Phillip Smith

Why journalism entrepreneurship is needed

One of the fundamental information production and distribution systems on the planet is wildly broken. I believe we can fix it.

In many towns, cities, and countries, everyday people rely on the work of journalists to provide context for the world around them – information about schools, the environment, businesses, government, crime, and so much more – context that helps them to make important decisions for themselves and others.

Although it’s often hidden from view, the work that many reporters do is critically important to the world’s information ecosystem. There is evidence of it everywhere in our lives: at the bottom of Wikipedia pages, in our social feeds, and in television/radio news broadcasts that reach millions of people each day.

But the industrial news production system of the last century is broken. And the only thing worse than the broken model for news is the wholesale destruction of trust and credibility that it has brought with it.

As much as it pains me to say it, the business models that newspapers pioneered over the last century – selling readers’ attention to advertisers – is the likely culprit for many of the problems society faces today, everything from so-called “fake news” to Cambridge Analytica-style mass manipulation of public opinion.

The pervasive tracking that is so prevalent on the Web today, and the use of fake accounts and automated bots to influence the new “front pages of the Internet,” all lead back to one original sin: the import of the advertising-funded news model onto the Web. In short: we can blame the folks at WIRED Magazine for inventing the banner ad and be done with it.

Three Big Hairy Problems

In all seriousness, current-day news organizations are broken in three fundamental ways:

First is the business model. As described above, the primarily advertising-supported model – where a captive audience’s attention is sold to advertisers – has not only capsized the news industry, but threatens to take parts of the open Internet along with it. The hyper-optimization of this business model over the last decades has resulted in huge privacy violations and an enormous industry of fraud (some say as as large as $16B in 2017).

The second can be boiled down to the common phrase of journalists themselves, “Follow the money!” Many of the news organizations that people rely on are now owned by hedge funds that have just one goal – profit maximization. This has lead to a massive hollowing out of newsrooms across the U.S. and Canada and a focus on producing the least expensive information, which further erodes a community’s trust as newsrooms miss important stories and fail to fulfill their role as “democracy’s detectives.”

More contemporary newsrooms – Vice, Vox, BuzzFeed, etc. – suffer from the curse of venture capital. The venture funding requires these news organizations to maximize rapid growth in the hopes of reaching a size that makes the economics of paying back their investors possible. Watching this unfold in real time, it appears that maximizing profit, or maximizing growth, makes it very challenging to also produce quality information consistently and over the long term.

Third is the mental model. The current mental model of how to produce information was taken from an age before the Internet. It is a mental model that see news production happening outside of the community it covers, where news priorities are decided with little, if any, community input. Put more succinctly, it was “reporting on a community, not with a community.” And that model was established long before it was possible to effectively listen to a community, collaborate with that community, and to bring a community’s voices into the reporting.

But hasn’t the Internet fixed everything?

Until recently, some believed that the Internet and social media had brought citizens more information than ever before – often with citizens themselves committing acts of journalism – and that simply opening up the field of journalism in this way would provide all the information that citizens needed. However, as we’ve seen highlighted this past year, it’s a great oversimplification to say that more sources equals more truth.

To use an overly simplistic comparison, journalists are something like professionally trained and employed Wikipedia editors for the world’s largest information system – they investigate, they check the facts, the interview the sources – they are the gardeners of our collective history and disseminators of our shared knowledge.

Established media organizations have responded to the business model problems outlined above, largely, by creating a wall between their information and the public. If the public wants access, they must pay for it. But this approach risks creating gated communities and ghettos with haves and have nots of the information society.

I believe there is a better way: A way that has reporters and the communities they serve working together. A way that doesn’t create haves and have nots. A way that doesn’t pit business goals against against reporting goals by relying on advertising or wholesale data harvesting. A way that is wildly collaborative, with an “open-source ethos” at its core. And a way that brings diversity and trust back into the work of democracy’s detectives.

With your help, I am determined to build a movement around that better way.

Starting from scratch, building a movement

Put as plainly as possible: I want to accelerate a movement to reboot the media. To put it on a path toward long-term sustainability and in alignment with the communities it’s meant to serve.

Just imagine for a moment a world full of financially viable news organization that are open, participatory, and inclusive. Where reporters co-create with their communities, offering ways for people to contribute their expertise. These will be news organizations that are inherently human-sized and humble, and news organizations that take on the big questions that don’t fit within a daily news cycle. Organizations that work to build trust with their communities, one reporter at a time and one community member at a time.*

*(These are all ideas expressed previously and better by many before me, including De Correspondent’s Rob Wijnberg, Membership Puzzle Project’s Emily Goligoski and Jay Rosen, Discourse Media’s Erin Milar, Hearken’s Jennifer Brandel, Coral Project’s Andrew Lowsowksy, Matter Ventures’ Corey Ford and several more who are charting a new path with these concepts.)

Continuing work that began almost a decade ago, I want to bring strategies from open-source software development – giving away a core product, co-creation, community idea solicitation, value exchange, and building networks around common interests – into modern-day reporting organizations.

I’ve come to the realization, however, that this is a challenging culture shift to promote to established newsrooms because of inertia. It’s hard to fight 150 years of history; of doing things the way they’ve always been done because the “news hole” needs to be filled.

So, I’ve spent the past few years experimenting with a new approach that is grounded in entrepreneurship. That exploration led me to this fellowship which provided me with an opportunity to step back and see the challenge from a distance, and to interview nearly 100 people in the media innovation and media entrepreneurship ecosystems to look for clues that I’m on the right track.

Since the announcement of the Journalism Entrepreneurship Boot Camp a few weeks ago, I’ve had one amazing conversation after another with individuals who are thinking along similar lines. That excites me greatly, because we’ll need massive collaboration to chart this new path - it’s an all-hands-on-deck moment.

I see the Journalism Entrepreneurship Boot Camp as just the first step. A weekend-long in-person event is already being planned for later this year. There will be workshops at upcoming journalism conferences and more. You can read more about all of this in the Frequently Asked Questions.

All that is to say, please stay tuned for updates and get in touch if you’d like to help build this movement from the ground up.


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.