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.
Because I’ve operated in Portland for more than thirty years, nearly all of it spent writing or editing arts and culture stories, I thought I might be able to get something off the ground. I already knew most of the people I would have to convince, and I had an inkling that they wouldn’t be immediately dismissive of helping to build an independent arts journalism team. Which has mostly been right. Still, I’m a little envious that you are up and running while I’m still setting up meetings, though I did fire up a little blog to remind me of what the project was about. I have enjoyed the business part, though, the talking and negotiating and meeting.
Back at you: Why did you go this route, leaving the luxurious world of daily journalism behind for the uncertainties of Fate?
MA: Shameless careerism. I’m twenty-nine and desperately in love with a harsh mistress: local policy reporting. I loved my county government beat, even as I felt my newspaper (my own work included) slowly getting worse amid unending layoffs. Unless I found a way to learn new skills, I couldn’t imagine any scenario that would let me spend the rest of my career doing this.
Along those lines, I too am trying to reverse-engineer a product that will help solve one of the big social problems I see: a lack of local journalism on behalf of ordinary people. Rich real estate developers are going to be very well served by the new media ecosystem. It’ll be harder to carve out profitable niches that serve the interests of us normals.
Next week we’ve decided to discuss time management. On that note, what’s a major task you hope to accomplish by our next talk? Maybe we can close each exchange this way.
BJ: Let’s see. This week I’m hoping to set up meetings with a few arts groups that aren’t among the Top Six, but still have lots of subscribers and a substantial impact on the community here. Most of them have heard about the project; I need to find out if there are ways we can work together. You?
MA: Our print distribution plan is based around workplaces, so my big goal for this week is to design the packet of marketing materials that I’ll be schlepping to local businesses this winter, trying to convince them that PA subscriptions are a free benefit they should offer their employees.
Great talking to you, Barry, and thanks again to CJR for the invitation. See you next week!
Michael Andersen publishes Portland Afoot, a ten-minute newsmagazine and wiki about low-car life in Portland, Oregon. He also writes about entrepreneurial local journalism on NiemanLab.org, oldforestnewtrees.com, and Twitter. Barry Johnson has written about the arts since 1978, when he started writing about dance for the now-defunct Seattle Sun. He has edited arts sections at Willamette Week and The Oregonian, and recently finished a twenty-six-year stint at the latter by writing a general arts and culture column. You can find his up-to-the-minute thoughts on the arts at http://artsdispatch.blogspot.com.