Gender Gap Blues? Build Your Own Sandbox

There was much hand wringing at the June 30th forum, “Closing Journalism Gender Gap,” at the National Press Club,

Indeed, the numbers are appalling: Women comprise only 36 percent of the journalism workforce and only 23 percent of the leadership (where they make 25 percent less than their male counterparts). Yet they make up 64 percent of journalism school enrollments, where many will elect careers in public relations. The numbers come from research supplied by the sponsors, The Poynter Institute and the press club’s Journalism Training Institute.  Many of the numbers come from the Women’s Media Center study earlier this year.

Who would think that we’d still be dealing with this mishigas at this moment in time? Bylines are being counted, op-eds are tallied, pundits are logged amid considerable consternation.

Advice was plentiful: Push through. Banish bashfulness. Ask for more. Hang in there. After all, “it’s the best job in the world,” affirmed an extremely articulate panel.

I’ve got to say, though, I’m not convinced those strategies will make much of a dent in the numbers, especially nowadays when legacy newsrooms have little wiggle room to do much hiring. And when they do, it’s often programmers or coders they want.

Achieving change from the victim’s chair is seldom an empowering exercise. Overcoming gender styles that are viewed as liabilities instead of assets is not where you want to be.

There are other options:

• Just leave.  Yes, leave – but do it matter-of-factly.  And do it with a plan to build out your portfolio in entirely new ways.  Join a news startup.  Amp up your social media skills. Do a deep dive in a particular topic area. Understand how the emerging news ecosystem is embracing change. Attach yourselves to new circles of competence. The goal is to attain new skills – and a sponsor or two – not more clips.  You are never more desirable than when someone else wants you.  And the doors do revolve.

• Seek an internal greenhouse.  Raise your hand to be on the innovations team. or new-products team. Women have unique ways of connecting the dots on trends and good instincts about engaging audiences.  However, these are muscles that need to be toned. These skills can also be a future escape hatch, if you want it.

• Build your own sandbox. Grow your media entrepreneurship skills, whether as a job or a hobby. Start a website, a blog, a newsletter, an app that lets your spread your wings in new ways.

Amid all the numbers tossed around about the plight of women journalists, I have not seen statistics that tell us whether women are leaving newsrooms in disproportionate numbers when buyouts are offered or downsizing occurs.

But I do know in reading 2,011 applications for some 22 startup awards J-Lab offered with McCormick Foundation funding between 2008 and 2013, there are incredibly smart, talented women who have left – in some cases fled – newsrooms and have good ideas for the future of media.

As a general rule, they don’t aspire to collect scalps. They’d rather do journalism that builds communities, rights social wrongs, empowers the voiceless and fosters a much closer relationship with their audiences.

It seems to me those are jobs that need to be done.

10 Takeaways from Teaching Entrepreneurship

(This article originally appeared on PBS Mediashift.)

So far, two cohort groups, some 21 people, have gone through my Seminar in Media Entrepreneurship for mid-career professionals. It is the first seminar that each cohort group takes as they embark on the 20-month, 10-course journey to a MA in Media Entrepreneurship at American University.

As entrepreneurship courses increasingly multiply in journalism school curricula, many questions arise, and many opportunities do, too.

Here are 10 takeaways from my experience to date.

  1. Have a startup idea in mind before the course begins. It may not be the project students will present for their capstone, but if they have to think of a venture after they begin their course work, they will quickly fall behind.
  2. Vet students' passion to launch something and the creativity of their idea as criteria for admission. Don't require GREs or even high GPAs.  Neither count for much in the entrepreneurship space.
  3. Consider using Pandora, the Internet radio service, to market your program.  Every student in my class said they had heard about the program while listening to music.
  4. Define "media" broadly.  It's clear that my students regard media entrepreneurship as more than journalism; it is any kind of digital information or toolkit.  And who knows? The emerging pattern has media startups adding journalism capabilities as they grow. Consider how the expansion of such digital information deliverers as Buzzfeed and Twitter has whetted their appetites for bonafide journalism and led to recent hires of news editors with journalism chops.
  5. Require students to think of their startup as accomplishing a "job [that needs] to be done." I've found this to be a useful framework. As disruptive technology guru Clay Christensen notes, people don't buy products; they buy solutions to problems they encounter.
  6. Present, present, present.  I require student to distill their epiphanies from class assignments into very short, 3- to 5-page wrap-ups accompanied by an AV presentation to the entire class.  They've used Powerpoint, Keynote, Prezi and SlideRocket for presentations that got increasingly sophisticated week by week. By the end of the semester, they had a focused pitch deck. They even scheduled their own sharing session to teach one another multimedia presentation tricks.
  7. Get permission to publicize their ideas – on your website and to the rest of the school. While some students want to stick to the non-disclosure route, others will find support and help by being open. In the future, I'd like to invite interested faculty and students to their final project presentations.
  8. Partner with nearby accelerators to expose students to the local startup scene.  American University is the first university to partner with 1776, a year-old incubator in Washington, D.C. that has attracted scores of fledgling enterprises. Students and faculty can work at the AU table and attend some presentations. Faculty have begun sharing their expertise in clinics for 1776'ers.
  9. Launch a speaker series, not just for media entrepreneurship students but other students as well.  Our DC Startup Forum presents local entrepreneurs in monthly, hour-long Q&As during spring and fall semesters.  WAMU public radio uploads video of the sessions.  They also appeal to budding social entrepreneurs at AU's School of International Services and business entrepreneurs at the Kogod School of Business.
  10. Aim for a prototype or minimum viable product. This is a key challenge for many media entrepreneurship programs. If extra programming skills are needed, consider bringing on a Visiting Programmer for 10 to 12 hours a week who can help jumpstart student ideas. Credit for this idea goes to Dan Pacheco at Syracuse.

One idea leads to another and the routes to new opportunities have been surprising. There is no shortage of good ideas for the future of news and information.

