We Are Not Alone: News Startup Community-Building

Launch Pad: Portland, Oregon

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.

Michael: I think you’re right—and frankly I think it’s my fault for not looping in more startup types when we all got together. But that’s part of the time management problem for entrepreneurs. The communities we form will rightly be shaped by the people (like Bill, a freelance writer) who show up and do good work.

What about less formal relationships with other outlets? I credit a lot of my momentum to the beneficence of one of the country’s most successful local-news entrepreneurs, Jonathan Maus of BikePortland.org. I think he immediately saw that having an outlet about public transit could be good for an outlet about bicycling—like two Chinese restaurants on the same corner. Respect from young-but-established companies like his and the Mercury has really helped Portland Afoot establish a brand.

How do you see Oregon Arts Watch working with its peers and/or competitors?

Barry: I think one of the most difficult psychological hurdles we face is to get over the idea that your success somehow limits mine, that your success is a comment on my efforts, that your success is something to be envied rather than celebrated.

The spirit of the non-profit should be to act for the common good. Oregon Arts Watch is a service organization and its product is the best news, analysis and commentary on the region’s cultural life that it can muster. If we believe that’s important, then we should celebrate it wherever it occurs, not just on our own site. We should build on the successful descriptions of others, add our sense of things, help those who read, see or listen to our reports to understand what’s happening here better than they do now, regardless of where the original “kernel” started (though with complete transparency about the origins of that kernel!). So this is the idealistic heart of the matter for me: We change things by working together, by directing attention to things that really matter. Really, it’s good, old-fashioned Dewey pragmatism.

So, I’m hoping Oregon Arts Watch is an ardent aggregator of good work, that it can establish beneficial financial networks with its peers and work with them to change life as we know it on the planet forever! OK. That’s crazy. But you know what I mean, right?

Michael: I just pulled out a little American flag to wave along, Barry. I can’t think of a better way to end a mini-series.

Thanks very much to CJR for inviting us to do this. And thanks to you for devoting so much precious time to it with me! It’s been a lot of fun. Any final thoughts?

Barry: The future awaits? Nah—just my own thanks to CJR (and our editor Justin), to you for putting up with my rants and bad typing, and to those who’ve passed this way on the Internet and spent some time with us. So long!

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.

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.

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Michael Andersen and Barry Johnson are news entrepreneurs in Portland, Oregon. Tags: , , , , ,