overhead photo of a white typewriter

‘Journalism Thinking’ doesn’t need a business model. It needs a call to arms

I originally posted this on Medium here. It received considerable endorsement, including here, here and here.

Early professional news networks in the 14th and 15th centuries were couriers on horseback, informing warlords and merchants. Even competitors saw the value in shared professional news gathering, when there wasn’t a state-owned alternative. Subscriptions, then, subsidized the first foreign affairs and business reporters.

Over the next 500 years, innovations in distribution and in printing and paper technology shaped professional news-gathering into the 20th century model we most recognize today: advertising revenue subsidized relatively low unit costs to ensure widely available mass media (albeit almost exclusively from a white male perspective, but that needs its own post entirely).

Today we’re well into the first generation of the digital transformation of news-gathering and distribution. Yet we as journalism practitioners are still managing to underestimate how dramatically things have changed.

Mostly we have spent the last 10–15 years managing our decline by slightly tweaking centuries-old advertising and subscription revenue models — then hand-wringing their inevitable failure. This is particularly and acutely true for local journalism, where web-powered scale makes geographic segmentation inefficient outside of data-rich tech platforms.

As the cofounder and publisher of a small, 20-person media company that produces local community news and is celebrating its 10 anniversary this year, I think this is more urgent and still more alarming than I feel we’re yet collectively addressing. We at Technically Media fought and limped and carved our way to housing a six-person newsroom, plus additional resources, despite unyielding economic pressure. In that time, I’ve mostly learned that not enough has changed in our expectations for the models to support sustained acts of journalism

If we don’t do something about this, the fall of local journalism will continue.

To combat that, I am calling on us all — publishers, journalists, news executives, funders and allies — to consider a greater paradigm shift. I argue we should never again ask “what is the business model for local journalism,” because it misunderstands the problem and the solution. Instead, we should think of the societal good we associate with journalism ideals and bring them to corners of our economy in which we can compete in a marketplace. We’ll all need help getting here.

We need to fight to establish journalism DNA in places we never previously thought possible. That will only happen with true acts of entrepreneurship; Not taking a cavalier approach to rolling out a membership program or copying just another events strategy but by developing a customer relationship in a focused marketplace gap and then competing aggressively in it. I’m not saying we’ve done this flawlessly at Technically Media, quite the opposite; we must do this more aggressively still and more of us need support, guidance and collaborative partners.

This is partly the perspective I’ll be sharing Thursday during a session I’m co-hosting at the annual Online News Association conference in New Orleans. Let me share here the approach I’m taking and offer a call to arms to all of you.

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Think of it like the rise of “design thinking.”

Nobody has ever said: “but what’s the business model for ‘design thinking?’” That’s because design thinking isn’t bundled with a single revenue model. It is an approach to the world. It is a belief that business and government and society are better served by a methodology that comes with an evolving set of norms and bounds and best practices. We can do the same with the best of newsroom culture.

The question then isn’t “what is the business model for local journalism” but rather “how do we expand and defend journalism thinking?”

It’s easy to understand why any aspiring-entrepreneur college intern with a copy of the Lean Startuphas a healthy obsession with soliciting customer feedback to iterate toward product-market fit, but that in journalism we’ve mostly spent the last decade celebrating a small assortment of cookie-cutter, familiar revenue lines as the collective solution for funding our work.

For more than 150 years, the two-income-stream, double-sided marketplace model of advertising and subscriptions was so powerful and effective for so long that we forgot why we would even want to have any other model at all. We essentially planted all our farms with a single crop and then watched a virus infect and destroy it. We had no resistance, no business model diversity. No leader in our industry is old enough to remember a time when they were in true open-market competition, let alone such seismic industry rediscovery. So mostly our entrepreneurial journalism endeavors of today amount to planting the same crop again — but this time with a newsletter.