10 Takeaways from Teaching Entrepreneurship

So far, two cohort groups, some 21 people, have gone through my Seminar in Media Entrepreneurship for mid-career professionals. It is the first seminar that each cohort group takes as they embark on the 20-month, 10-course journey to a MA in Media Entrepreneurship at American University.

As entrepreneurship courses increasingly multiply in journalism school curricula, many questions arise, and many opportunities do, too.

Here are 10 takeaways from my experience to date.

  1. Have a startup idea in mind before the course begins. It may not be the project students will present for their capstone, but if they have to think of a venture after they begin their course work, they will quickly fall behind.
  2. Vet students’ passion to launch something and the creativity of their idea as criteria for admission. Don’t require GREs or even high GPAs.  Neither count for much in the entrepreneurship space.
  3. Consider using Pandora, the Internet radio service, to market your program.  Every student in my class said they had heard about the program while listening to music.
  4. Define “media” broadly.  It’s clear that my students regard media entrepreneurship as more than journalism; it is any kind of digital information or toolkit.  And who knows? The emerging pattern has media startups adding journalism capabilities as they grow. Consider how the expansion of such digital information deliverers as Buzzfeed and Twitter has whetted their appetites for bonafide journalism and led to recent hires of news editors with journalism chops.
  5. Require students to think of their startup as accomplishing a “job [that needs] to be done.” I’ve found this to be a useful framework. As disruptive technology guru Clay Christensen notes, people don’t buy products; they buy solutions to problems they encounter.
  6. Present, present, present.  I require student to distill their epiphanies from class assignments into very short, 3- to 5-page wrap-ups accompanied by an AV presentation to the entire class.  They’ve used Powerpoint, Keynote, Prezi and SlideRocket for presentations that got increasingly sophisticated week by week. By the end of the semester, they had a focused pitch deck. They even scheduled their own sharing session to teach one another multimedia presentation tricks.
  7. Get permission to publicize their ideas – on your website and to the rest of the school. While some students want to stick to the non-disclosure route, others will find support and help by being open. In the future, I’d like to invite interested faculty and students to their final project presentations.
  8. Partner with nearby accelerators to expose students to the local startup scene.  American University is the first university to partner with 1776, a year-old incubator in Washington, D.C. that has attracted scores of fledgling enterprises. Students and faculty can work at the AU table and attend some presentations. Faculty have begun sharing their expertise in clinics for 1776’ers.
  9. Launch a speaker series, not just for media entrepreneurship students but other students as well.  Our DC Startup Forum presents local entrepreneurs in monthly, hour-long Q&As during spring and fall semesters.  WAMU public radio uploads video of the sessions.  They also appeal to budding social entrepreneurs at AU’s School of International Services and business entrepreneurs at the Kogod School of Business.
  10. Aim for a prototype or minimum viable product. This is a key challenge for many media entrepreneurship programs. If extra programming skills are needed, consider bringing on a Visiting Programmer for 10 to 12 hours a week who can help jumpstart student ideas. Credit for this idea goes to Dan Pacheco at Syracuse.

One idea leads to another and the routes to new opportunities have been surprising. There is no shortage of good ideas for the future of news and information.

Revisiting 10 of the Many Things I’ve Learned Since Abscam

With the release of  the “American Hustle” movie about Abscam, I’ve been moved to remind myself of some takeways of my involvement in that FBI sting operation. Full disclosure: This originally appeared in the American Press Institute’s “Survival Guide For Women Editors.” 


 

As a federal court reporter at The Philadelphia Inquirer, I got a
tip one Friday that something big was going to happen that
would “involve the Halls of Congress.”

I couldn’t nail the story that day. But the next day I broke what came to be
known as the Abscam story.

Nabbed taking bribes from FBI agents posing as Arab sheiks were three
Philadelphia city councilmen, a U.S. congressman and a U.S. senator from New Jersey and eventually more elected officials.

To this day, there are a lot of journalism case studies about the Abscam story. At issue: Who were my sources? Did the prosecutors leak the sting to the press to “stampede” a grand jury into returning an indictment?

Little did I expect that this experience would impart some life lessons.

In a defense motion to dismiss the case, Judge John P. Fullam sentenced me to six months in jail for declining to reveal my sources. I never had to serve my time, thankfully, because it quickly became clear the prosecutors were making their case with videotapes, not leaks. Nevertheless, I fielded several early-morning calls from anguished suspected sources, urging me to clear them of culpability. As those criminal justice types sweated out their own careers, my newsroom colleagues, ironically, voiced notable envy at the turn in my career.

Such is the stuff of media law textbooks. Over the years, I have been amused as various students have called textbook chapters about Abscam to my attention.

While I can’t disclose the truth, I can say that much of what has been written is based on a wrong premise, on wrong assumptions.

It was one of my first experiences with “having journalism done to me.” Little did I know the experience would prove invaluable in later years.

As a leader in the civic journalism movement, I favored a term for the sloppy reporting that surrounded a lot of civic journalism efforts. I called these stories “drive-by shootings.” It was journalism based on what the reporters thought was conventional wisdom, not tested with original legwork. Journalism that gave a platform to the critics but seldom interviewed the practitioners.

And so, I use this anecdote to revisit some life lessons learned since.

  1. Beware of easy assumptions — about people or about stories. The truth is always more complex, and it always makes for better stories, better relationships.
  2. Anger is seldom productive; humor works better.
  3. Being a “good girl” is seldom good enough. No matter how terrific an outcome you deliver, the connections you made getting there will always be more important.
  4. You’ll always learn more from your mistakes than from your successes. Don’t beat yourself up second-guessing your decisions.
  5. For every one person who hates you, 10 others will love you. Do what you can to make peace with your adversaries, then move on. They will probably never love you.
  6. Know that the very tasks you found most distasteful will become, in good time, effortless strengths.
  7. If you feel like a victim and act like a victim, you will become a victim.
  8. When you suffer from oxygen deprivation, move into a better environment.
  9. Jobs come and go. Relationships endure.
  10. Reach for the sky; you might just land on a mountaintop.

