Phillip Smith

Do you know a reporter who has thought about starting a media business? Please share.

I'm looking for input on these four areas of investigation

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The time is flying by in this JSK “Knight” fellowship at Stanford: I’m entering week six of the adventure and the details of how I will spend my time here are starting to come into sharp focus. Many describe this year as a “runway,” and now the task is to decide the direction to fly, if not the destination. So here we go…

The question I’ve been grappling with the most – one that I believe you can help with, dear reader – is “What might be effective ways to inspire and support reporters to start a media business of their own?”

That question is at the core of my aspiration to help passionate reporters to find their way to financial viability. It’s my belief that phenomenons like Macedonian fake news producers and the Alt-right media ecosystem might actually highlight an opportunity for a new age of small is beautiful investigative reporting outlets. Nestled away here at “the Farm,” I’ve had moments to ponder the possibility for a new wave of grassroots, investigative journalism upstarts – and I wonder what the U.S. would be like today if it was reported on by a thousand modern-day equivalents of I.F. Stone.

Below I’ve listed the four areas that I’m currently investigating. I’d be incredibly grateful for your input on this list (there are some question prompts after the list):

  • Off-the-shelf business plans: Anecdotally, I’ve witnessed that a significant number of reporters – young and old – have little idea about how the business side of publishing works, i.e., the expenses one would typically expect, and the revenue sources, the cost of an employee, legal and licensing fees, and so on. Given that, I’m wondering if a “blueprints for a media business” might help address that knowledge gap, and better prepare aspiring self-starters for their (ideally, sustainable) journey.

  • Business coaching and mentoring: I’m a huge fan of Ash Maurya’s work. Both Running Lean and Scaling Lean were instrumental to the success of the media entrepreneurship event series I took around the world in 2015-2016. I’ve looked at his online Bootstart curriculum many times and wondered if this is the kind of resource – an accountability framework, plus coaching and mentoring – that might help people de-risk and accelerate their media startup ideas? Think: a lightweight version or Next Media Accelerator that can be done from anywhere, i.e., news deserts.

  • Back-end services: I’ve also observed a possible need for the services that often go into successful reporting, for example: editing, packaging, and impact production. A video-first reporter with sharp news judgment might need a slightly different set of support services to be effective at building a successful following, i.e., a person to quickly edit and package footage for all of the various platforms, or to manage an online community while they’re out shooting. I wonder how this could be supported? It seems daunting on first consideration. Maybe you have ideas?

  • Tools for revenue generation, audience development, social promotion, etc.: This is the area that is the closest to my original JSK application and aspirations for this year. Time and time again, I’ve observed how small technical interventions can have big impacts for publishers working to reach a large audience, and to become financially viable. My experience building these systems for publishers leaves me wondering if there’s an opportunity to build an audience- and revenue-centric platform that is a better fit for publishers than platforms like Kickstarter and Patreon are currently?

Again, I’d be incredibly grateful for your input on the areas of investigation presented above - especially if you’re a reporter who’s thought about starting something outside of a traditional media organization. If you are that person, here are few questions for you:

  • Have you personally experienced, or witnessed, a situation in which one of these would have been helpful? If so, please tell me more.

  • Have you personally experienced, or witnessed, obstacles to starting a new initiative that these ideas alone would not have helped to address? If so, do you have a sense of what might have been helpful in that situation?

  • What already exists? What’s missing from the list?

If you’re open to it, please wax poetic in the comments below, or send me a personal note.

Many thanks in advance,


JSK Stanford Fellow ’17-18: Business models for accountability journalism


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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