Mark Briggs


What makes journalism ‘innovative’? Lessons from this year’s Scripps Howard Awards

What is innovation in journalism today? I heavily debated that question with Dan Gillmor and Retha Hill earlier this month while judging the Scripps Howard Awards at Poynter.

The 44 entries in the “Digital Innovation” category we were judging were some help. But not as much we had hoped.

The top of the list, thankfully, exemplified the award criteria of finding “fresh, engaging” ways to do great journalism. What does that look like? Think Snow Fall from The New York Times, which ended up winning the award. Big data projects from ProPublica, narrated graphics from the Los Angeles Times, the killer iPad app by Reuters, Bloomberg’s infographics, and News 21’s interactive video trailer presentation also had the judges uttering words like “stunning,” “mind-blowing,” “amazing” and “powerful.”

What set them apart from the rest of the entries was the way that each one found a creative — and effective — way to use a digital technique or tool to tell a story or convey information. Here’s a quick look at this judge’s favorites:

  • Snow Fall, of course, integrated infographics, flyovers, audio and video in a nearly seamless way that was the most immersive experience we saw.
  • ProPublica’s big data projects made it easy for the reader/user to view specific information most relevant to him or her while seeing the big picture from different angles.
  • Bloomberg’s interactive connection graphic on China’s Eight Immortals project gave the reader/user control in exploring the information.
  • The Reuters iPad app has a slick and intuitive interface on top of new and interesting information, like the “after” photo from a famous news event or the story behind the shot from the photographer’s point of view.
  • The Los Angeles Times used voiceovers to narrate infographics as part of an impressive package on the problems associated with the growing world population.
  • News21’s 100 Gallons project takes a fresh approach on story presentation with a video timeline as the backbone. The video work and cohesiveness of the stories combine to make a powerful package.

The bottom of the list left us scratching our collective heads, however. It seems some in the news industry still think it counts as innovation when they do something outside of their legacy medium, or apart from their traditional schedule. I’m sorry, but if you happen to work for a once-a-week TV news program, the practice of publishing content to your website on the other days of the week is not innovative. In case you hadn’t noticed, people routinely publish content to websites every day.

In fairness, it was the first year for this category, so a track record did not exist. Mike Phillips of Scripps gave us the Potter Stewart guidance at the beginning; we would know it (innovation, not porn) when we see it.

Once we looked through all the entries, the definition of innovation in journalism became clearer, at least to us: Trying new ways to create a better journalism experience for the reader through digital technology. Even better when it’s journalism that matters. And it works across all platforms. The challenges of journalism haven’t changed. Tackling stories and projects that have the most impact (isn’t Watergate still at the top of this list?) makes journalism matter.

Journalists and news organizations are now armed with an array of digital technologies available to present that information, that story, in an immersive and interactive manner. It used to be innovative to do a clickable graphic or a video as a sidebar or related link to an online story. Now the bar is higher; the more seamless the experience, the more integrated the different pieces are packaged together, the better it is for the reader/user.

Unfortunately, too many news organizations and journalists still see innovation through the lens of their legacy medium and the way they have always done things. A newspaper doing a video or a TV station doing a magazine? This is not innovative to the reader/user.

True innovation in news means connecting that reader/user to important information in a new and meaningful way. Will non-journalists share your project on social media and email it to their friends? Then you might be onto something truly innovative. The day of doing journalism for journalists — or awards — is over. Focus on the customer. Serve the customer. Read more

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4 media shifts to watch for in China

I was honored to represent the U.S., the Poynter Institute and KING Broadcasting Co. at the Colloquium on Future Global Communication and Journalism Education held Dec. 15-16 at Tsinghua University in Beijing. The first session featured five international speakers — including me — who presented in English.

Here are four key takeaways from the conference and from my conversations with professors and students there.

Journalism education is flourishing in China

Professor Shi Anbin, who invited me to speak at the conference, told me there are 1,000 journalism schools in China. While the government continues to control the news media there, state-run news agencies are growing fast (much like the country’s economy for the past 20 years). There is also an increasing presence of foreign media in China to report out to the rest of the world.