Lost in the gloom, an entrepreneurial boom

(This article first appeared in Nieman Lab, as part of its 2014 predictions in journalism series.)

Even as revenue-strapped news outlets continue to cut staff, we need to celebrate in 2014 a new reality: Media entrepreneurship is at an all-time high.

jan-schafferOnce-fledgling startups now count their employees in the 100s. International news players see enough U.S. market promise to open operations here. Startup accelerators are nurturing scores of ideas for media “jobs to be done.” Journalism schools are designing media entrepreneurship programs to meet growing demand.

The Investigative News Network (INN) counts more than 90 members. The new Local Independent Online News (LION) Publishers association has attracted more than 100 members just in its first year.

Some of this growth has been by acquisition, some by adding new products, some by internal expansion and some via new launches. Vox Media, for one, counted 85 employees in 2011 and had expanded to some 300 by earlier this year — and that was before it acquired Curbed, Eater, and Racked. Politico lists some 180 employees on its website plus another 26 at its newly purchased Capital New York. The Huffington Post identifies 317 employees online — not counting operations outside the U.S. Likewise, Buzzfeed says it has more than 300 staffers. And that’s just for starters.

The Qatar-owned Al Jazeera America launched here four months ago. The three-year-old RT America, the first Russian English-language news channel, has become one of the most-watched foreign news channels in the United States. The Guardian U.S. launched its New York-based online operation a little over two years ago, finding fertile grounds for expansion here.

We saw some important media-entrepreneurship milestones this year; more will come next year. All will have a ripple effect on redefining news, reconsidering news conventions, validating new players, and re-imagining news distribution. Consider the possibilities of some of these 2013 mileposts.

  • Tech-daddies (and mommies) entered the journalism space. How will Jeff Bezos reconfigure The Washington Post? What will Pierre Omidyar create with his embrace of Glenn Greenwald? How will Twitter advance with Vivian Schiller as its new head of news?
  • Public broadcasters entered full-bore mergers with independent news startups. In Colorado and in St. Louis, public broadcasters have formally combined with enterprising startups to begin to increase and amplify local news coverage. These efforts promise models not only to sustain local news coverage but also to open new doors for engaging audiences.
  • Also this year, we saw the first individual hyperlocal news startup execute an exit. The five-year-old Sacramento Press figured out how to calculate a valuation so that a local Internet marketing company could buy it. It is in the vanguard of working out how small news sites can establish their value so they can be sold when their founders need to move on. Serial entrepreneurship should be as doable in media as it is in Silicon Valley.

One of my many hats is journalism educator, teaching mid-career professionals who have ideas for media startups. Of the 12 in this year’s MA in Media Entrepreneurship cohort group, only two hailed from journalism. Others came from Siemens, NASA, private schools, nonprofits, and advertising.

They all have very focused ideas for “jobs to be done” (in disruptive guru Clay Christensen-speak). They are not necessarily journalism jobs, but they are definitely media jobs, anchored in the digital information space. So for 2014, let’s stop the handwringing about losses in legacy journalism and work on creating and growing the next acts in media.

In New Orleans, public radio, local startups, and more are teaming up for the news

An old postcard of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, by Infrogmation used under a Creative Commons license.

“When you start creating more local content, the audience expects that content to be better.”

Editor’s note: Our friends at J-Lab have a new report out on an interesting subject: how public broadcasters — in radio and television — are trying to fill some of the void created by cutbacks at newspapers. In a number of states, the strategy has been to build new collaborative networks and make a greater investment in doing journalism.

You can read the full report online, but we’ll be pulling out some of the most interesting elements from it here at Nieman Lab over the next few days. First up: the early days of a new kind of news network in Oregon.

In New Orleans’ topsy-turvy world of journalism — where alliances shift, talent is raided, and a newspaper war is blossoming — WWNO public radio has, for the past year, steered a determined course. Informed by research and bolstered by a sense of opportunity, it is erecting, piece by piece, the components for an all-news format, complete with its first news director, hired in February.

“WWNO has never had a news department or news director in its 40-year history,” said Paul Maassen, general manager of WWNO, which serves about 1.5 million people in New Orleans and across 11 parishes in southeast Louisiana. By moving WWNO’s jazz and classical music offerings to digital channels, Maassen created the window to do more news and features — what his audience said they wanted. Now, he is looking to add more local news and information.

“I said, ‘All right, we need to be working towards this,’” Maassen said. “Do you bring in a news director and three reporters?” he asked. “We didn’t have the money to do that. We had to work with partnerships.”

Propelled by a $102,000 Knight grant awarded last July, WWNO cut deals with Nola Vie, a two-year-old arts and culture startup, the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, and The Lens, the investigative news nonprofit launched in 2009, which anted up $10,000 to help match the Knight funding.

Now, Nola Vie turns its content into three WWNO features a week with Knight funds helping to pay freelancers. The Lens, known for its crowdsourced charter-school coverage, has held school-board election forums with WWNO, shared its enterprise stories, and participated in reporter debriefs with the station. It’s about to hire a producer-in-residence, embedded at The Lens, to help inject audio life into its many data-driven stories.

“What has come out of this has been a very collaborative-driven approach to news in a city,” Maassen said. “What’s different here is that we are doing it as the fiber of how we develop this news department instead of: Here’s a news department, let’s add some partnerships.”

The Knight grant was awarded a little more than a month after The Times-Picayune announced major changes: cutting its news staff, reducing print publication to three days a week, and putting more emphasis on its website, Nola.com. A communitywide outcry fueled a flurry of media activities and the launch of a New Orleans edition by The Advocate in Baton Rouge. (The Times-Picayune has since announced a return to daily publication of a sort, with a smaller, non-home-delivered tabloid three days a week.)