(This is a good time for an important caveat: as part of model diversity, I do think the rise of nonprofit journalism is important. Every region will and should have the journalistic equivalent of the regional orchestra: a crucial and influential entity backed by donors and patrons that do the kind of work the market won’t support. This is particularly valuable for smaller geographies. But I think market incentives foster innovation and develop sustainable models like no other. In short, nonprofit journalism orgs are an exciting addition to the landscape of commercially viable local journalism, not its replacement.)

We won’t have another “town square” with a “common set of facts” for at least another generation, if ever again. Technology platforms are better suited at having true mass audience: the replacement for a shared identity is already here. Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and their successors will do that work, largely informed by better and smarter approaches to advertising than what journalism practitioners ever did. They’ve made a more efficient model. We lost that war already.

This isn’t a time to give up and say we should all go nonprofit — that’s delaying the reckoning we must confront: the economy is moving ahead briskly with too few true experiments with entrepreneurial journalism. This is a call to arms for acts of entrepreneurship. To take on the bloody and bruising act of creative destruction, ensuring more who do that are flying the flag of journalism thinking.

We can have a new generation of journalism practitioners, provided we do the critical work of developing those models. To do this, it is crucial we understand first that journalism is not an industry, it is a strategy.

With that foundation, we can think about the existing markets and industry segments that would benefit from the values of journalism thinking — values like the belief that hard, honest conversations make for better results, that the mirror of storytelling has always shaped humanity’s self-understanding and that third-party referees that are owned by no one party, including government, are crucial.

This worldview is guiding the work we have done over the last decade at Technically Media, where we have slowly developed two tiny, scrappy niche news sites: one called Technical.ly that tracks how local economies are evolving in a handful of markets and a second called Generocity.org that reports on the nonprofit and social impact sector of Philadelphia. We have done good, quality, thorough and dependable community reporting for local niches since 2009. I am proud of that journalism, in particular knowing our origins as a bootstrapped WordPress blog template. We were among the first news organizations to track the rise of civic technology, to pursue unethical startup founders and hollow policy and business imperatives. We’ve developed our own approach to beat reporting that has produced and continues to produce top-flight journalists, no better represented than our current newsroom of SabrinaJulieStephenMichelaiPaige and Holly. But I have always believed that in the era we are in, the far, far, far more important, more challenging and more misunderstood work has been on the business modeling.

In spring 2009, we organized an unconference (now called Klein News Innovation Camp and happening for the 11th year Nov. 16) and one of that first day’s themes was that display advertising models could not work for local in a world of web-style scale. We pledged then that we would build a local news organization that would actually approach our sustainability strategy differently. For a few inexperienced, 20-something under-employed reporters that journey took a long, winding and challenging course. We took this path without any allegiance to old models, only to what I now understand to be journalism thinking.

We thought we were an events group, then a content strategy consultancy and then a community organizing org, with many smaller steps in between. Three to four years ago, we finally understood.

Our most fitting Technical.ly clients saw us as an alternative to recruiting firms and even more specifically to a new talent acquisition and retention segment called employer branding. Our most passionate Generocity.org readers were nonprofit professionals who saw us as a more open and accessible platform to develop professionally.

Both were about career navigation, which gave our organization a shared mission. Both had a very specific market niche we were built to compete in. We use journalism thinking and employ a newsroom because we think it strengthens our model position but we are becoming more an HR services company than a journalism company, because journalism companies do not exist and, I’d argue, have never existed. We had advertising businesses that fit neatly with newsroom values. Journalism is a strategy, not an industry.

Our organization’s evolution is one small example today of what we need lots more of, journalism thinking back in new competitive landscapes.

Along the last decade of our company journey, I changed course for longtime clients, passionate employees and and early fans. In the parlance of today, we were trying to find product-market fit. If we were a software company, this would have likely been too many twists to be worth the trouble. We would have closed, knowing we hadn’t answered a true demand in the market. But our company, and I hope many other journalism practitioners in 2019, are something different. I want us to be part of the first wave that embeds critical journalism thinking into a new generation of commercially viable organizations. Later journalism thinking companies can follow the best practices of a purer approach to fail-fast.