All of this new opportunity means an increased need for education and training. Schools across the country are moving to meet the professional and academic need to understand the impact of Chinese media on, and its place in, the rest of the world.

A flyer at Tsinghua University advertised the talk by author Mark Briggs, who is standing beside it.

In my public lecture to graduate students at Tsinghua the day before the conference, I was impressed with the overall awareness of global media trends the students showed. In fact, their multiple-point questions during the Q&A were more challenging than many I have faced in college classrooms in the U.S.

It’s still early for entrepreneurial journalism in China

As you already know, the Chinese economy has exploded in the past decade. News startups, however, have not been part of that explosion. Yet.

About 60 students packed into a lecture room at the Tsignhua School of Communication for my “public lecture” on Friday. I was told there was unusually high interest in my topic — entrepreneurial journalism — because many students are looking for options upon graduation besides working for state-run news agencies.

A professor told me that one of his former students just left an agency job to take a post with Bloomberg in China and will earn 3-4 times more in salary than what he was previously being paid.

All that interest does not mean activity. When asked if anyone could name an example of entrepreneurial journalism in China, the room was silent.

In talking with professors at Tsinghua, it seems it’s only a matter of time. A handful of fast-growing social networking platforms has loosened the grip of government censors on the flow of information in the past couple of years, creating new opportunities for news and journalism startups. The fear of government shutdown has dampened news startup activity so far, but given the capitalistic momentum in China these days, that is likely to wane.

Other high-tech entrepreneurialism, especially social networking, is exploding

The Chinese government has barred Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Google (these sites are available on laptops and PCs by paying additionally for a VPN, but not on smartphones). The move apparently had as much to do with business as politics.

Rather than helping grow the fortunes of U.S. tech titans, China created a huge opportunity for Chinese companies. Sina’s Weibo, Tencent’s WeChat, Renren, Baidu and other fast-growing tools and websites are very similar to Facebook, Twitter, Google and the like with one important distinction: they are domestic companies serving Chinese audiences.

Weibo has more than 400 million users who share news, photos, jokes and other Twitter-like musings. But the momentum has shifted to WeChat, an MMS platform that launched in late 2011 and already has 200 million users.

That kind of rapid growth means fertile ground for experimentation among news-related tech startups.

Aggregation and curation of news and social media has yet to arrive in China. Entrepreneurs who are hesitant to create content businesses for fear of government censors should look to platform plays. Building tools for these emerging social networks and using their activity to curate content appear to be plausible next steps in the digital evolution there.

Chinese media will play a key role in global news

CCTV, the state-run media behemoth in China, has ambitious global expansion plans. It is reportedly spending $6 billion on external programming and already has bureaus around the globe, including several in the U.S. Just as the BBC, Al Jazeera and CNN have pushed far beyond their domestic borders, CCTV is primed to follow suit.

Mark Briggs (@markbriggs) is a former Ford Fellow for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the Poynter Institute and current director of digital media at KING Broadcasting in Seattle. He is the author of “Journalism Next” (2nd edition was published last month), “Entrepreneurial Journalism,” and “Journalism 2.0.” Read more

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What’s working at news startups, from Seattle to Vermont

The best sign that entrepreneurial journalism endeavors are moving in the right direction is that so many of them are heading in different directions. That was obvious Thursday during a pre-conference workshop hosted by J-Lab and executive director Jan Schaffer, the day before the annual Online News Association conference, held this year in Boston.

The event offered an amazing stream of data points from operations big — Texas Tribune, New Haven Independent, St. Louis Beacon — and small — DavidsonNews, RVANews, for example — with these compelling insights (for more details, check the Twitter stream from the session).

A non-profit model works best when associated with investigative journalism, especially at a city, regional or state level. This insight came from Cory Bergman, co-founder of Next Door Media, a network of neighborhood sites in Seattle (Bergman is also a member of Poynter’s National Advisory Board). The non-profit model is working well at places like the Texas Tribune, which expects to raise $3.5 million this year and reach the break-even point. (As Bergman said on Twitter, “non-profit life isn’t so bad is it?”)