The Times-Picayune’s announcements last year “just kind of underscored what we were doing,” Maassen said. Shortly after, he announced plans to build a nonprofit newsroom to be called NewOrleansReporter.org. But WWNO soon pivoted. A revised plan sought to “avoid duplication and build on existing resources” and opted instead for an expanded partnership with The Lens to cover government, education, crime, and flood issues. WWNO will do general assignment reporting and Nola Vie will contribute arts and culture. “It’s a thing where everyone does what they do best,” he said.

“NPR was working closely with them on that,” said Russell Lewis, NPR’s Southern bureau chief who spent many months covering the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Lewis, who is now based in Birmingham but has been helping WWNO with the transition, said he had not seen this kind of collaboration anywhere else. NPR is also helping to convert the station’s website into more than a programming grid, Maassen said.

“We see our role in this not as just a content developer, but as a catalyst,” Maassen said. “I am trying to raise the profile of nonprofit, independent journalism. I am saying this is valuable and it should happen. Because of the situation here in New Orleans, it’s being paid attention to — to a degree that it’s not in other communities.”

Editors at both WWNO’s partner startups are former Times-Picayune journalists. They subscribe to what Steve Beatty, Lens editor and long-time investigative journalist, called a “write-once/publish-many” model of distribution. In addition to working with WWNO, their stories can appear on Nola.com; in The Advocate, whose new owner has moved aggressively into the New Orleans market; on the air of television partners; or on the websites of the four-member New Orleans Digital Alliance. The Lens rents space in the newsroom of WVUE, the local Fox affiliate, another partner. (Nola Vie got its early start with a J-Lab grant.)

“We may do six stories a week,” Beatty said. “There have been days when I’ve seen our stories published in four different media.”

The partners see these arrangements as win-wins. The emerging attitude among nonprofit news startups is that “it’s better to be ubiquitous than syndicated.” Impact and awareness, they say, trumps clickthroughs to their websites. “We want to be able to tell our funders: If it were not for your money, this problem would not be solved,” Beatty said.

Airtime, in particular, really builds their brands: “We want people to hear The Lens on the air,” he said.

For Nola Vie, the WWNO partnership means “we take our reporters and our copy and work with WWNO producers to turn them into on-air segments,” co-founder Renee Peck said. It’s a learning curve for the print reporters. They must be mindful to avoid what Beatty calls “those kind of small, head-slapping things” like saying “uh-huh” during an interview or drumming fingers on a table.

In February, Maassen hired news director Eve Troeh, a Marketplace reporter, who had earlier stints as a New Orleans reporter and producer. She now must weigh when to do an interview and when to do a highly produced feature, with all the scenes and sounds that are public radio’s hallmarks.

“When you start creating more local content, the audience expects that content to be better,” she said. She’s working hard to marry the station’s audio tech skills with journalism skills.

In June, she worked with Nola Vie to produce Voices on Violence in response to the city’s Mother’s Day shootings that injured 20 people. In one-on-one interviews, people were taped talking about how they experienced violence in the city. Nola Vie, in addition to the podcast, also rendered the interviews as Q&As.

Troeh takes heart that the station in June raised a third more than expected in a one-day mini-campaign for local-news funding. “We’re getting close to getting enough content, and it’s good enough where we feel we need to create space for it,” she said, in addition to the local-news cutaways in the national programs.

“It feels like we are really pioneering this in a way,” Peck said. “The overall product is very good for the community.” Nola Vie launched in 2009 with a formal partnership with Nola.com but found WWNO’s overture appealing. The site’s other co-founder, nonprofit executive Sharon Litwin, had reported for BBC radio earlier in her career and now does regular Notes from New Orleans radio stories for WWNO.

In any partnership, Peck said, “What you try to police is that you get your credit for the story and links back.” Increasingly, however, Nola Vie’s founders want to engage its stakeholders in a four-to-five minute story rather than posting its content on a partner site that wants “people to drop in for just a nano-second” so they can count the traffic.

Maassen said he thinks communities will increasingly lean on public media and radio stations to get their news. “I think we should be prepared to respond. We should recognize that as an important part of what we do as service to our communities. Perhaps what we are doing here other communities could adopt.”

Photo of old New Orleans postcard by Infrogmation used under a Creative Commons license.

Public Media Join Non-Profit Startups to Collaborate, Fill Local News Gap

(This article first appeared in PBS MediaShift on July 11, 2013.)

In Denver, the statewide public television network had no newsroom until it merged with an investigative news site that built one from scratch.

In St. Louis, The Beacon has been working to add its 14 reporters to the public radio station’s 12 news people for a combined newsroom with the firepower of 26 journalists.

In the Pacific Northwest, Oregon Public Broadcasting is building a statewide news network, shooting for some 50 partners who will share and use one another’s stories, and in New Orleans, WWNO public radio’s first news director is marshaling a local news report built from new startups rather than new hires.

Public broadcasters have always done partnerships, but in the last year these and other public-media outlets have begun piecing together the infrastructure for local-news reports that will offer more than cutaways in “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered.” As a result, they are airing more investigative and enterprise journalism than ever before.

Unfettered by the competitive pressures at commercial media, leveraging the trust in their brands, they are employing creative approaches: They are tying the knot in extraordinary mergers, divvying up the cost of reporters, sharing newsroom space and even engaging in joint fundraising with their partners.

In our new report, “News Chops: Beefing up the Journalism in Local Public Broadcasting,” J-Lab explores nine efforts, large and small, that have occurred just within the last year. They include the creation of statewide news cooperatives in Oregon, Connecticut and New Jersey, building newsrooms from scratch in Denver and New Orleans, merging two existing newsrooms in St. Louis, and adding reporting oomph in San Diego, Salt Lake City and western North Carolina. One outcome was clear: Increasingly public broadcasters are stepping up to become critical linchpins for state and metro-wide news networks.

