CJR’s “Launch Pad” feature invites new media publishers to blog about their experiences on the news frontier. All of Michael Andersen and Barry Johnson’s columns can be found here.
Michael Andersen: Hi, Barry! Thanks for agreeing to team up on this Launch Pad stint. I love that CJR is trying to document and encourage the entrepreneurial journalism movement, after so many years in which media critics have seemed more eager to circle the wagons than explore the frontier.
You and I are both running nonprofit local-news startups out here at the end of the Oregon Trail, in Portland, and we’ve agreed to spend the next six weeks or so in a sort of public chat about our businesses. Our startups don’t have a lot in common… except, of course, being run by short, bald, bespectacled ex-newspaper guys. My baby is Portland Afoot, a print-web hybrid product about “low-car life,” aimed mostly at mass transit commuters. Our print product is a “10-minute” monthly newsmagazine—four pages long, distributed by U.S. Mail—and our web product is a tightly moderated wiki with pages about things like commute subsidies, rail development plans, and bus reliability records.
Barry Johnson: You are much further along than I am. I’m still attempting to establish the networks that I hope will support my arts journalism project. First, I am negotiating with the largest arts organizations in Portland to invite their subscribers to become members of my journalism project. Those subscribers will be the financial backbone of my project (as a non-profit, it will also solicit money from foundations, donors and sponsors, as well as fees for services and income from events and various products).
Second, I’ve been talking to various “legacy” media companies, including our local public broadcasting station and newspaper, about supplying them with the work of the journalists involved in the project (print, audio, and video). Of course, we’ll also have a website as a “home base” and we’ll reach beyond legacy media to the alternative media outlets (sites, internet radio, social networks, etc. Those two networks, I hope, will give the work of our journalists something like the reach of the old daily newspaper, creating a “common” language and sense of the culture in the process.
How has Portland Afoot worked out so far? (By the way, we aren’t “bald,” we are “hair free.”)
MA: Also barber-free, fortunately for my budget. I had a product design, some paperwork, a couple years of savings, and a rough business plan in place before I left my suburban newspaper job seven months ago, but I rashly decided to start creating content before I had partnerships and distribution established. Frankly, I’m not sure that was the right choice.
The main reason I did things this way was my sense that Portland Afoot was a deeply strange product, and that I’d have no success pitching it without first being able to show people how it worked. The problem is that I’ve had a constant temptation to focus on the work I enjoy—the journalism—ather than the work that probably matters more at this point: business-building. That said, I’m more or less on schedule, revenue-wise, and I hope we’ll be making enough from ads and print subscriptions for me to start drawing a very modest salary by PA’s first birthday.
You suggested we talk about why we made the decision to launch our own operations. What on earth possessed you?
BJ: With everyone else out there in CJR Land, I’ve watched the diminishment of the major corporations that funded journalism in America. I thought they were too timid about reorganizing themselves, and I wanted to test the idea that maybe the best course is to divide the old newspaper into many different parts, each responsible for driving its own financial destiny and united in the desire to provide good, transparent, accountable, useful journalism. I was especially worried about the fate of cultural journalism, because those old critics positions were among the first to fall vacant or be eliminated. Unless we could figure out a way to fund cultural journalism, I thought it might disappear, at least the sort of vigorous coverage that it needs—which, by the way, is far more vigorous than it usually gets.