CJR’s “Launch Pad” feature invites new media publishers to blog about their experiences on the news frontier. Past columns by Michael Andersen, founder of Portland Afoot, and Barry Johnson, who is at work on an arts journalism project, can be found here.
Barry Johnson: Michael, we have come to the end of our mini-series on starting non-profit journalism projects in Portland, Oregon. Of course, we are stopping in the middle, the way all mini-series do, when you think about it. Life goes on after the closing credits, if the characters were vivid at all!
I think our last act is about community. It’s so easy to dig into the day-to-day business of dotting i’s and signing contracts that it’s easy to forget about the larger environment in which we are trying to operate, the larger problems we are trying to solve. Fortunately, we are not alone here, are we?
Michael Andersen: The companies may be smaller than they once were, but I think local news is always going to be an ensemble piece. I love the vision you shared last week of a futuristic newsroom that produces many little products for many audiences—and if that sort of arrangement isn’t going to emerge seamlessly from twentieth-century newsrooms, I think it’ll appear ad-hoc as small outlets like ours find ways to collude here and there.
That’s how you and I got to know each other, of course. Want to tell the story?
Barry: A little more than a year ago, some of us got together and decided that if Portland was going to preserve and extend professional journalism, some new initiatives were going to be necessary. We put together a conference called We Make the Media. Going into it, I thought that a lot of little journalism projects were probably bubbling up, even though I didn’t know about them. And I figured that if a network of these projects could be encouraged to take root, covering everything from the environment and transportation to health care and the arts, that might be the best way to go—especially because some good, solid examples already existed in Portland.
You were one of those journalists bent on trying to do something on your own, DIY-style, without waiting for the legacy media to change or some big new enterprise to start up. What you’re trying to do isn’t exactly what I had in mind, but it’s a really interesting, creative response to the problem of supporting responsible transportation journalism, though it took me a few meetings with you to figure out what you were actually trying to do!
Michael: Yeah, that’s either a curse or a security measure for my business model. I was excited to meet you there, because I had been waiting for Oregonian people to take that wonderful buyout offer and take some risks with it. I’m shocked that more of your colleagues didn’t!
Anyway, over the last year we’ve both been working with an interesting hybrid group, called the Oregon News Incubator, of people who met at that conference. It’s an coalition of freelancers and startups that we loop together under the name “entrepreneurial journalism.” The vision is to eventually recreate the advantages of a newsroom—camaraderie, institutional knowledge, shared video cameras—for solo operators and small outlets.
I know there have been some similar projects in other cities. If you were thinking about starting one from scratch in another metro area, how would you advise going about it?
Barry: We’re talking about a loose network, and even loose networks or associations take a lot of enegy to grow. As I think about ONI right now, I think what we need to do is invite more existing outlets/sites to join us, especially those of us who are working to do something other than freelancing. And having invited them, we need to keep the door open. I’m thinking of sites such as Portland Architecture and PORT, which is a visual arts news and review site. In some ways, I think we leaned too heavily toward the freelance journalist community.
So if I were going to start from scratch I would attempt to hold a “congress” of those existing sites, ones that are compatible with the sort of journalism practices we support, and begin that small community-building process: find areas of common agreement and common need, and then build from there. I think a “freelance wing” is a good idea, too, of course, but those of us starting little businesses have a lot to teach each, too. This isn’t meant to criticize ONI and the hard work many have put into building and sustaining it, especially our friend Bill Lascher.