Startup Power

In a recurring pattern, the broadcasters are partnering with independent news startups that have proven their merit. Said John Dankosky, news director of Connecticut’s WNPR, a partner with the Connecticut Mirror: “They’re giving us content that we wouldn’t be able to get, and we’re giving them exposure.”

That kind of visibility and validation juices many of the alliances. “We see our role in this not as just a content developer, but as a catalyst,” said Paul Maassen, news director at WWNO, now partnering with The Lens, an investigative site, and NolaVie, an arts and culture site, in New Orleans. “I am trying to raise the profile of non-profit, independent journalism. I am saying this is valuable and it should happen.”

In return, some of the startups help the broadcasters amp up their accountability journalism. San Diego’s KPBS shares its newsroom with inewsource, and the 4-year-old startup teaches others how to do FOIA requests and run data in Excel spreadsheets. “We’re trying to get our reporters a little more accountability-driven,” said Suzanne Marmion, the station’s director of news and editorial strategy.

How Does Public Media Position Itself for the Future?

Doug Price is CEO of Rocky Mountain PBS, which merged with I-News.

Doug Price is CEO of Rocky Mountain PBS, which merged with I-News.

Strategic thinking plays a role as well. How do public media stations sustain themselves in the long run if future listeners opt to go directly to NPR for national stories and to, say, Pandora for music? “They have to focus on local [news],” said Scott Karp, whose Publish2 platform is used by some of the public broadcasters for content sharing.

In Oregon, with The Oregonian pulling back on its statewide reporting and its daily delivery and with AP’s state presence diminishing, OPB realized it was the last statewide media outlet. News director Morgan Holm said a colleague nudged him to step up, “so I told my boss, we’d better figure out a way to work with newspapers.” OPB is now corralling all kinds of media partners to contribute and use one another’s content. OPB will turn it into a daily news feed.

Tearing down walls to reach out to news partners vs. erecting paywalls in front of the newspaper journalism seems to play well with supporters of public media. When St. Louis Public Radio and the St. Louis Beacon calculated the costs of fully merging their newsrooms, they figured on a $3 million shortfall over the first five years. “We already have $2.5 million of that pledged,” said Tim Eby, the station’s general manager.

Likewise, in undertaking its merger earlier this year, Rocky Mountain PBS was not worried about shouldering the half-million-dollar-a-year tab for the public-service journalism site I-News‘ operations. “We have a strategic vision around pertinence,” said Doug Price, RMPBS president and CEO. “We saw a void in the market and we think we can increase our memberships by filling that void, and we’re satisfied that we can do it without financial difficulty.”

Margie Freivogel is a founding editor of the St. Louis Beacon, which is trying to merge with St. Louis Public Radio

Margie Freivogel is a founding editor of the St. Louis Beacon, which is trying to merge with St. Louis Public Radio.

As local news ecosystems evolve, priorities evolve as well. Several of the public broadcasters are striving to make local content ubiquitous and give it a long tail for impact. At the same time, website visits are less important to their startup partners than deeper engagement. NolaVie’s founders want its stakeholders to stick around for a four- to five-minute story rather than posting its content on a partner site that wants “people to drop in for just a nano-second” so they can count the traffic, said co-founder Renee Peck.

For many of the communities we examined, there is a pronounced sense of being in the vanguard of change. “If we get it right,” said Margie Freivogel, founding editor of The Beacon, “we have the beginning of a blueprint for how to create a vigorous news organization that serves a region and takes advantage of the assets of public media. I think it’s a very important possibility.”

In New Jersey, a university teams up with local news orgs to collaborate for impact

(This article first appeared in Nieman Lab, July 10, 2013.)
An old postcard of the New Jersey Turnpike

Montclair State’s Center for Cooperative Media is betting there are returns on getting newspapers, broadcasters, bloggers, and wire services all in the same building.

Editor’s note: Our friends at J-Lab have a new report out on an interesting subject: how public broadcasters — in radio and television — are trying to fill some of the void created by cutbacks at newspapers. In a number of states, the strategy has been to build new collaborative networks and make a greater investment in doing journalism.

You can read the full report online, but we’ll be pulling out some of the most interesting elements from it here at Nieman Lab over the next few days. Today, we look at New Jersey, where a university-based collaborative is bringing together many of the state’s news outlets big and small.

The germ of the idea came at a 2011 meeting in Newark. What was going to happen to news coverage once Gov. Chris Christie spun off the state-owned New Jersey Network (NJN) of radio and television stations?

As the group of funders, journalists, academics and public broadcasters from New York City and Philadelphia mulled various possibilities, a voice piped up: “What we probably need here is a co-op, sort of like the Associated Press.”

That idea, recalls media blogger and critic Jeff Jarvis, sprung from Debbie Galant, the queen of hyperlocal news startups who’d founded Baristanet.com a decade ago in Montclair. The notion germinated for a year and took firm root at Montclair State University (MSU).

nj-news-commons-montclairLast July, Galant was hired to lead the New Jersey News Commons with a goal of helping the state’s legacy and hyperlocal news outlets develop and share stories, get training, and grow the ecosystem. The Commons is now aggregating content from more than 50 local news partners. Bigger plans are afoot.

The Commons is one part of MSU’s Center for Cooperative Media, a unique initiative at the School of Media and Communication. While many journalism schools are innovating around news entrepreneurship, Montclair State has gone in a new direction. In the past year, it’s created an actual bricks-and-mortar hub with office space and production facilities for New Jersey news outlets, including all its public broadcasters. NJTV Public Media New Jersey and WNYC’s New Jersey Public Radio have on-campus bureaus in a new university facility. They’re joined by a half dozen other news organizations.

“The idea is: If they are just hanging around, things are going to happen,” said Jarvis, who is also director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism. “Indeed, things have happened.”

