Phillip Smith
covering

Hey friend, have you heard of the journalism innovation pipeline problem? Here's how we're missing the opportunity to support early-stage founders.

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An interesting thing happened this week…

In the scramble before the end of 2018, I was madly sharing a snapshot of the curriculum from the most recent journalism entrepreneurship boot camp with every respected industry leader I had a connection to in an effort to get input on how to scale the boot camp in 2019.

I was just back to my desk on Monday, after a much-needed holiday break, when I received this response:

“It’s a great starting point for people who want to try their hand at launching a news site, but the work we’re doing [is for people who] are further down the road.”

The response was a bit surprising — but also wildly encouraging — because that’s the crux of the problem I’m trying to address here at the Journalism Entrepreneurship Training Company: I’m building workshops and intense trainings that aim to bring new journalism startups to life. Specifically, I focus on working with diverse founders who are leaving newsrooms to start audience-pay information businesses.


Have three minutes? Watch a recap from a recent workshop.


Over the last 18 months, I’ve mapped every resource I can find for those few brave individuals who decide to take the entrepreneurial path and start a new journalism undertaking. Here’s the really interesting thing that the mapping effort brought to the surface: There just aren’t a lot of resources for individuals with newsroom experience who are thinking of leaving to start their own business.

As my colleague’s response above underscores, many of the resources available are for established founders or news startups that are already up-and-running and trying to navigate their way to financial sustainability. For example, there are full time academic programs and acceleration programs, but both require _huge_time and _financial_commitments. And, of the few resources for those people who are currently employed and just starting to exploring options, most are one-day workshops that focus on the big picture and skip the details.

It’s great that there are so many resources overall — and these resources all address different parts of the entrepreneurial journey, which is as it should be — and yet here’s the problem I see: If we believe that the news and information ecosystem we have today is broken — hampered by legacy thinking and an absence of digital savvy, not to mention the lack of diversity — how is the news ecosystem of tomorrow going to be any different if we’re only working with the same inputs today?

**Put simply, I believe that journalism innovation has a pipeline problem: **The same people getting support today are the people that have always had support, and those are typically people who are financially able to take a risk on a full-time academic program or a full-time startup attempt — basically, the status quo, just with smaller budgets.

(All of the above said, I could easily be overlooking some great offerings — so, if you are that individual in the newsroom and you’ve found helpful resources, please share them in the comments below.)

Overlooking the biggest opportunity of all

During a recent Newsgeistsession on “How Can We Create More Black-Owned Local News Organizations,” I was inspired to hear a call-to-action to address the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion sickness that grips many of today’s newsrooms with a simple concept: **ownership. **Equity, when viewed through a purely financial lens, is actually holding shares in the business itself, and — with those shares — owning a piece of the potential upside of one’s work, as well as the possibility of having input along the way.

But ownership is easier said than done, and I believe that many of the programs of support for potential journalism entrepreneurs are focused too far down the road, and thus not addressing the most pressing barriers that prevent potential founders from taking the first steps.

Initiatives like Backstage Capital and Black & Brown founders present a clear and compelling case study in how a sector-wide farsightedness can miss a clear economic opportunity: in their case, finding those founders that are overlooked by the established incubators, accelerators, and venture capital. And the opportunity is not just economic, it’s a paradigm shift. I believe that this opportunity is being missed in the journalism innovation field also.

The question is: How can that be corrected?

Addressing the pipeline problem

In my conversations with people who are trying to address the pipeline problem, there are a handful of themes that surface regularly:

  • The need for a lot more case studies of founders from diverse backgrounds succeeding at news and information startups (and not just the outliers). I’m thinking of people like Tasneem Raja and her new project The Tyler Loop, as well as more established names like Nick Quah who has been producing Hotpod for several years now.
  • After inspiration, the next theme is early-stage “runway” funding. In my research on how journalists made the transition to their own business, one factor was clear: having a year’s salary in the bank or a supportive network willing to foot some bills for a while. Those without access to that kind of runway will struggle to successfully launch a new product.
  • And, last but not least — the one that comes up in every conversation I have — is unique training and coaching that is focused on the idea of “right action, right time.” Starting a business is complex, there’s no question about that, but potential founders don’t typically need to understand a P&L statement on day one. And if we’re hoping to grow a dazzle of zebra companies, instead of a single unicorn, we need to adjust the curriculum accordingly.

I believe that any curriculum for early-stage, first-time founders needs to be purposefully “lean” and focused on just one thing: Helping the founder stay focused on validating that they’ve found an idea that is worth pursuing, while systematically de-risking the business model behind the idea.

Here’s why I believe that:

Right action, right time

When a person is considering leaving their newsroom job to start a journalism business there is often too much general information available at the other end of a Google search — ”business strategy,” “revenue strategy,” “audience strategy,” and “product strategy” — and not enough specific to the very critical task at hand: determining if there are people who will actually pay for the information you aspire to provide.

The pattern I’ve seen time and time again is:

From there, it’s a scramble to bolt on a business model to a project that this person is now deeply emotionally invested in. The challenge at this point is: this business may never have answered some basic questions, like:

  • “Am I solving a problem that people actually have, and is the problem acute enough that those people will pay for my solution?”
  • “Are there enough people in this market to meet my minimum-success criteria for revenue within three years?”
  • “Are there affordable channels to reach these people, and is it possible to establish a consistent rate of conversion to subscription/membership?”

I believe that a big part of solving the pipeline problem is helping potential founders not fall into this trap. To reverse the order of operation. To first de-risk the business idea with real data, to set reasonable objectives to demonstrate business “traction,” and then to provide a simple framework for iterating the business forward — three weeks at a time — toward success, both financial success and customer success.

There is no point talking about “business strategy,” “revenue strategy,” “audience strategy,” and “product strategy” at this point in their process. It’s great information, but it’s just not the “right action, right time.” Here’s what I believe:

  • There’s little need to incorporate a business before you have a business model that shows early signs of working;
  • There’s little need to study finance and valuations, or accounting and budgeting, before you have early signals of revenue potential;
  • There’s little need to produce actual reporting to validate a business idea — reporters know how to report, so the focus should be on where their skills are less developed, and that’s on de-risking their idea before investing too much time into it. Efforts like the San Jose Spotlightdemonstrate how “just enough reporting” is all that’s needed (and possibly more than what’s needed).

So, as I look to scale the Journalism Entrepreneurship Training Company’s work in 2019, I ask you:

  • What is the role that you can play in helping to address the journalism innovation pipeline problem?
  • And, if you’re one of those brave souls currently in a newsroom and thinking about going out on your own, what support have you found that is helping, and what haven’t you found that would help?

Whether it’s looking at your organization’s own offerings and asking how to make them more accessible to people early in the process, or thinking about the role that you can personally play in helping to support an aspiring founder in bringing a new journalism upstart to life — I’ll go so far as to propose that we all have a role to play this year in solving the journalism innovation pipeline problem.

Let’s get to work shall we?


Phillip Smith,
Journalism Entrepreneurship Training Company, Founder
Stanford JSK Fellow, 2017–18

Cover photo by Patrick Hendry on Unsplash

About

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.