And it’s working at the Vermont Journalism Trust, which supports and is using the goal of an informed society as a motivating factor to solicit checks from donors, according to the trust’s founder, Bill Schubart., meanwhile, is officially a for-profit but has a volunteer subscription payment model that contributes 10 percent to its $120,000-150,000 in annual revenue from readers. (The site gets about 10 percent of its readers to pay.)

Paying writers and sales people varies widely from site to site. For example, the founders of Baristanet and DavidsonNews don’t pay themselves a salary so they can pay their writers more. Writers at local, start-up sites are making anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars a month. Good advertising sales reps are a key, but not cheap. RVAnews has a rep who is “killing it,” according to founder Ross Castrow, who expects to bring in $160,000 this year. The New Haven Independent, meanwhile, expects to generate more than $500,000 in revenue in 2011, and has a staff of 10 full-time writers.

Events are hugely important, both for revenue and marketing. The Texas Tribune and St. Louis Beacon each generated more than $200,000 from events last year and the Tribune expects to make $500,000 with about 1,000-1,200 attending the first annual Texas Tribune Festival this year.

Hosting, sponsoring or simply participating in community events is the best way to spread the word about a startup news site, many founders said. Baristanet has a float in the Fourth of July parade every year and founder David Boracks says that appearing in the community is far more effective marketing than anything they could do on Facebook or Twitter, whether it’s attending community meetings wearing buttons or T-shirts or sponsoring local sports programs.

This conversation will continue next week at the Block by Block summit in Chicago. As Boraks said Thursday, he had no idea how many other people were fighting this startup news battle until he attended this workshop and Block by Block a year ago. He’s now motivated, in part, by the national community that has emerged to share information and ideas and support one another in this very important mission. Here’s hoping that conversation continues.

Mark Briggs is a Ford Fellow for Entrepreneurial Journalism at Poynter and the author of “Entrepreneurial Journalism,” published by CQPress and due out next month.
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3 key lessons for entrepreneurial journalists trying to get projects off the ground

It’s all about money. And people. And your ability to adapt quickly and smartly.

A small group of entrepreneurial journalists has found that money and people can make or break your business, especially in the early days when you’re just trying to get off the ground. As their projects developed, they wrestled with critical choices along the scale of staying the course and shifting gears.

During the past year, Poynter has hosted three weeklong workshops for aspiring news entrepreneurs through a generous grant from the Ford Foundation. The second workshop took place last summer and I was part of the faculty team working with the group. Recently I asked all the participants for an update so we could gauge their progress and see what they had learned in the process.

Of the 18 participants who attended, about one-third responded. I know that some projects never got rolling while others are making progress but their founders couldn’t find time to provide an update.

Still, the lessons this small group of new news entrepreneurs shared are important to consider whether you have launched your own project or you’re still in the planning stages. Here are three key lessons these news entrepreneurs have learned in trying to get their projects off the ground.

1. People make the project

Many entrepreneurs start as solo acts but, time and again, experience shows that startups with more than one person stand a better chance for success. If you have a great idea that you can’t wait to build, spend some time thinking about what kind of people you will need to make it happen and then start networking like crazy in order to meet those people.

“One of my key concerns coming out of the Poynter seminar was building a team that would make Good Story happen,” Fara Warner said of the project she was working on while at Poynter last August. “I knew the idea was good and I had a strong start on the business plan. But my fear was that without a team or a community of people who believed in the project, I would never build Good Story beyond my idea.”

Warner’s Good Story idea centered around linking journalism, philanthropy and people’s desire to give of their money, their time and ideas. She connected with a small group of other entrepreneurs working on a similar idea and formed the CareMovement project, which will seek to match people who want to help those in the news with urgent needs. (For example:  homeless kids, a food bank that’s desperately short, insurance won’t cover life-saving surgery, or victims of tragedy.)

Finding like-minded and driven individuals to join your team isn’t easy, of course.

“I’ve learned that starting a new venture is a lonely experience,” says Susan Older, founder of the Real World Media Co-op. “I think having partners is vital to success. I’m looking for them now.”

