the first groups to approach funders on behalf of independent journalists. It was a nice cautionary tale of how a great idea, even with distribution channels and 500 members, was unsustainable in the end