Business Models for Local News: Talent-Building at the Enterprise Level — Growing the Next Generation of Publishers in Business Acumen and Leadership Abilities

Part Four of “Business Models for Local News: A Field Scan” from The Shorenstein Center and The Lenfest Institute.

This post is one section of a new report published by the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and The Lenfest Institute for Journalism, “Business Models for Local News: A Field Scan.” On May 18, 2018, Shorenstein and The Lenfest Institute gathered industry leaders discuss prospects for finding and seeding new business models for local journalism — and how best to support those working in communities across the country to facilitate change. The report is based on those conversations. The full report is available here.

The Issue: Many journalists in small and growing newsrooms do not have the business and technical skills necessary to become publishers who can nurture their organizations into revenue sustainability. How can we help grow the next generation of publishers and which entities are best poised to support them?

Key Takeaway: Although several world-class journalism schools are increasingly incorporating business teachings into their programs, many participants noted that the standard journalism school curriculum is in need of an overhaul in order to capture the evolving business and digital best practices to prepare today and tomorrow’s journalism and media leaders. Basic business management and other post-grad or mid-career programs are available for full-time professionals, but when professionals do not have the time or resources to spend on these formal trainings, cohort and peer-to-peer learnings can be leveraged in their place.

Existing Experiments and Initiatives

Higher education

Representatives from a number of universities spoke to the various formal trainings and curriculum offerings at journalism schools. Participants agreed that current graduate-level education programs mostly focus on how technology has changed journalism and storytelling from the editorial perspective. Several people called for an altered curriculum that also looks at how technology and digital journalism impacts the business models and financial sustainability of news organizations.

Training beyond formal education

Several participants said the field needs more rudimentary business and management trainings for journalism or media leaders. Many participants were unsure of where a mid-career professional or executive could look for this type of “business skills 101” training or some kind of a crash course in management, business, and technology skills. Several leaders in journalism noted that, after many years of working in traditional newsrooms far apart from business functions, they suddenly found themselves in positions of authority within digital newsrooms and needing to help their organizations ask readers and funders for financial support. After teaching themselves skills to get by, many still feel like they don’t know what they need to know to run a financially sustainable digital news organization.

A few questions that drove the conversation included, how can a leader manage technology developments if they don’t know much about the inner workings of the technology itself? What are the basic best practices around hiring a team and firing individuals when needed, fostering a supportive working environment, and setting up employees for success?

Cohort and peer-to-peer knowledge sharing

In addition to training programs, continuing education through cohort and fellowship programs offer full-time newsroom employees the chance to acquire new skills while working full time. Several attendees advocated for the cohort learning models as one solution for local and small to midsize newsrooms where many employees do not have direct peers or counterparts within their organization. Below are a few examples of existing cohorts and professional organizations:

  • The Institute for Nonprofit News is a cohort of nonprofit newsrooms that promotes nonprofit investigative and public service journalism.
  • The Table Stakes programs were again mentioned several times as examples of cohort models for peer accountability and knowledge sharing.
  • LION Publishers created a program that helps local news organizations build sustainable business models through mentoring partnerships with larger publishers. Newsrooms could also potentially collaborate with each other to pool content, especially if they are nonprofit organizations where the audience judges heavily on quality.
  • The Single Subject News Project at the Shorenstein Center brings together a cohort of smaller nonprofit and single-topic newsrooms to identify best practices for building and engaging online audiences.
  • The Membership Puzzle Project convenes a cohort of beat reporters for its Join the Beat research, and also recently posted this piece with takeaways for hosting communities of practice.
  • Zebras Unite is a community of entrepreneurs and investors building ethical businesses that shares resources and best practices.
  • Matter supports media entrepreneurs who want to build a more informed, connected, and empowered society through its startup accelerator.
  • In addition to cohorts and communities of practice, there are several journalism fellowships that afford professionals the opportunity to study for a year or half-year at an elite university: NiemanJSK FellowsShorenstein Center, and Knight Wallace, to name a few.