Sometimes you have to look in unexpected places to find the right people. Tom Stites is the founder of the Banyan Project, which he sees as a network of local news sites that will focus coverage on the needs of “regular folks,” meaning the half of the population who are neither affluent nor poverty-stricken. An integrated software platform will create Banyan’s structure and support turnkey franchise sites throughout the U.S.

Stites is currently serving as a Berkman Fellow at Harvard, an experience he says has been “quite fascinating but just as frustrating.” His goal for the fellowship year was to work with a couple of Harvard MBA candidates on detailed business planning, but after investing significant time and energy into finding a business professor to supervise the field work of the students, he said he’s “thrown in the towel.” Stites couldn’t find any Harvard business professors doing research or writing about co-ops or other business forms based on community wealth rather than investment gain.

So Stites headed west where he found a group of people who were excited about the project in Seattle. He spent a week meeting a wide range of potential supporters and investors in February, including a pro bono coach for his business planning.

“All this happened in response to my announcing to the Banyan advisory board that I’ve given up on Harvard and was looking for Plan B,” Stites said. “One call led to another, and bingo!”

Maybe it’s not people to join your team, but people to become your partners in business. Barbara Gref is the founder of the Media Restoration Project that is aimed at restoring news coverage to small towns and other places that have lost theirs.

“We’ve had the great good fortune that in our pilot community, there is already a solidly passionate group that wants to re-start their local news and they want and need our help because they have no news experience,” Gref says of her new partners in Rhinebeck, N.Y.

Unlike Stites, Betsy Spratt found the help she needed from a university. Spratt is the founder of Indigo Film and Artistic Services, a seed capital finance company for documentary film and artistic projects. In November, she enrolled in the Fasttrac program at TechTown, a business incubator created by Wayne State University, General Motors Corp. and the Henry Ford Health System.Through Techtown, she was able to complete a business feasibility plan and organize the business’ legal structure.

2. Money makes the world go around

As Sherrie-Ann De Leon discovered, it’s not easy to build a great team with zero budget. Her project,, is a news and information website for expats from the West Indies who live in New York City and the surrounding areas.

“Progress is much slower than I would like because I find the need to work at a job that pays the bills,” Deleon said, echoing a sentiment felt by early stage entrepreneurs everywhere. “If I could commit myself completely to this project for a few months, I believe it would take off in the way I envisioned it.”

Many journalists would prefer this whole startup thing be about the journalism and not about the business. But the reality is that money matters. A lot. Like many entrepreneurs before her, Gref said she is learning it’s the most important lesson in starting a business.

“You can’t wait for the money to come to you,” Gref says, “you have to go to it.”

Logan Braman, co-founder of Rooted Austin, a multimedia storytelling website that launched a few months ago, agrees. “It’s all about the money, even though we don’t want it to be.”

Like De Leon, Braman and his team have been financing the startup by working other jobs and are now realizing that it is not a sustainable long-term model. They are now looking at other options for revenue and sustainability. It’s the essence of adaptability that is also critical for startup success (see No. 3).

“The potential for change came about because of the realization that the path we’re following is a marathon to profitability, and we think there are a few ways to make it more of a sprint,” Braman said.

3. Agility and adaptability will be critical along the way

Many startups change course or alter their business model. Knowing when to change direction is one of the most difficult challenges an entrepreneur will face. The need to remain focused on a singular vision is important, too, because chasing every shiny new object or new idea that appears is a recipe for failure. But it is often critical to adapt the original vision to the marketplace, letting the customers (or audience) help guide the direction for the project.

It’s a fine line and, unfortunately, there is no easy way to learn when to stay the course and when to go with the flow.

The direction of a startup business isn’t the only thing that may need to change. The size and scope of the original vision may also need to be adjusted as needed.

For example, Older realized that she is a “dreamer,” and a successful venture is more than a dream. She admits she hadn’t done any market research before her mind took off with her original idea, called Displaced Journalists.  “But the seems-so-obvious hitch,” she says, “is this: If there’s no market, you have no venture.

“I always think of things on a grand scale,” Older says. “What I’m learning is that perhaps I need to think smaller. Maybe it’s not so important that I start some huge national project, although that’s where my heart is. It’s what I want to do.”

