In a post on his blog Buzzmachine last week, Jeff Jarvis talked about the phenomenon of “hyperlocal cooties.’’
That’s what happens, Jeff posits, every time another high-profile venture aimed at building both content and revenue models for community-based journalism stumbles publicly or bites the dust. Everyone gets a case of the hyperlocal cooties, and proclaims that community-focused sites have no future. This focus on what fails obscures the fact that so much is showing promise.
And as Jeff points out, we are still so early in the game to be definitively declaring winners and losers. Failures are a necessary, if painful, part of learning, and they feed the next round of experimentation. With each round, the efforts get a little stronger, even if we can’t always see that in the moment.
I commend Jeff’s post to you for a couple of reasons. First, it provides an excellent summary of both the challenges facing local news entrepreneurs and some of the ways people are responding.
Second, quite selfishly, I see Jeff’s post as a roadmap through some of the ways our New Media Journalism Initiative has made a difference, and will continue to do so even as we begin to wind down our work this year.
Jeff points to the need for better business skills for entrepreneurial publishers. This has been an area of special focus for us in the New Media Journalism Initiative for the last two years.
We tested our idea that focused training in both business planning and execution could make a difference with our Super Camp business mentoring program. In that pilot program, we sent business mentors to work with 12 publishers, mentoring them both by phone and through visits in their markets. They focused on building strength in ad sales, in customer relationship management and in diversifying revenue streams.
What we learned in Super Camp informed the program for the Block by Block Community News Summit last September, in which we brought the business mentors to share what they learned with more than 100 entrepreneurial publishers.
All of this knowledge went into the Community Journalism Executive Training (CJET) program, developed in partnership with Investigative News Network and the Knight Foundation to offer business development training for 34 for-profit and
non-profit publishers. We’ve been in the process of securing funding for a next phase of work with those publishers, and are tantalizingly close to being able to move forward with that.
Jeff mentions the ever-fabulous Debbie Galant, who heads the NJ News Commons at Montclair State University. Debbie was one of our Super Camp publishers when she was at Baristanet, and she’s been an enthusiastic salesperson for the experience.
We’re working with Debbie now to launch CJET for New Jersey publishers, a business development program that will take the best of everything we’ve learned and apply it. We’re especially excited about the opportunity to do this on a geographic level, because we believe it will build an ongoing support network for the publishers as they apply what they are learning.
Finally, commenters on Jeff’s post point to the formation of the Local Independent News Publishers as evidence of the maturing state of hyperlocal publishing. The Patterson Foundation, through the New Media Journalism Initiative, enabled LION’s formation process, providing an organizational consultant and offering matching funds as incentives for membership.
When the New Media Journalism Initiative began three years ago, we focused on the community entrepreneurial journalists because we saw a gap there, as other funders tended to focus on non-profit, investigative projects. The work we’ve done, we think, has ended up helping all startups, regardless of tax status or content focus.
Like Jeff, I’m pretty sure that we are in the very beginning stages. And I have never once worried that I might catch hyperlocal cooties by helping to advance the cause.