MSU’s efforts are still shaking out, but Jim Schachter, WNYC’s vice president of news, called them “interesting and important. The old ways of doing things are not working. It’s important to figure out the new ways of doing things.”

Spearheading the initiative is Merrill Brown, founding editor-in-chief of MSNBC.com who was named in August 2012 as the school’s inaugural director. “What we’re doing is really unique,” he said. “It’s different because of the complexity of the partnerships and the number of partnerships.”

MSU offered NJTV a New Jersey studio and newsroom space at a cut-rate price. NJTV now has a 25-person operation that produces, with student help, a newscast five nights a week in the school’s new production studios. New Jersey Public Radio — acquired in the NJN split up by WNYC’s parent, New York Public Radio — has space for a two-person bureau at the school — its first office outside of New York City.

MSU also has offices for the New Jersey sites of AOL’s Patch.com; NJSpotlight.com, a public issues news site; North Jersey Media group, which includes The (Bergen) Record; NJ.com, a digital alliance of 12 newspapers in the state; and WBGO, a noted Newark-based news and jazz station. Reuters has signed on to use the university newsroom in regional emergencies.

MSU’s ambitions align with public broadcasters’ aspirations to beef up their local news coverage through partnerships. “We want to be able to multiply our forces by collaboration. That is important to us,” Schachter said. “Also, we want an opportunity to know what others are doing so we can provide a megaphone.”

For now, apart from the nightly newscast, most of the action is around the NJ News Commons. Already Galant has gathered hyperlocal news sites for training in business development, developed a daily digest of the best partner stories, and convened hackers in the state. Going forward, there are plans to award microgrants for investigative reporting and seed grants to help launch new startups. She has launched an immigration project to curate and develop stories on New Jersey’s foreign-born population. (The state ranks fifth in the nation in the number of foreign-born residents.)

The Commons has also launched content sharing via Repost.us, which allows a pre-approved list of publishers to republish complete articles, including images, links, and multimedia. Repost also picks up any content updates within 10 minutes of any changes. “I think the proudest accomplishment of the Commons is the establishment of the Repost.us network,” Jarvis said. But its other goals are to grow and support the news ecosystem and improve the quality of the journalism.

Leading the charge for all this activity is the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. Other foundations, such as the Knight, Wyncote, and Patterson foundations and the Community Foundation of New Jersey have also stepped up. Grants have funded new production studios at the university, training, and collaborative reporting efforts, including around the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

In WNYC’s eyes, “it’s a good business proposition,” Schachter said. WNYC bought four North Jersey public-radio stations in the NJN split-up. The following year, WNYC began ratcheting up its news-reporting capacity. Now, about 30 percent of WNYC’s audience is in New Jersey, and Schachter said there might be another bureau soon in Trenton, the state capitol. “We are investing substantially in journalists to cover New Jersey in an enterprising way,” he said.

WNYC already has reporting partnerships with New Jersey Spotlight and The Record, flagship of the North Jersey Media Group. Schachter said he’d like to see public media playing a leadership role. “We need to focus on enterprise reporting that is not being done elsewhere,” he said.

True to the state’s pattern of being shoehorned in between the New York City and Philadelphia media markets, the successful bidders for the NJN licenses were public broadcasters from those two cities. At the time, Montclair State also tried to bid on some of the properties, but lost out to WNYC. WHYY in Philadelphia purchased five stations serving South Jersey. WNET won the state’s public TV licenses and began developing NJTV. There were, however, assurances that the new owners would not be carpetbaggers.

“I said, ‘No, no, you don’t really want to [operate] a public broadcaster,’” said Jarvis, who was consulting with MSU. “But you can have a relationship with them. In fact, they need you.” That paved the way for NJTV to be housed at MSU.

MSU’s Brown sees the role of the Center for Cooperative Media as providing office space and state-of-the-art production facilities, student workers, training, and assistance with media partnerships. Finding the funding to support that falls in his lap. “No one has under one roof the array of assets we have,” he said. “Some people may have deeper relationships.”

He signed on knowing the university had big plans: The university will build a new building for the school in the next few years and Brown said he expected to launch a journalism major (it’s now a minor) in fall 2014. He says he’s up for the challenge of building that program “from scratch.” For now, he’s strategically meeting with people in Montclair and Manhattan to develop donors. He acknowledges that raising money to fund the Montclair media hub will be a challenge. “A lot of people think media are in decline,” he said.

So far, no Philadelphia news outlets have an office at the university; however, WHYY’s NewsWorks.org is one of the Commons partners.

It remains to be seen whether Montclair State can create collaborative opportunities and amplify state news while also honoring news organizations’ jealously guarded independence. It also must not create competition for funding that many of the nonprofit news partners need as well. “Collaboration for impact and getting the word out to more people is desirable,” Schachter said. “I am opposed to collaboration for the sake of collaboration.”

Jarvis sees great potential in the MSU initiative and great need, especially with last month’s announcement that the Newark Star-Ledger would shut down by year’s end without givebacks from its unions. “Because we have no media, this is a blank slate,” he said. “So we have the chance to really leapfrog and build something amazing.”

Photo of New Jersey Turnpike postcard by Boston Public Library used under a Creative Commons license.

In St. Louis, two news organizations are navigating the tricky path to a merger

(This article first appeared on July 9, 2013 in Nieman Lab.)

St. Louis arch collage

The St. Louis Beacon is one of the nation’s most prominent local news nonprofits. St. Louis Public Radio has a substantial audience. What can they do together?

Editor’s note: Our friends at J-Lab have a new report out on an interesting subject: how public broadcasters — in radio and television — are trying to fill some of the void created by cutbacks at newspapers. In a number of states, the strategy has been to build new collaborative networks and make a greater investment in doing journalism.