Older has shifted her focus to a new, yet related, idea. With the Real World Media Co-op, she hopes to create a content cooperative, which would provide content buyers with access to top-notch talent.

Regardless of the size or direction of the original plan, it’s highly unlikely that everything will go according to plan. If nothing else, entrepreneurs must be flexible and adaptable.

“I think another lesson is the realization that change is inevitable,” Braman says. “Things aren’t going to go as planned all the time, or even most of the time. That’s where adaptability comes in, and I think we’re embracing that right now with our possible deviation from our original plan.”

The next Poynter entrepreneurial journalism workshop is scheduled for the first week of August, so mark your calendar and watch for an application announcement.

Mark Briggs is a Ford Fellow for Entrepreneurial Journalism Teaching at Poynter. He is the author of “Journalism 2.0,” “Journalism Next” and the forthcoming “Entrepreneurial Journalism: How to Build What’s Next for News,” due out this summer. He also writes about entrepreneurial journalism at You can take his NewsU course on Becoming an Entrepreneurial Journalist here. Read more


What journalists need to know about starting a nonprofit business

There is a misconception among many would-be entrepreneurs, especially in journalism, that starting a nonprofit business will mean relief from the pressure of making money. Not so. Any business, whether nonprofit or not, must bring money in to survive. Nonprofits simply go about it differently.

The advantages of a nonprofit are tax exemption and the ability to accept grants from foundations, while also allowing individuals to make tax-exempt donations.

It sounds enticing to ask a big foundation to write a big check once a year and then spend the rest of the time doing journalism. It’s just not that easy. Simply becoming a nonprofit requires you to master the time-consuming rules and policies under which nonprofits operate, or the regulations and bureaucracy of a university (if you partner with one). Once you are “official,” writing grant proposals and schmoozing potential funders is no less taxing than trying sell advertising.

There are advantages, of course. Andy Hall and Brant Houston, co-authors of the “Launching a nonprofit news site” Web module for the Knight Citizen News Network, suggest you find a pro bono lawyer to help you navigate the complex business and journalism issues that can stem from starting and running a nonprofit. They also encourage you to seek help from others, saying the “the nonprofit world is a unique community that often helps others who aspire to join it.”

Options for running a nonprofit

There are several different ways to raise funds as a nonprofit and structure your operation:

501(c)(3): A reference to a section of the federal tax code, this is the most common form of nonprofit business. To qualify, you must have a charitable or service-driven mission that’s not tied to politics. (For more information, click here). Realize, though, that this is not an easy or fast process.

Partnering with a university or college to piggyback on that institution’s nonprofit status. This has become more common in recent years but requires clearing tall hurdles in the world of academia.

Find a “fiscal agent” for the purpose of obtaining grants. This allows you to accept grant funding without being a 501(c)(3). Look for an organization that shares the same mission.

The goal is to accept funding in the form of grants from foundations and other charitable organizations. The structure you choose will probably not affect your ability to attract those grants, but the vision and execution of your plan will.

Filing to become a 501(c)(3) is the cleanest path to nonprofit funds, but it’s not easy or quick. To apply, you will need to include a tax identification number, articles of incorporation, bylaws and a conflict of interest policy in your application. Once you submit all the required documents, it can take six months — or longer — for the IRS to approve your application.

For a case study on forming a nonprofit in California, visit the Citizen Media Law Project’s website. Your state may have some different requirements, but most of the basic steps should still be applicable.

Revenue models for nonprofits

Accepting grant money as a nonprofit does not legally prevent you from experimenting with and using other business models, including advertising. Additionally, as a nonprofit you don’t have to pay federal income taxes. If, however, your revenue through advertising or other business models exceeds the expenses it takes to run the business, you will be forced to pay taxes on the difference.

The difference for a nonprofit, of course, is the ability to ask for money from other nonprofits, usually foundations. Finding grant opportunities is time-consuming, and many foundations have strict application deadlines and may only award grant money once or twice a year. One place to start is by finding other nonprofit journalism startups online and determining where their money came from. Knight, Ford and McCormick are some of the more prolific funders for journalism projects. New sources seem to be appearing more frequently during this time of upheaval for journalism, though. Do your homework and search for organizations with money to give.

