July 8, 2020

Last year, 80 local online news sites launched and were added to the University of North Carolina’s database on the local news landscape.

Another 80 closed and disappeared from that list.

Nothing about the news business is easy, especially now as the coronavirus pandemic continues damaging the economy and the media through layoffs, closures, pay cuts and furloughs. 

But a new program, announced Wednesday, wants to help aspiring news entrepreneurs figure out if their ideas can work.

GNI Startups Lab, from Google News Initiative and LION, one of the industry groups working with local online newsrooms, is a free program created to do the work that has to come before launching a new product — in this case a local or niche newsroom.

“For people who watch this space closely, I think it is very safe to say there are two major pitfalls for startups,” said Anika Anand, LION’s program director and the co-founder of Seattle’s The Evergrey.

The first, she said, is when journalists build something because they think it’s needed but don’t take time to research the real problems and challenges of the intended audiences and communities.

“… Folks who work in media have traditionally thought that they know the best way to share information about the community,” she said. “That’s not always the case.”

And the second: “Not thinking about financial sustainability from day one.”

And those two things, Anand said, get intense focus in the new boot camp.

The program, which is launching as a pilot, is free, but there is an application process (due by Aug. 17). Up to 24 teams of two people each will be accepted, Anand said, and people in the U.S. and Canada are eligible. It’s also fully remote, which was designed that way not because of the pandemic, but to keep people in their communities.

Phillip Smith, a digital publishing consultant, will run the boot camp with a rebooted version of programming he previously created.

“I believe the boot camp is unique because it’s all about doing and less about learning in a traditional sense,” Smith said in an email. “Put simply, the curriculum is as lean possible and focused exclusively on moving participants into action each week — it was developed in the spirit of ‘demos not memos.'”

It includes setting financial objectives, talking to potential customers to refine the idea and testing all your assumptions, including what people will actually pay for, Smith said.

And while the eight weeks are designed to be intense, Anand said, they also are built for people who can’t leave their full-time jobs.

“For me the most important thing is to get people from underrepresented communities who want to cover underrepresented communities and folks who don’t have a traditional news background but are passionate about where they live.”

Smith, who has coached journalists who’ve started their own newsrooms, said that on the surface, launching a startup takes “a unique mix of moxie, savvy and blind faith. Take for example Kara Meyberg Guzman, who launched Santa Cruz Local last year after leaving her position as managing editor at the Santa Cruz Sentinel. Through sheer willpower and consistently smart reporting — reporting that is highly responsive to their community’s needs — Kara and her business partner have marched toward financial sustainability.”

But there’s also another key factor Smith has seen among people starting their own newsrooms, and it’s one that keeps a lot of communities from getting coverage — some existing financial security. It might be from a partner with a job, a severance package from a layoff or buyout, savings, or even commercial debt.

“And, when you think about who typically has more access to those kinds of cushions, it’s often those that are already advantaged in many other ways,” he said. “All that to say, I wish that I could wave a magic wand and say ‘it just takes determination and a boot camp like this one!’ but that would be to not acknowledge the systemic barriers that keep under-represented and under-estimated people from becoming founders — and that is a big challenge that I don’t have an answer to yet.”

Anand is encouraged, too, to see other programs like this boot camp forming around the country, including the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism’s Entrepreneurial Journalism Bootcamp and Indiegraf in Canada.

The support network for startups is stronger than it’s ever been, she said.

You can tune in to one of three information sessions about the boot camp on Tuesday, July 21, Wednesday, Aug. 5 and Thursday, Aug. 13.

“If you are doubting yourself in any way,” Anand said, “apply anyway.”

Kristen Hare covers the business and people of local news for Poynter.org and is the editor of Locally. You can subscribe to her weekly newsletter here. Kristen can be reached at khare@poynter.org or on Twitter at @kristenhare.

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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