Phillip Smith

Making accountability journalism financially viable

The next challenge I'll turn my attention to in 2017

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January marks a big personal “pivot” moment for me (a pivot being startup lingo for a “structured course correction designed to test a new fundamental hypothesis”). I’ll be shifting my focus to media entrepreneurship: building journalism-impacting digital products and advising media enterprises and startups. If you have a stake in the future of investigative reporting, perhaps you can help?

Recently, I have been obsessed with the challenge of making the practice of accountability reporting financially viable, and I have decided to throw myself into this challenge for a time. To that end, I will be transitioning out of my role as Director of Technology at The Tyee, and have mostly concluded my work on the Hacks/Hackers Connect event series. Both of these projects have greatly informed me in preparation for this next phase. In fact, they have been my inspiration for this.

Like any chronically-overcommitted developer (or self-respecting entrepreneur), I’ve kept a list of “stuff that matters” to work on when mountains of extra time magically became available. By now, I have hundreds of ideas on that list. The time has come to get under way.

Given my current obsession, the first undertakings I’ve started to work on are:

  • Spinning out an open-source, Patreon-style fundraising platform specifically for independent journalists, reporting collectives and news organizations. Much of this will expand on the ideas behind the technology I’ve developed at at The Tyee that has facilitated more than $500,000 in reader contributions toward reporting on government, elections and more. I aim to make a similar platform available to publishers everywhere.

  • Launching an artisanal “bot shop for news” based on the work I’ve been doing on the Beautiful Rising “Toolbot.” This is a multi-lingual, multi-platform info-bot that privately provides information to people living in areas with limited bandwidth, Internet filtering or government censorship. I’d like to put similar “messaging agents” to use in news organizations for business-side tasks – for example, for handling subscription and donation renewals, retention campaigns, updating customer information and so on.

If any of this sounds interesting and you’d like to experiment with it in your newsroom, drop me a note. Be warned: I’ll likely ask to interview you because I’m keen to deepen my understanding of the problems you’re facing and how these kinds of solutions might help. I’ll be writing about each of the projects in more detail in the coming weeks. You can subscribe for updates here.

In addition to these new directions, I’ll continue enthusiastically in my role as the founding dean of the Uncharted Journalism Fund, where we are exploring how a little journalism philanthropy can support bold, adventurous storytelling in a shrinking media environment, and can also help determined individuals present underreported stories, issues and scoops in new ways. And I’ll also continue as a corporate officer and technology advisor for the U.S.-based nonprofit, Beautiful Trouble, a project started with close friends more than six years ago that has grown far beyond what we had initially envisioned as a “book project.”

And even though there are no more Connect events on the calendar at the moment, I am eager to invest more time and energy into growing the media entrepreneurs segment of the global Hacks/Hackers network. Over these past 18 months, more than 1,000 individuals have enthusiastically shown up at events – in Berlin, San Francisco, London, New York, Austin, Miami and Brussels – and they have made clear their desire for gatherings that shift the focus from data journalism to the question of building viable media enterprises. If you would like to convene such a conversation in your community, I would be happy to help.

Thanks for following along. Please stay in touch.


Hi, I'm Phillip Smith, a veteran digital publishing consultant, online advocacy specialist, and strategic convener. If you enjoyed reading this, find me on Twitter and I'll keep you updated.


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