Once you have identified a potential source of grant money, you will need to submit a grant proposal. This can be a lengthy process that requires advanced planning and preparation, so do not delay until the day before the deadline to start. (Maybe you know a few journalists who procrastinate until the last minute?) Various books and websites, including Nonprofit Guides, will help guide you through this arduous process. Read more

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How to tell if your entrepreneurial idea could lead to a journalism business

In the beginning, there’s an idea. It’s how every inspiring story of entrepreneurial adventure begins. But the idea, by itself, is never enough. Ideas only become sustainable when they are transformed into a product or a business. And then developed. And marketed. And improved. Constantly.

Make no mistake, it is hard work. It takes courage, persistence and dedication.

How do you know if your idea is worth all that work? Test yourself.

Transfer your idea(s) into words and onto paper. Draw rough mock-ups of what your idea will look like if you can. This will force your idea through an essential first filter — you. Your head and your gut will work together and tell you whether your idea passes the first “sniff test.” If it smells like an idea with legs, this process will be fairly easy– even fun. It will get your creativity flowing, and you’ll get excited as additional ideas start coming to you.

Would you use this product/website? “Solve your own problem” is a common theme among entrepreneurs. Personally experiencing the “pain” or the problem that you are trying to solve creates a unique passion that will drive you like nothing else can.

Who else would use this product/website? Unfortunately, unless others share your pain — hopefully many others — your idea will not become a product or service. This is called “socializing your idea.” It’s extremely helpful for an entrepreneur who is excited and passionate about a new idea to test it with other people. Your ability to quickly and easily explain the idea and gauge the reaction and enthusiasm from other people will begin to tell you whether you have a product or business or just a neat idea.

It is important that you understand the distinction between an idea that is merely interesting from an idea that will create a business. The most obvious difference between an idea and a product or business, of course, is that an idea doesn’t make money until it becomes a product or business. And if your idea doesn’t make money, you can’t pay the rent, buy groceries or go to Applebee’s for dinner.

Figuring out which market your idea fits into

An important concept for startup companies is “product-market fit.” Anyone can make a product, but unless it fits into a market that wants it or needs it, money won’t change hands and there won’t be a sustainable business. The only way to learn whether you have a market for your product or service is to talk to potential customers — the market — about your idea.

“Unless you have been working in a particular market for the past 20 years, anything you’re thinking about customers and markets are nothing more than a guess,” Stanford professor Steven Blank says.

“The first step is go out and test some of the fundamental hypotheses that you have about your business. There are two that are absolutely essential: One is that you believe you’re making a product or service that solves a problem or a need that a customer has. Great, I’ll believe you. Now show me that there are customers out there who have agreed with you,” says Blank, who is author of “Four Steps to the Epiphany.”

The reason to talk to customers early in the process, of course, is to see if anyone needs or even wants what you are building. It seems so simple, but when you start by solving your own problem, you have a tendency to assume others have the same problem (or need).

Paul Graham started YCombinator to serve as an incubator for startup companies (the aspiring entrepreneurs get a little seed funding and a lot of guidance). People who are admitted to the program receive a T-shirt that reads: “Make something people want.”

The bottom line is this: People want to save money, save time and get smarter. These are “jobs” that need to be done. Customers buy products that help them get jobs done. Not all jobs are functional, though, like shaving in the morning or feeding your kids breakfast in the morning. According to the book “What Customers Want,” there are three different types of jobs that customers are trying to get done most often: functional, personal and social. Functional jobs sustain our lives (think food, shelter, fuel). Personal jobs need to be done to make a person feel better, smarter, more attractive. Social jobs need to be done to make a person feel connected to, and appreciated by, other people.

It’s important to consider all three types of jobs to be done. If you can help people do more than one with your product or service, you stand a better chance at succeeding.

When thinking about your idea in the initial stages, try answering the following questions to assess whether you have the making of a business or just a neat idea.

