Grow & Strengthen: How We’re Helping Build Up the NJ News Ecosystem

Almost two years ago, the Center for Cooperative Media embarked on a project called Grow & Strengthen to expand and fortify the news ecosystem in New Jersey. We identified news entrepreneurs who were interested in starting new sites, gave them small seed grants and regular coaching, and made sure they connected regularly through monthly Peer-to-Peer meet-ups. We’re proud to report back on our progress, with a StoryMap snapshot of 15 news projects we’ve seeded and nurtured. Our business coach, Joe Michaud, has also reflected on the qualities that help make news startups successful — as well as those that lead to failure.

You can see the Storymap below or open it for a larger view here.

Themes from the 2013-14 Grow & Strengthen Program

By JOE MICHAUD, G&S Coach/Mentor

Now that we have completed two cycles of Grow & Strengthen for news entrepreneurs, some themes have emerged that may help other news startups understand the landscape – and may also help those of us who hope to help them succeed.

The following observations are drawn specifically from working with the 15 sites (totaling around 20 individuals, when partners are included) in the G&S programs of 2013 and 2014. None of these themes is unique to NJ news entrepreneurs: I’ve seen each one played out among news entrepreneurs around the U.S. In each theme, where appropriate, I have included an example, though it should be noted that for every theme, there were several instances of New Jersey startups experiencing that dynamic.

The complete list of participants can be found at the bottom of this post, along with their project (or proposed project).

The entrepreneur needs a means of financial support during the startup phase. Prospective news entrepreneurs need to have a realistic outlook on how they will pay their own bills during the long ramp-up of their sites. This can be a spouse’s job, the entrepreneur’s current job, freelance work. A news site takes at least 6-12 months of focused sales effort before it can generate real net income. (There are rare exceptions, and we have seen one in this group – Village Green.) If the entrepreneur has unrealistic expectations of income from the startup, the project won’t get the right balance of attention on audience development, content development and advertiser development. Mary Galioto of MercerMe, for example, is a stay-at-home mom, and chose to focus initially on building content and audience. She also pursued advertisers, but not in a panic to bring in income. Instead, she sought advertisers as a way to connect with the community, while also taking care to establish market rates for her ad inventory.

There’s no substitute for being OF the community. While this is not a guarantee of success, when we look at G&S participants (and other news startups around the U.S.) that’s a common theme among the successful sites. Coming from the target community, the publisher starts with an understanding of what the community wants and needs, some engagement already with community members, easier access to local advertisers, and other advantages.

Villlage Green’s rapid success can be traced directly to the long presence of owners Mary Barr Mann and Carolyn Maynard-Parisi in that community, both as Patch journalists and as residents. That contact also enabled them to identify and recruit a salesperson from the community. Krystal Knapp’s plans for Planet Trenton included plenty of networking and outreach to build connections, recognizing the challenge of building a community outside her home base of Princeton.

Most people need some level of design/tech support. Even with platforms as self-serve-oriented as WordPress/Blargo and Broadstreet Ads, very few G&S participants have been totally self-sufficient on infrastructure. They need help with logo design, layout options, ad setups. At the minimum, they need design help. But they may need a complete orientation from the ground up, including choosing, setting up and operating a content management system.

Joe B&S B&W

(Joe Michaud explains the Five R’s of audience retention and ad sales during a peer-to-peer group session.)

A background in newspapers has its pros and cons. A professional background in news carries obvious benefits, for example knowing how to navigate government agencies and meetings, ability to interview efficiently, and writing skills. However, ex-newspaper folks unconsciously carry a certain expectation of the proper role of the journalist, what news is, what quality is, what readers expect. This can become a barrier to seeking out and understanding what the community truly wants and values. It can prevent experimentation with different ways to engage audiences and advertisers. The solution is to recognize this challenge, and intentionally engage the community to develop a shared idea of values and mission.

A background in news is not necessary. Smart people can gather an understanding of journalistic values and how to operate ethically. Lacking professional news experience, they can be open to understanding the information needs of their specific communities. As with those with professional news experience, the key is for the entrepreneur to recognize the gaps and operate intentionally. Mary Galioto of MercerMe is a good example of a non-journalist identifying her community’s unmet information needs, validating her ideas through her own networking, and developing the site’s concept by leveraging resources such as the Center for Cooperative Media.

Everyone needs some basic business orientation. Very few of the G&S participants had any experience running a business or much exposure to business processes like incorporation, tax issues, bookkeeping. The group training and peer sessions helped. Some participants also reached out to local resources such as SCORE or SBDC offices.

 

jarvis

(Jeff Jarvis of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism talks to the group about audience retention and engagement.)

It’s important to be out in the community. This must be not just online, and not just as a journalist covering a meeting. The news brand should be visible at public events, if not hosting its own events or partnering with local groups on events. Events don’t need to be high-effort; the priority should be maximum visibility for minimum effort. And there should be plans for how to derive value from an event beyond the event itself. Milton Hobbs of TAP into East Orange and Mary Barr Mann and Carolyn Maynard-Parisi of Village Green made a point of being visible at community events and using the opportunity to gather signups for email newsletters.

