What Can I Build Today?

Online startups can win the future by staying in the present

There are hundreds of local and regional online news startups in America, but only about five that media observers discuss with any frequency. The names will be familiar: Voice of San Diego, The Texas Tribune, MinnPost, the Chicago News Cooperative, The Bay Citizen. All are well-funded, big-city nonprofits backed by large foundations and staffed by veteran journalists. In other words, thinking of them as providing a glimpse into the future of local journalism is a bit like saying nasa shows a way forward to municipal space programs.

It’s not that the Big Five aren’t worthy of attention. Each provides hard news where it is desperately needed, and each is experimenting in fruitful ways with how to fund local news without big-league philanthropy. If and when these experiments pay off, smaller news organizations can adapt them to their own circumstances.

I suspect, though, that the primary reason these organizations are discussed so frequently is that their success validates a deeply held optimism that many feel about the web’s ability to sustain local news. It’s an optimism based more on faith than reality, and the Big Five are the cherry-picked slices of reality that anchor that faith. Their existence contributes to a vague sense of hopefulness among practitioners of local online journalism.

Most founders of local online news operations I talk to are simultaneously optimistic about the future and frustrated by the present. They have a strong sense that building a digital news source for their communities puts them on the right side of history, but little concept of how to keep their operation afloat long enough to be vindicated. Longing for a (hopefully) not-too-distant future when everything scary about the world of journalism economics becomes somehow less so, they too often neglect to engage present financial challenges in order to press forward confidently with their journalistic vision. The result is a field full of promising journalistic institutions with anemic and at times nearly nonexistent business models. Ironically, the future might look a lot brighter if news startups shed their futurism and instead ask: What can I build today?

Last January, CJR started a project called the News Frontier Database, with the goal of building a comprehensive resource on the editorial and business practices of digital news startups. Each entry includes a profile and a data set with information on revenue sources, staffing levels, coverage areas, and other particulars of the news site. We’ve profiled more than two hundred sites so far. About fifty of these are national in scope and the rest provide state and local coverage.

The vast majority of journalism startups cover local news, and, considering the diminished quality of local news in recent years, this makes sense. The organizations themselves vary greatly, from large nonprofits like the Big Five to for-profits backed by venture capital to sites run by a lone journalist. Depending on how narrowly one defines journalism, there are either many hundreds or many thousands of these startups.

Online local news sites struggle with the same economic environment as the rest of the media industry, but with the additional challenges of a small audience base, a reliance on financing from local foundations with unstable endowments, and a need to convince cautious small-business owners to embrace online advertising. Not surprisingly, then, the local news startup world is marked by an extreme lack of resources. A large majority of the local sites we’ve profiled have fewer than six editorial employees and fewer than three business employees; more than a third have no business staff at all, relying on someone from editorial to also run the business operation.

As a result, business strategies are frequently incoherent. Some sites operate in a manner indistinguishable from a freelancer scrambling for his next assignment. It will take a few more years before we have hard data on the average life span of the sites we’re following, but current indicators are not promising. We once assigned a reporter to profile a startup, only to discover it had gone out of business during the couple of days it took to file the piece.

In other words, no one is getting rich off of online local news. The important distinction to draw, then, is not between sites that are profitable (or sustainable as nonprofits) and those that are not, but between sites that live for the present—attempting every day to sustain their operations through a rigorous and reasoned response to their local market—and those that live for the future—dabbling in revenue-generation but pinning their hopes on a more favorable online news environment that doesn’t currently exist, and may never exist.

Startups that live for the present have a few key characteristics. More often than not, they have an employee with business experience—which means they have revenue projections and five-year plans and realistic fundraising targets. Their attempts at revenue generation are usually highly labor intensive—and would thus be out of reach for most sites that do not have a dedicated business employee. These include high-volume, direct-sale advertising; constant fundraising; and offering non-journalistic services such as social-media training for local businesses.

Sites that live for the future are no more or less committed to journalism than sites that live for the present—they’re just less likely to be able to practice journalism for very long. Journalists founded the majority of these sites, often under the assumption that they could juggle both editorial and business responsibilities. Once the site is up and running, they find that the demands of the editorial operation are more than enough to keep them busy. They neglect their present environment and instead hope that the value of their work will lead to staying power—a fallacy that might sound familiar to many newspaper publishers. Sadly, the startups with hopes most pinned on this faith that good work will be rewarded monetarily are often the ones in underserved media markets. They rushed to fill a news vacuum and now find themselves in a void of a different kind.

One of the most common criticisms we receive of our work on The News Frontier Database is that we define news organizations by the standards of the past. Is it necessary to pay so much attention to conglomerations of reporters and editors who publish news items alongside display advertising? Should we, as Clay Shirky suggested, devote our attention to entities such as WikiLeaks that have no clear antecedent, or to promising phenomena like the NPR social-media strategist Andy Carvin’s Twitter account, which he has turned into a sort of twenty-first century news wire? Does the next best hope of journalism lie in something not yet possible or even conceivable on the local level?

The types of organizations we’re documenting are undeniably an intermediate step. For that very reason, it’s crucial to study them. The low entry barrier for news startups provided by the Internet means that they are going to be part of local journalism for the foreseeable future. And the best of them (even the ones that will die once their editors exhaust their savings accounts) are providing vital information to their communities. This is why the people who run them need to trade their optimism about the future for a hard plunge into the present.

Some of the most impressive startups I’ve encountered aren’t particularly innovative—not in the way I usually think of the word. Innovative, to me, is an artist who died fifty years before his heirs ever sold a painting. If journalists are going to venerate innovation, we need a more helpful understanding of the term.

News startups might be more successful if they thought of innovation not as a race to be the first around the next curve, but as a creative response to their present environment. The Big Five are innovative in this sense. They haven’t invented something radically different. Instead, they seized an opportunity given them by declining newspapers in their respective markets, and managed to convince foundations concerned about the future of news that they were the best near-term solution to the problem.

Thinking of innovation this way also broadens the conversation about web news. For example, I’ve encountered several thriving local news startups that have print products, but they’re not at all backward in their thinking. This Land Press, perhaps Oklahoma’s first new-media company, produces beautiful video journalism and an equally stunning broadsheet that turns print from stale to exclusive. The website is free, the paper is not, and ads are sold across both mediums. Weld, a new site in Birmingham, Alabama, breaks city politics stories on Twitter that evolve into blog posts before becoming context-filled news articles for their alt-weekly-style print product. These startups innovated by coming up with the right blend of old and new for their respective markets.

Defining innovation as a reaction to the present might also help some of the troubled startups I mentioned above kick their bad habits. Lastly, and this is crucial, thinking of innovation in this way allows us to talk more realistically about failure. One thing I’m bemused and saddened by in the online news world is the excitement that heralds every new launch or trend, and the scorn that follows every failure. Could this be because we’re obsessed with an unrealistic conception of innovation, one which dictates that everything unprecedented is good and everything unsuccessful is un-innovative?

The news innovators most worthy of attention aren’t those who have reached some platonic ideal of web journalism, but rather are the ones who have spent a good year, or a good decade, working every day to produce journalism and sustain it. This engagement with the present doesn’t guarantee success, but it will provide some useful lessons to those of us who pay attention. And at least those that don’t survive will have died with their boots on, having taken a few more intermediary steps. 

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Michael Meyer is a CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter at @mcm_nm.