Will customers pay for your products or service? If you are developing a website or news service, it’s probably not feasible to assume readers will pay directly for the content. While there will always be a few sites that charge for content — or try to– the predominant business model for web publishing is free content. It’s a simple case of supply and demand. There is seemingly no limit to the supply of free content online. At the same time, the demands on attention continually grow. The result is people with less attention to give to ever-growing amounts of content. (Some people call this the “attention economy.”)

If not, what are other ways to fund operations? If you are developing a website or news service, the most likely source of revenue is with advertising, syndication or services. To generate revenue from any of these models, you will need time to grow an audience first, meaning you will likely need some money to get going. This is called “startup funding” or “seed capital” and can come from a variety of sources, including self-funding, borrowing from friends and family or angel investors. Will customers use your products or service? Launch a prototype of the website or service you plan to build. Then invite friends and colleagues to test it out and provide feedback.

It takes money to make money. Fortunately with digital media, getting a new idea off the ground takes a lot less money than it used to. Even if a WordPress blog is all you can afford to build right now, it is a great way to test the market and learn — as early as possible — whether you have the potential to build a business around your great idea. Read more

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Why News Startups Should Think Collaboration, not Competition, with Big Media

How will new media replace old media? The rise of independent journalism startups, combined with the shrinking of mainstream news organizations, provokes the question. And for some media pundits, the question is when – not if.

While that’s a sexy topic in media circles, more attention should be given to the concept of collaboration — not competition — between new and old.

As part of the Ford Foundation-funded program in entrepreneurial journalism at the Poynter Institute, we’re focused on helping journalists start new media operations. But we will also explore how news startups and traditional news companies can work together to the mutual benefit of both. It’s a new area for journalists thinking entrepreneurially, both at startups and at news companies.

Some entrepreneurs are hesitant to hook up, but there are several potential advantages. The big media partner can jump start your startup with instant traffic referrals. The news organization might share advertising revenues in exchange for placement on your site. If you don’t have a sales staff (or sales experience), this is huge. The exposure and credibility you can gain from working with a big media company is probably worth a lot to your startup, if the focus of your business fits a need the big company can’t fill on its own.

To get a sense of what this looks like in real life, I posed a few questions to Ana Acle-Menendez, one of the aspiring and impressive entrepreneurs I met at a Poynter seminar in July. She has partnered with The Miami Herald, her former employer, to develop West Kendall Today, a hyperlocal site focusing on one of the most populous sections of the Miami area.

The Herald approached her in the fall of 2009 with the idea, and the site launched in February 2010. Acle-Menendez was the West Kendall editor when she worked at the newspaper full-time and increased readership in that area. (She left the paper in 2006 to take a magazine editing job, which she later left for personal reasons.)

The West Kendall alliance is part of a larger initiative to partner with independent news publishers that is sponsored by J-Lab. Dubbed the Networked Journalism Project, it includes five newspapers: The Miami Herald, The Seattle Times, The Charlotte Observer, Asheville Citizen-Times and Tuscon Citizen (now online-only).

The one-year project was funded with a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and the funds have supported a liaison at the newspaper and provided small stipends to local partners. (The project has just received funding for a second year.)

Miami appears to have the most aggressive approach, due to the fact that Miami is hosting content and providing sales consulting and materials. The Herald’s corporate parent, McClatchy Co., tweaked its content management system to allow the partners to publish directly into the Herald’s CMS.

Rick Hirsch, managing editor for multimedia at the Herald, said the company has also paid to train the local partners on selling advertising and has hired a consultant to help develop a cookbook for selling hyperlocal advertising.

Acle-Menendez says the newspaper executives ran the numbers in West Kendall and decided they wanted this to be one of the first communities to launch. Since she has lived in the area and covered it for more than a decade, it made sense for her to do it. “The only catch was that I didn’t already have an area newspaper or website, like the other original partners,” she said.

“On a personal level, I want my community covered and I’ve always wanted to be an entrepreneur,” she said. “I had tried another venture on my own when I left the Herald, which is now on hold for West Kendall Today. Success for me would mean putting journalists in the area back to work, in addition to making a comfortable living.”

After informal conversations at Poynter, Acle-Menendez answered some questions via e-mail; below is our exchange.

Mark Briggs: What has the response been like so far?