Recruitment

Recruitment was frequently mentioned as both an obstacle and response to issues of identifying and retaining talented personnel, on the editorial and business/audience development sides alike. Nicco Mele, director of the Shorenstein Center, encouraged participants to imagine where future local leaders who can build a successful local news company will come from.

Other central questions that drove discussion focused on how newsroom leadership can leverage the idealism of millennials and those entering the workforce who seek more meaning, purpose, and impact in their work. In other words, how can the industry reframe journalism as a profession that is helping people? How can the industry emphasize its impact?

  • Chalkbeat focuses on recruiting people with applicable skill sets, but not necessarily direct experience in journalism. The important part is that people are compelled by the organization’s mission.
  • VTDigger strives to hire constantly, so that whenever the outlet finds candidates who are just as dedicated as current staff members, it’s ready to bring them on-board.
  • Old Town Media makes a practice of looking internally at current staff in an ongoing process to identify upcoming talent, in addition to maintaining contact with upcoming talent outside before there are even available openings for them.
  • One attendee called attention to Report for America, a public service oriented initiative of the nonprofit GroundTruth Project. This program helps crowdfund reporters for news organizations in local communities.
  • Several participants suggested that organizations look at the undergrad level for hiring, tapping into college newspaper alumni networks.

Opportunities and Challenges

While many existing university programs are worthwhile and excellent points of entry for aspiring journalists, participants offered some suggestions for programs that could help train the next generation of news business leaders:

  • MBA for media/journalism: Several attendees speculated about how to design an MBA for media and journalism specifically. Attendees mentioned how business programs that exist currently tend to focus on skills for maintaining big companies, rather than on how to turn around a struggling one.
  • Undergraduate training: Several participants brought up the need for more hybrid degrees at the undergrad level. Questions attendees posed included: what are the undergraduate degrees already available that set up journalists for business skills and success? How can undergraduate programs leverage the idealism of millennials and help them search for meaningful work? How can students who work on college newspapers be better funneled into journalism careers at the intersection of audience engagement?

Diversity — the recruitment gap

Recruitment and talent identification is affected by racial and class dynamics, and requires those in positions of power to devote the proper time and resources to recruiting and supporting people of color, those from low-income communities, and women.

Several attendees mentioned low salaries and wages as a major reason that people of color are prevented from entering the journalism field. And on the flip side, aspiring journalists whose parents are willing to subsidize their living costs can better afford to put in a few years at low newsroom wages in order to build a career in journalism. Both of those dynamics shape the pipeline of young talent into the field.

Yet other participants challenged their discussion tables to think of recruitment not just as offering higher salaries, but as an aggressive and continuous process of outreach. For example, newsroom leadership needs to go out of its way to encourage people from all backgrounds to apply for positions within a newsroom, rather than continuously reaching out to the same networks. And the process doesn’t stop there — companies and schools need to ensure that disadvantaged communities have the resources they need in order to learn, grow, and be promoted to positions of power.

Several attendees proposed the need for more informal and formal mentorship groups for people of color, women, and other underrepresented communities within newsrooms, and encouraged the idea of individuals creating their own cohorts and networks of support.

Some newsrooms are experimenting with holding their own introductory and continuing journalism education classes. These distributed, community-focused experiments could be another avenue for identifying, recruiting and training new journalists.

It should also be noted that we (the event organizers) received several pieces of feedback that the attendees for the May 18 event itself needed to have a wider range of voices, including stronger representation from people of color for future gatherings.

Culture change

One dynamic many attendees noted is a cultural barrier to integrating and retaining business talent into the newsroom. One obstacle could be the lack of prestige or recognition associated with business talent in media. As one group of attendees discussed, “There are lots of good awards for journalism, but not for business.” Where is the Pulitzer for business, they asked, and does the industry need one? How can the field recognize and reward talents outside of editorial?

Several attendees advocated for a shift in the way we think about development teams inside newsrooms. Rather than maintained as a separate entity, the business side should be viewed as a connected and integral part of the editorial mission.

This report continues with Part Five, “Building Products to Increase Revenue and Engagement.” You can find the executive summary here, and the full report is here.

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