Phillip Smith

Judgement day for journalism: Will digital news startups be ready to face the challenge?

There are signals that this new media ecosystem will rise to meet the needs of our democracy

A couple of weeks ago, I was listening to a powerful exchange of ideas between Pierre-Elliot Levasseur, the president of La Presse in Montréal, and Canada’s foremost media critic, Jesse Brown.

The exchange reaches a really unexpected moment around the 23-minute mark when Brown presents a trend that he’s seeing:

“The percentage of journalists who practice ‘written journalism,’ who are employed by smaller digital companies, is going to go up and up and up. And the number of journalists who are doing it for newspapers is going to go down and down and down.”

Levasseur responds by emphasizing the role that large newsrooms have traditionally played producing enterprise reporting and investigative journalism – he proposes that this fact is often missed by those who believe that small upstarts will have much to contribute.

And this is where it gets really interesting, because Brown paints a passionate picture of the major changes in journalism production that are underway across the globe:

“Smaller organizations are getting increasingly able to do that kind of deep-dive, enterprise journalism. At the same time that, unfortunately, newspapers are becoming less and less able to do that.”

“Newspapers are still the best, you’re still the top, you still have the most resources and you’re still the best at it, but that’s shifting too.”

“[And] building something from the ground up to suit the marketplace, to suit where profitability and sustainability is, is a lot easier than adapting something with all kinds of legacy costs into a sustainable model.”

Put simply, in just a few breaths, Brown was able to capture the seismic shifts in the industry, and the opportunities those presents for building from the ground up, more clearly than I was able to in my recent post, “Why journalism entrepreneurship is needed.

When a 14-year veteran of the media industry like Brown talks about these trends, it validates a lot of what a growing number of people in the “future of news” have been saying for years: It’s time to reboot the media and start from the ground up.

And yet, that sentiment is often met with legitimate questions and some resistance from really smart people. Here’s a great example:

Charlie’s questions are not unique. These are questions I hear regularly. I believe the questions typically boil down to:

  • What are the signals that this new media ecosystem will ever rise to a level that could replace the democratic functions of established news organizations?

  • And where can I find examples of these new, typically reader-funded, news operations that demonstrate that they can reach any significant scale?

So, in the interest of generating some healthy debate on the viability of small news organizations playing a significant role in the future of news, let’s dig in…

The role that small news organizations will play in the future of news

I recently invested a couple of nights watching the Showtime documentary The Fourth Estate. The filmmakers go inside the New York Times just ahead of the November 2016 election and then follow a number of incredible stories that play out after the election and right up to events of this past year. It’s an amazing piece of filmmaking. And it highlights the kind of work that large, established news organizations are able to do and the political forces that they are able to withstand.

I reference The Fourth Estate to say that I don’t see a future without the New York Times or Washington Post in the U.S., or without the Toronto Star or Globe & Mail in Canada. I believe that NPR and the CBC will exist in some form also. The Associated Press and Canadian Press might even see a period of growth. All of the aforementioned organizations will play a significant role in the media ecosystem of the next decade. The size and scope of that role is what’s hard to predict right now.

However, the last decade has signalled that the media ecosystem of the future might have a lot fewer midsize news organizations: regional papers, the small-town papers, local TV and radio. In Canada, for example, more than 200 local news outlets of all types have closed since 2008. Similar closures are happening across the U.S. as Margaret Sullivan described in her recent column, The local-news crisis is destroying what a divided America desperately needs: Common ground.

So the question remains: Where are the examples that prove that small news organizations can scale up?

“Show don’t tell.” Let’s start spotlighting examples

The first two examples of scale I typically point toward (both are broken, but illustrative) are BuzzFeed & Vox. Both are roughly a decade old. It only took 10 years for these startups to scale to be global enterprises and household names. Current upstarts will need a bit of time to grow.

Arguably, Vice Media is a similar story, having started its shift away from a print magazine into digital around 2006. Coming from Montreal, Canada, and covering music and drugs, Vice is a great example of the unexpected places where innovation can come from.

However, as mentioned at beginning of the announcement for the Journalism Entrepreneurship Boot Camp, the aspiring entrepreneurs I meet are hungry for examples to model themselves after, but they need examples that are right-sized for what they are hoping to do, and at a similar stage of growth.*

(*Examples like Vice, Vox, and BuzzFeed have outgrown their startup roots and prove to be unhelpful examples for most people starting a news business today.)

Thankfully, there are more examples of what’s working today at a slightly smaller or younger scale. And, to answer Charlie’s question, there are also many examples outside of the names that are regularly covered in the industry press, like De Correspondent in Holland.

  • In the local news space, there are many emerging examples (like the one recently shared by my fellow JSK alum, Don Day, above). One I’m currently watching closely is The Colorado Sun: “a reader-supported, journalist-owned news outlet focused on investigative, explanatory and narrative journalism.” So far, they’ve raised more than $150,000 on Kickstarter from 2,500 supporters. However, there are so many examples of digital upstarts in this space it’s hard not to mention a few more to look at, for example: The New Tropic in Miami, TylerLoop in Tyler, Texas, or The Devil Strip in Akron, Ohio.

  • On the regional level, I like to point to Canadian examples like The Tyee, National Observer, and The Discourse. Each have very humble beginnings and proved that they could scale to do groundbreaking and award-winning reporting. Each has raised significant funding directly from readers.

  • A quirky example – on that I believe is worth examining and understanding – is Chapo Trap House (the so-called “Breitbart of the Left”). In less that three years it has found more than 20,000 Patreon supporters who invest $1.2 million annually in the project. I believe they may have have tapped into the illusive segment of the “previously un-newsed” in the U.S. This demonstrates the potential for, as Brown puts it, “building something from the ground up to suit the marketplace.”

  • Another powerful example and case study of a local online news startup starting small and scaling up is VTDigger in Vermont. Following the pattern highlighted in the previous examples, it took them roughly 10 years to reach scale. They break stories. They win awards. They’ve got sustainable revenue and don’t have to repay VCs.

  • A final example is Mediapart in France. It has hit the 10-year mark and now has more than 140,000 members. It is believed to have an impact on the news cycle in France.

I mention the initiatives above because I believe that there are actually a surprising number of digital newsroom experiments underway right now and that we simply don’t hear about them as much as we should. I also believe that some of these experiments will demonstrate that they can scale within the next few years. The simple truth is that journalism upstarts are getting better, getting faster, and their costs are coming down quickly.

My long-time colleague, David Beers, founding editor of the award-winning, largely reader-supported news site The Tyee, once asked the question: “Instead of giving an additional 300 million dollars of annual funding to the CBC (an idea that was proposed by the CBC itself) what would it look like to create a fund that would invest $1 million of funding in 300 new news organizations like The Tyee?”

It’s a great thought experiment and one that I invite you to try at home: What would a network of “small is beautiful” news organizations that would be sufficient to fill the widening gap in coverage look like? How many newsrooms would there be? How much staffing would they need to have? What geographic area would they need to cover? What beats would they need to cover? Would a country like the U.S. need 300, 3,000, or 30,000 of these news organizations?

I believe a radically different future for the media ecosystem is not only possible, but is very likely. I believe that small digital upstarts will start to be the democracy-serving oases in a time of growing news deserts. But we have to start doing the work today to get new experiments underway, and we have to start paying more attention to the growing number of examples that already exist.

Have an opinion on this, or examples of your own to share? Please leave a comment below. And, if your passions overlap with any of the above, please get in touch and subscribe for updates.


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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