You can read the full report online, but we’ll be pulling out some of the most interesting elements from it here at Nieman Lab over the next few days. Today, we take a look at St. Louis, where two outlets are joining forces to expand their reach.

If all goes as hoped, in coming months St. Louis Public Radio (SLPR) and the St. Louis Beacon will formally merge their two newsrooms. It will be the first time a public radio station with a staff of journalists has combined its operations with another daily-news producing outlet.

This is not an easy thing to do. For one, St. Louis Public Radio is owned by the University of Missouri’s Board of Curators, and top university officials must sign off on the deal. For another, both the Beacon and the station have strong brands, their own sponsors, their own content management systems, their own organizational charts — not to mention their own definitions of news and ways of producing it.

Yet both parties are convinced it is the right thing to do. Their supporters seem to agree. “We know in the first five years there will be a $3 million revenue gap. After five years, we see sustainability,” said Tim Eby, general manager of St. Louis Public Radio. “We already have $2.5 million of that pledged.”

“If we get it right,” said Beacon founding editor Margie Freivogel, “we have the beginning of a blueprint of how to create a vigorous news organization that serves a region and takes advantage of the assets of public media. I think it’s a very important possibility.”

Just as St. Louis is a city that is trying to reinvent itself, so are its media outlets. The Beacon is a $1.4 million operation with a staff of 18 — 14 of whom are reporters. St. Louis Public Radio has 12 people producing news within its $6 million operation.

“I think Tim realized, ‘I need a much stronger news and content engine,’” said Freivogel, a former editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “He could see that he could build that one person or two people at a time. This is an opportunity to bring 18 people into his organization. That brings a lot of strength.” For her part, Freivogel knew the Beacon needed to build more revenue generation into its operations.

In moving from the idea of an alliance, announced last fall, to a full-bore merger, the two organizations commissioned a study of what they were actually doing on their websites. “What we saw was the opportunity was huge,” Freivogel said. Both could improve what they were doing and deliver in-depth coverage of “things no one else is doing very well.” And they could give their news and information broader reach. For one thing, SLPR has the pipes; the Beacon does good reporting but it shows up in text and social media. SLPR’s website is mostly expanded radio stories.

 

They concluded that nothing short of full integration — one newsroom, one business operation — would allow them to take full advantage of the opportunities. But the process is not without angst. “What do we call ourselves? How do we brand ourselves? Do we lose the Beacon name? That’s scary for us.” Freivogel said. “We’re very proud of what we have done. But we truly want to morph into something new, and we want people to know that it is something new.”

“We know it’s not going to be easy,” Eby acknowledges. “Just understanding the language of what we do compared with what the Beacon does, we have to be very intentional with how we are going to do this.”

Although the two organizations share Washington stories and Beacon reporters do on-air debriefs for SLPR, things got more serious last year when SLPR moved into a new University of Missouri-St. Louis building in Grand Center, the heart of the city’s arts and cultural scene. It was also right next door to the Beacon’s offices at the public television station, Nine Network of Public Media, which also collaborates with the Beacon but is not part of the merger plans.

Then when WWNO public radio in New Orleans announced it was exploring an expanded collaboration with The Lens in summer 2012, Eby said, “Well, if it could happen there, why not here?”

Once SLPR and the Beacon signed the letter of intent in October 2012, they sought help making it happen. They got $40,000 from the Knight Foundation to pay for Rusty and Janet Coats of Coats2Coats to help them sort through content, vision, revenue plans, technical and branding issues, and governance. Working groups of staff members and board members participated. NPR is also working with SLPR to come up with solutions around its content management system. “We may be the guinea pig,” Eby said.

While there will be some cost savings in the merged operations, no layoffs are expected. “The whole objective of this is to have more reporters and editors,” Eby said. “The biggest thing for us is really establishing ourselves as a place to be producing meaningful content on broadcast as well as digital platforms.”

“Don’t expect coverage of crime or the Cardinals,” he said. Instead, they plan a disciplined focus on politics, education, science and technology, health care, the economy, race, and arts and culture.

For now, the parties are walking the plans through the university system, where some officials have expressed interest in adding an academic program around the merged newsrooms. The prospective partners are now “working intensely” on investigating academic opportunities that would align with a merger, Freivogel said. “The biggest thing,” Eby said, “is to make sure we can get this done in a timely fashion” and keep those donors who have stepped up informed of the progress.

Underlying the mechanics of the merger, however, is a different vision for what is news and how to engage the community. Already the Beacon has partnered with community groups that news outlets don’t normally partner with to cover such issues as obesity and the role of arts as a regenerator of community.

“Our job,” Freivogel said, “is to talk about what’s going on. What’s working and what’s not working.”

Photo collage of the Gateway Arch by Steve Eng used under a Creative Commons license.

With a coming void in Oregon’s news ecosystem, public broadcasting’s trying to build a new kind of state wire

Can Oregon Public Broadcasting, working with local newspapers, TV and radio stations, and bloggers, make a substantial state news report in the face of cutbacks elsewhere?

Editor’s note: Our friends at J-Lab have a new report out on an interesting subject: how public broadcasters — in radio and television — are trying to fill some of the void created by cutbacks at newspapers. In a number of states, the strategy has been to build new collaborative networks and make a greater investment in doing journalism.

You can read the full report online, but we’ll be pulling out some of the most interesting elements from it here at Nieman Lab over the next few days. First up: the early days of a new kind of news network in Oregon.

In March 2013, Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB) hired a former Associated Press reporter to undertake an ambitious vision: build a robust statewide news network with OPB as the linchpin.

For her first several months, Julia Silverman, OPB’s director of content partnerships, has been traversing the state, talking to nearly every daily, weekly, tribal, and college newspaper, television station, and blog. Her goal: persuading some 40 to 50 news outlets to partner in sharing their content with OPB and its media partners while using shared stories themselves.

“I really regard this as a startup,” said Morgan Holm, OPB’s senior vice president and chief content officer.