Ana Acle-Menendez: Our readership is growing and I get a kick out of readers’ comments on a story. Sometimes I’m surprised at which story receives the most comments. I know I have a lot of work ahead of me to get it to the level that I would be proud of.

We launched in February and in July we had 16,000 unique visitors (in June we had 11,000 so at least we’re going up). We get 24,000 to 30,000 page views steadily. I’m told that my community channel is the second highest (in the Miami network), with the first being an organization that got a very large grant and has a staff. I’m solo. I am intentionally growing s-l-o-w-l-y and not racking up expenses because I want to be in this for the long haul.

With business owners, I’ve had a positive response going door to door. When they see how affordable the advertising is, they usually raise their eyebrows and want more information. I’m realizing that many businesses don’t yet know about us, despite our marketing efforts.

I think I’ve received more critical looks from fellow journalists, who haven’t yet accepted the fact that the industry has changed. They want exhaustive coverage, which may not be possible now, or think hyperlocal news is boring, which I disagree with. I think we have enough competition with TV and the Internet on national, state and metro news.

What market are you trying to serve? Why do see this as a good opportunity?

Acle-Menendez: There is currently very little news coverage in West Kendall and it’s a strong market for readers. West Kendall has a lot of people (250,000) and businesses to support it. Many are small business owners, just like me. And I really like what I do.

What is the best part of your partnership with the Herald?

Acle-Menendez: There are many advantages. One, I don’t deal with any technological blunders. They’ve set up a system that makes it easy and fast to post a story and photos. If something isn’t working, I send them an e-mail and they handle it. Two, we share content. If I’m busy selling one day or don’t have new content to post, I will look for a story the Herald has written, assuming it is timely and about something in my area or near it. Three, I don’t have to worry about posting ads I sell. I send the ad department the order, complete with logo, and they post. Last, they drive traffic to the site, especially when they mention it on their main page.

The best part of the partnership for me is that it is nice to have a big brother to turn to for help and information. Having said that, this is still tough to do solo and make sustainable. There are disadvantages, of course, but in my opinion the advantages outnumber those.

What are some disadvantages of your partnership with the Herald?

Acle-Menendez: All the community channels on The Miami Herald’s website look the same, except for the colors at the top and the logos. I can’t design it differently or add a bell/whistle that the others won’t have. But, in terms of creativity, I only have input.

I could, if I wanted, separate my website (which currently points to the Herald’s) and just link to the Herald’s website and customize mine, but that would double my work right now (I’d have to manage the content of two sites) and I’d rather spend my time on the other 1,000 things I need to do (marketing, selling, tracking, etc.).

What advice would you give to other independent news startups considering partnering with a big media brand?

Acle-Menendez: In my case, I trust the two executives who approached me because I had worked with them for years. I knew their character. They also didn’t sugarcoat it, described it as “jumping off the cliff.” I appreciated that honesty.

My advice would be: “Why not?” Give it a go and make your mistakes on the back of a big partner. Just make sure that if the partnership dissolves, you can take what you built and continue — if that’s what you want.

At the recent seminar for new news entrepreneurs at Poynter, one of the recurring questions was whether it was a good idea to partner with big media or better to go it alone. In several cases, “big media” was also the place of former employment for the entrepreneur — so a certain, shall we say, bias was involved. It’s understandable, of course. If you were laid off or forced to take a buyout from a newspaper, the last thing you want to add to your new business plan is a “win-win partnership” with the very people who spurned you.

It’s important to remember: This is business, not personal. The people who laid you off probably didn’t want to, but had no choice because of a corporate mandate. And all personal feelings aside, when you are starting a business, you need to focus on what’s best for that business, regardless of past personal issues.

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It’s still too early to tell if West Kendall Today, partnership with The Miami Herald, will work for both parties. It’s also too early to tell if the other partnerships the Herald has launched, or the other newspapers that J-Lab has helped, will flourish. In all cases, though, it appears to be a smart experiment.

“I’ve been in this community long enough to know that, when The Herald pulls out of a community, there is room for another news business to grow there; I’ve seen the economic cycles over the years,” Acle-Menendez says. “With this partnership, the Herald is a collaborator, not a competitor.” Read more


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