For us at Technically Media, we are at another important crossroads that I think is likely representative and telling for other journalism practitioners.

We have gotten ourselves to the beginning of a far more focused and direct place of business competition. Technical.ly is competing in an open market to support company talent acquisition strategies, in particular employer branding. Generocity.org is developing programming so that large social service providers might rely on us to offer professional development support. We’re listening to our very specific customers. It took us a long time to get here, to both understand this moment and to square off for it.

Now we’re in a new battle with our competitors, none of whom produce journalism and often, I argue, are not particularly beneficial for the communities they serve. This is thrilling.

I want to unseat them, and I need help doing it, and I want far more scrappy, news organizations to do the same thing in other market segments. Journalism organizations should be squaring off against polling firms, creative agencies, design studios, touring companies, field researchers, consultancies, theaters, bars and anything that would be challenged and improved by journalism thinking. Let the market determine the best outcomes, but give journalism thinking a chance to be part of the mix.

Collectively, we could bring greater transparency, community engagement, responsibility, storytelling and commitment to truth everywhere in our economy. With new market positions, we can call for new standards and expectations in an era in which companies owe more to their communities than to shareholders. Incorporating journalism thinking is an act of social entrepreneurship that can have lasting societal and civic outcomes.

In recent years, I’ve found myself paying much more attention to HR-focused conferences, where our clients and competitors are, rather than exclusively journalism conferences, where instead my newsroom coworkers should now be. I want to challenge all publishers to do similarly: what industry conference could your organization focus on for client development in which your newsroom is a unique differentiator, not an expectation.

Spending more time with clients is crucial, because this is a very new kind of proposition to a client; Our organization’s newsroom just might criticize you if it is warranted, but more importantly that newsroom is the reason why we have authentic relationships with people worth accessing. This is not unlike the early fights that surely happened between early news orgs and advertisers when entrepreneurial publishers were establishing those early norms. Ad models, remember, were not given to us on a clay tablet from the heavens. They fought for that relationship, and we’re fighting again.

When media funders say they want to invest in something that can be sustainable, this is what I envision as the priority. Their lesson from venture capital shouldn’t be to invest in whiz-bang scalable technology; The lesson from VC for media funders is to invest in people and teams who are the best shot to establish the kind of future world they want to see, one that is more informed, equitable and just. To publishers, journalists, news executives, funders and allies: what market are we attacking and how does journalism thinking strengthen our position? How do we get more of these marketplace head-on collisions to take place? We talk about them, we celebrate them, we build them, we fund them.

Of course my point is not that other news organizations should compete in some arcane HR subcategory necessarily. My point is the future of the best of newsroom outcomes is only going to be achieved if we believe journalism thinking must survive, with the aid of market incentives that will ensure they last. To do that is simple: Solve a community problem people already pay for, which a newsroom will strengthen. Then fight like hell.

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A few years back, a metro daily newspaper business columnist told me he wouldn’t call us a news organization because our business model was different; I think he used the word “perplexing.” Of course, without realizing it, what he was really telling me was that we weren’t a newspaper, which he was unable to see was not the only way communities could receive free and accessible information. Because that model held firm for centuries, we struggle to wrap our minds around a true change. But we must.

Today journalism organizations are rarely in true competition with other journalism organizations. We’re just used to assuming we are. Instead, we all agree in the belief that journalism must be produced for the communities we serve. It must be defended. Of course, there is a healthy jockeying to be better, faster and more informative than someone else on a story of importance. But those are the tactics of professional pride and individual competition.

We need to be a community of practitioners who are challenging each other to bring new height of journalism thinking into the world. Call for more journalism thinking used in new ways, horseback or not.

(Image of white typewriter via Unsplash by Bernard Hermant)