Write It All Down!

Why news entrepreneurs should keep a "startup journal"

CJR’s “Launch Pad” feature invites new media publishers to blog about their experiences on the news frontier. Past columns by Josh Kalven, founder of Newsbound, can be found here.

In my previous columns here at the Launch Pad, I’ve described some of the impulses that propelled me down this entrepreneurial path. This week, I’m going to shift focus and highlight a practice that has been invaluable during this process and that should come as second nature for any news entrepreneur: the “startup journal.”

Almost every day for the past four months, I’ve been taking time out of my day to document the flood of information and inspiration—not to mention frustration—that accompanies my effort to build Newsbound. The origins of this habit are fairly practical in nature.

Last fall, I spent much of my time seeking out interesting individuals from the journalism, tech, and business worlds, and scheduling as many meetings as I could with them. Each of these interactions left me humming in some way: Perhaps the conversation had advanced my thinking about the project, or I had been seriously challenged by the questions asked, or I had walked away disappointed with my explanation of the concept. Whatever the feedback, I realized early on that I simply couldn’t retain it all. Worse yet, I couldn’t preserve the occasional moments of clarity. Again and again, they were diluted by countless other demands on my time and mental energy.

The concept of keeping a “work journal” isn’t a new one. Google the term and you’ll find numerous articles extolling the productivity-related benefits of this practice. Some of the space is taken up by logging my day-to-day activities. But I mostly use it as a private record of what has inspired or motivated or perplexed me.

A few broad examples:

Language: The first phase of developing Newsbound largely consisted of me communicating the concept to those around me. As such, I kept a constant eye out for useful language and regularly stumbled across it in blog posts, podcasts, tweets, and yes, even conversations with other humans. The journal served as a bucket of sorts during this period and continues to serve that purpose today. I can drop in all these random fragments and pluck one out when I see an opportunity to put it to use.

Questions: I’m also regularly documenting the questions that my pitch provokes in the listener: whether it’s a stranger at a party or a potential investor. The journal allows me to preserve these queries and determine how better to answer them in the future (or how to refine my pitch so that they never get asked in the first place). Today, I’m prepared for most of the questions that get tossed my way. But I still get stumped sometimes. Taking time to examine those moments is what allows me to improve my delivery, and my thinking as a whole.

Feedback: Now that I’ve released some preliminary content, I’m using the journal to catalogue initial reactions and to brainstorm about how to improve the editorial product going forward.

Having incorporated the journal into my workflow for several months, I now have the pleasure of occasionally scrolling through my previous entries. It’s something I do whenever I’m feeling overwhelmed or my motivation is waning. There’s always some forgotten nugget in there that gets the engine running again.

Most recently it was an excerpt from this Josh Young blog post, which I’d noted back in November. In the piece, Young examines the “pay what you want” (pwyw) system as a potential revenue model for news and makes a really interesting comparison to the sale of Girl Scout cookies:

[T]he broad thesis under which I like the pwyw model is that there is a huge positive externality that goes to the payers. But there are all kinds of weird cultural and ethical norms around activating that externality. A great end result and donor list doesn’t cut it. Cookies work for the girl scouts because they sublimate the virtue of giving and because they’re super shareable.

At the time I came across this four months ago, I found the cookie case study fascinating and potentially useful, though I wasn’t exactly sure how. Today (for reasons I’ll explain in one of my remaining columns) the comparison is suddenly super relevant to this project.

That’s the magic of the “startup journal.” It serves as an extension of my brain at a time when my mental faculties are loaded with stress and stimulation. It reminds me of the obstacles I’ve already cleared and gives me incentive to keep pushing forward. And it helps me regain the big picture when it gets obscured by all the day-to-day details.

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Josh Kalven is the founder of Newsbound, a San Francisco-based startup that works to contain and explain complex news narratives. He was previously editor-in-chief of Progress Illinois. You can find him on Twitter or at the following e-mail address: josh (at) newsbound.com. Tags: , , , , ,