An elevator pitch is valuable. Having a ready “elevator pitch” can help the publisher quickly introduce the news site and engage community members whenever the opportunity arises. The pitch should be framed, if possible, as a solution to a problem, and should encompass not just news but also its means of support. What gap in the community will the news site fill, and how will it help local businesses? The publisher should develop the story in his/her own words, try it out on people, and hone it until people begin nodding in agreement. Mary Galioto used the elevator pitch process to find her own language to comfortably talk about advertising on MercerMe with community members and prospective advertisers.

Interviewing local businesses is a smart strategy. This approach accomplishes several things simultaneously: It gets the site operator in front of potential customers in a non-pressure, non-sales context, which helps the entrepreneur get past the initial freeze-up of “I can’t sell.” It helps gather intel about local businesses’ needs. It helps spread the word about the upcoming news site. And it helps inform the site’s content strategy, since local business owners are also members of the community.

Local small to medium businesses (SMBs) are increasingly savvy about things like Facebook. Site operators need to know how to talk about their site in the context of the SMB’s other online promotions, not just in the context of other local media. In some cases, the SMB’s interest in social media can become an opportunity. Some site operators – such as Zachary Ahl of the News of Salem County, Krystal Knapp of Planet Princeton and Planet Trenton, and Heidi Heleniak of Dunellen 411 – have developed side businesses helping local businesses with social media and website content.

As savvy as some SMBs are, most local ad buys are emotional, not data-driven. What’s important is whether the business owner perceives that the local site is being used by his/her customers and prospective customers. More than traffic numbers, local business owners respond to perceived local buzz. For local online startups, this can be a barrier, as the SMBs perceive existing print or broadcast media to be more heavily used by local customers. Local online startups can break through this perception with strategies such as events and increased community visibility. Village Green, among others, has leveraged its owners’ and contributors’ visibility to amplify the perception of the site’s role in the community.

Finding a salesperson is difficult. What’s important is that the sales rep have the right aptitude, be of the community, passionate about the news site, interested in going out and meeting people, comfortable with rejection. Operators need to use their own network to identify and recruit salespeople with these attributes. Village Green is an excellent illustration of both the challenge of finding good salespeople, and smart approaches to overcome that challenge. Long before launching Village Green, Mary Barr Mann and Carolyn Maynard-Parisi had developed a large network of contacts in Maplewood and South Orange. As they began thinking about launching their own site, they approached a few people who they thought would be good salespeople. Soon after launch they were able to bring on Shana Teitelbaum – a person who is well connected with parents and schools, is enthusiastic about Village Green, and is a skilled fundraiser. The site was profitable within months of launch.

peer-to-peer

(Left to right: Adriane Berg of SuperAgingNJ, Bill Bowman of the Franklin Reporter, and Krystal Knapp of Planet Princeton/Trenton discuss sales.)

Closing sales is hard. Even when prospective customers are very interested, it’s a challenge to get them to commit. And unlike other media with deadlines and limited space or airtime, there are no natural scarcities that the site owner can leverage. There are techniques that can help, but the reality is most local sites are experiencing long sales cycles. Site owners need to understand that and plan accordingly. At the Franklin Reporter & Advocate, sales rep P.J. Bowman (wife of the site’s founder) came from a successful background in traditional media sales, and found she needed to adapt both her approaches and her expectations of the sales cycle to successfully develop her pipeline of digital ad business.

People issues are a challenge. There’s no one solution, except for the entrepreneur to recognize and be prepared for people issues, to assume humans will be human, and to be resilient when setbacks happen. Examples we’ve seen in just these two classes, all of which were addressed effectively: The partner who can’t continue the commitment despite good intentions. (MercerMe) Volunteers who show up once and disappear. (East Orange TAP, Trenton Connects) People who say they want to write but then don’t follow through (Highland Park Planet). Successfully navigating family relationships. (Highland Park Planet, Franklin Reporter)

Some prospective news entrepreneurs arrive with negatives that make it difficult to launch a successful news site. Any of these can be overcome, but unfortunately some can be too ingrained. Each of these appeared in some form, in at least one participant, during the 2013-14 G&S groups, and were either successfully overcome, or became a significant barrier to success:

  • Unclear on target audience
  • Difficulty focusing on likely business model
  • Hung up on newspaper traditions (frequency of publication, definition of quality, etc.)
  • Difficulty developing a management style, usually because of job experiences with poor managers
  • “Us vs. Them” attitudes about news and advertising
  • Poor organizational skills. Poor time management, task management. Lack of follow-through.
  • A need to work with a support network; discomfort working solo
  • Lack of time to commit to the site. Too many other responsibilities.

Again, none of these should be a deal-breaker, but any one of them can kill the project if it is not identified and intentionally overcome.

2013 class:

2014 class:

In the Center’s next round of Grow & Strengthen, we will concentrate on building up sales teams to support the state’s fledgling news organizations.

Please write to us at info@njnewscommons.org if you’d like to be considered.

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