Insights from ONA Conference for New and Existing News Start-Ups

This past weekend the Online News Association held its annual conference. Journalists from all over the country and around the world met in Boston to discuss the latest trends happening in digital journalism. There were two panels that featured some great tips for new and existing news start-ups.

Planning and Managing Your News Venture

The panel, “You Can’t Duck the Math: Entrepreneurial Journalism,” featured Jennifer Lord Paluzzi, managing editor – Massachusetts for Main Street Connect, Laura Frank, executive director of I-News Network, and Jeremy Caplan, the director of Education for the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. The panel was organized around the themes of planning, development and management phases of starting up a news venture.

Here are a few of the points Caplan shared with ONA attendees:

Do your research. Identify your market and know who your audience is before embarking on the news venture. Look at what is working and what is not working in the marketplace and how you can differentiate your organization from the rest.

Partnerships. Caplan stated that your organization should have effective partnerships with local news organizations but also with local businesses. These partnerships are crucial to the sustainability of your organization and important for your engagement with the community.

Staffing. You need to build an effective team in your news organization to make sure you can reach the mission and goals you set out to meet. Without a strong team, accomplishing the simple goals can be hard to achieve daily.

A salesperson. Having a salesperson on staff is very important to the news start-up so they can help you in identifying the right funding opportunities for your organization.

For more insights from Caplan, here is the presentation he shared with ONA attendees:

Fundraising and Return on Investment

Laura Frank addressed the role of fundraising for news start-ups and compared it to a four-legged stool. Each leg of the stool represents a different kind of funding you should obtain for your news venture – grants and foundation money that serve as seed money to get your start-up going, local media organizations that will pay you for the content your staff is producing, underwriting (which includes advertising) and other forms of revenue (such as hosting a high school journalism workshop in your community).

In addition to fundraising tips, Frank suggested that before embarking on any new initiative in your organization, identify how much return on investment (ROI) you will get back for it. Several initiatives such as a high school journalism workshop or festival require lots of planning, coordination and labor-intensive work. Will you and your staff be able to work on these tasks and do them well? Will working on these tasks distract your staff from serving the mission of your organization? Are you giving several hours of labor or resources that you won’t be able to get back? These are just a few questions to think about in taking on a new initiative. If the investment entails more money, labor and resources than you have and you won’t be able to recoup from it, it may be best to wait to launch the initiative or decide to pass on doing it altogether.

Taking Risks, Embracing Failure

Another panel at ONA that was relevant to new and existing news start-ups was “I Screwed Up (And You Will, Too),” with panelists David Cohn, founder of and Ford Fellow, and Denise Cheng, citizen journalism coordinator of The Rapidian – Grand Rapids Community Media Center.

Caplan and Cheng shared their insights on how failure is something that should be embraced. Failure can serve as a crucial learning tool for the news start-up on the path to success. If you don’t fail, you will never know what you are doing right or wrong and where you need to head next.

Cohn and Cheng shared with the ONA attendees on how to break down the barriers to failure.

Cohn’s tips:
• It’s not a problem until it’s a problem.
• Tradition
• Letting the perfect be an enemy of the good
• Fear… of failure.
• Institutional momentum
• Resources to get started
• Leadership vacuum

A more detailed explanation of the points above are offered on his blog.

Cheng’s tips:
• Start lean.
• Volunteer management.
• Don’t go big too soon.
• The whole team should be involved with the community process.

A more detailed explanation for each point above is offered on her blog.

Some other points that were brought up during the session included:

Define failure. Knowing what failure can mean to your news venture. Is it about running out of money? Is it about loss of community engagement? Is it about the lack of interest for the news content?

Failure can change its appearance depending on the development stage you are in. Recognize where failure can arise during all stages of your project, venture or start-up and how you can address it when it arises.

Some projects or ventures may not be long-term. Recognize success can be achieved in the smaller projects in addition to the bigger ones. Failure with your project may be showing you that your project was only meant to be a short-term success.

Find a mentor(s). Don’t be afraid to go out into the community and talk with others about your challenges, issues and failures. Don’t be embarrassed by it but embrace it. You may get some helpful tips or insight from your mentor(s) to head in a different direction.

Be transparent. Be honest with your staff, the community and your funders about your progress. If you notice there are issues or challenges, don’t hide them, talk about them. It’s important to be honest and transparent with all involved so they can be aware of what is happening as it occurs. In the process of communicating these problems, issues or challenges to the relevant groups, you may receive advice or help along the way.