With The Oregonian, the big Portland daily, pulling back on its statewide reporting and its daily delivery, and with AP’s state presence diminishing, Holm said a newspaper colleague prodded him: “OPB was the last statewide media and we’d better step up….So I told my boss, we’d better figure out a way to work with newspapers.”

oregon-public-broadcasting-cc

Oregon Public Broadcasting headquarters. (CC/Francis Storr)

OPB joined with the Oregon Community Foundation and in 2012 snagged a $300,000 grant from the Knight Foundation’s Community Information Challenge program. OPB and the community foundation raised funds to match the grant, and the infrastructure for a collaborative statewide news network has begun to take shape.

“We can’t do this on our own,” said Silverman, who is spearheading the collaborations. “We have only four reporters — three in Portland and one in Bend, Oregon.”

OPB is a key player in a well-established news partnership with public radio stations in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. The Northwest News Network provides coverage around the region and includes a state capitol correspondent in Salem. Coverage of environmental and energy issues comes from EarthFix, an OPB-led collaborative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. OPB must find support to continue it in the future.

“We are one of the only media that reaches everywhere — whether you live in Portland or Ontario, which is in a different time zone,” Silverman said. “I was just out in eastern Oregon,” she said. “It was two hours between towns with only sagebrush in between.”

She views her mission as not just focusing on the state’s metro papers, but also the smaller newspapers who are not AP members but may have a great story that “doesn’t travel.” Or the AP might not put it on the wire until a couple days after it’s been published.

“Some people get it right away and it’s an automatic ‘yes,’” Silverman said. “Some people ask: What’s in it for me?” A lot, if OPB’s plans take hold. Silverman is approaching her task in stages. First is outreach to existing news organizations to persuade them of the benefits of partnering. “Then,” she said, “I will transition to more of a curator/editor.”

In that role, she will sift through partner stories and push out 10 to 15 stories a day to form the “core of a thoughtful statewide news report — news of public interest, not the latest meth bust.”

That may involve editing, say, a 900-word story into 300 words for space-challenged newspapers. She will also be editing OPB staff content, much of it written for radio, for print publications.

The last piece, she said, is to take partner content and turn it into radio spots that can be read on the air. She also hopes to develop a corps of reporters around the state who will get audio training and participate in debriefs. “That’s nice brand promotion for [their] newspapers,” Silverman said.

By December, OPB plans to roll out a project website with top news stories from around the state. “We hope it will be a traffic driver to the partner sites as well,” although Silverman concedes the project will have to figure out how to prompt readers to click through on links to partner content.

OPB took a cue from Minnesota Public Radio’s Minnesota Today, which curates and aggregates content from public officials, bloggers, and business or industry experts throughout the state, but does not rely on formal media partnerships.

OPB began its efforts before paywalls at Oregon newspapers really took off and The Oregonian announced major changes. Now, most of the state’s papers charge customers for digital access, although a majority of the paywalls are metered, giving viewers free access to a certain number of articles before charges apply — “which is good for us,” Silverman said. One chain has a hard paywall, requiring payment to see anything. “They are among the only ones who said ‘no,’” she said.

Asked about the pros and cons of partnering, Steve Forrester, editor and publisher of The Daily Astorian near the Pacific Coast, says, “It’s all pro in my book. We’d be foolish not to.” He’s already been collaborating on regular radio programs with his local community radio station.

OPB’s efforts occur in a rapidly changing media landscape. The Oregonian announced last month that it would cut home delivery to four days a week and sell only street editions the other three days. It laid off nearly 100 of its 650 employees, including as many as 49 in the newsroom. It also announced the creation of a new company, the Oregonian Media Group, to “expand news and information products” in Oregon and Southwest Washington.

Holm sees The Oregonian’s latest moves as another part of the strategy employed by its parent company, Advance Publications, in New Orleans, Cleveland, and elsewhere. “Like many people, I am deeply concerned about the loss of reporting capacity and institutional knowledge that will result from these changes,” he said. “I know OPB can’t singlehandedly fill that gap. But we must continue to meet our public-service obligation through initiatives like this content exchange because it can provide a place for people to find news from all over the state while The Oregonian goes through this period of painful adjustment.”

In the meantime, he said, OPB is open to any discussions with The Oregonian about supporting “as much strong, original journalism as possible” around the state.

Some of OPB’s prospective partners are enthusiastic about a statewide news network’s ability to break through their isolation. Others express concern that they don’t have a large enough news hole to publish more stories. But Silverman tells them their online space is unlimited and they can add state and regional tabs.

“TV stations are a little tricky,” she said “They all want to be the only one in their market.”

The biggest pushback, Holm said, is: What is it going to cost me? “I don’t have the answer yet because it all depends on the number of partners.”

For now, Holm said, OPB shouldering “a significant commitment.” It is picking up the tab for Publish2′s system of content sharing. It makes it easier to connect various partner content management systems, create feeds for different delivery platforms, and feed content directly into partner systems.

Down the road, partners will be asked to pay for the costs of editing and curating. Silverman says it may be as little as $50 a month for a small community paper to a couple hundred dollars for a larger one. “It’s on me to make it valuable enough,” Silverman said, but also “make it clear this is not a moneymaker for OPB.”

Holm would like to see OPB develop a local-news presence on TV — but for the moment he’s trying to build a place for shared news about statewide issues. “I think we are seen as a good middle ground. We can highlight; we can curate,” he said. “It’s a little bit like a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.”

“People do ask us: Is this a replacement for AP?” Holm said. ‘I say: ‘For the moment, it’s not.’” But he says he can see a future where many state news outlets could do without AP “and not lose any ground,” although they’d need to find a way to get sports coverage. As things move forward, Holm is betting a statewide news network will help a lot of news outlets in the state. “If it doesn’t meet a need,” he said, “we shouldn’t do it.”