Case Study

‘A networked approach to leadership and community:’ Lessons from News Catalyst as it sunsets

By Aron Pilhofer

December 13, 2023

As The Knight-Lenfest Local News Transformation Fund, a joint venture between the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and The Lenfest Institute for Journalism, enters its fifth and final year, we’re sharing insights, lessons, and best practices from our grantee-partners to better understand their impact and help shape the broader field. Sign up for The Lenfest Institute’s Solution Set newsletter to receive all the latest updates and posts sharing lessons from the Fund. 

In 2019, Heather Bryant, Tyler Fisher and I launched News Catalyst, a five-year project that provides tools, fosters collaboration, and promotes experimentation in service of building digitally sustainable local news organizations. With the project sunsetting in summer 2024, I can say we are proud of the work we’ve done and the impact we’ve had on the industry. 

We set out to focus on areas where news organizations have traditionally underinvested — areas like product development, data, analytics, digital storytelling, mobile, and engagement. Where there were gaps in capability, News Catalyst filled them by providing tools, technology, training, hands-on support, and expertise.

Among many other things, we’ve launched multiple training programs, helped organize a major conference, launched two technology products, collaborated with dozens of local newsrooms and incubated two new organizations: The News Product Alliance and The Tiny News Collective.

If News Catalyst’s role in all this comes as news to you, well, that isn’t a surprise to us at all. In fact, it was actually part of the plan all along. 

We decided early on that News Catalyst couldn’t have the impact we wanted it to have if we didn’t focus aggressively on collaboration – what Roxann Stafford, the founding managing director and our first partner at the Knight-Lenfest Local News Transformation Fund, dubbed a “networked” approach to leadership and community.

There was a very practical reason to take this approach: News Catalyst had neither the staff nor the resources to drive the change we wanted to see on our own and we wanted to make sure what we did had a lasting impact.

Far too much money has been wasted launching things that don’t have a clear audience and/or die on the vine when seed funding runs out or the lead partner steps away. Knowing News Catalyst would be a time-limited project, we wanted to avoid this at all costs.

Finding lead partners

We agreed as a team we would never launch a project without a lead partner willing to love and nurture that project as their own, which is trickier than it sounds. Partnerships often fail because there’s a lack of clarity around who is leading, who is supporting, and who is ultimately responsible in the long term.

We have been lucky to work with partners like Marie Gilot, executive director of CUNY’s J+ professional development program, who fully understood what we were trying to do and bought in. We worked with her to develop the first iteration of Product Immersion Training for Small Newsrooms with the understanding that we would step away at some point – and it worked.

We partnered with Marie and a cadre of brilliant product people to develop the curriculum. Together we successfully pitched Google News Initiative on the idea and landed the funding we needed. We even co-hosted the first training cohort at Temple University in 2020.

Four years later, the program continues better than ever. Hundreds of journalists from around the world now have been able to bring a product mindset to their news organizations as a direct result of the program. 

But other than a small logo at the bottom of the project landing page, you’ll see nary a mention of News Catalyst. This isn’t an oversight; it’s by design. We wanted to not just launch programs, but sustain them. And we did this by deliberately taking a back seat then stepping away when the time was right.

Avoiding “founders syndrome”

Another good case study is the News Product Alliance, which began with a series of direct messages among a few people over social media. That small group of founders was highly motivated, but were not the right people to launch an organization like NPA.

We could have simply plowed ahead anyway, and in some ways that would have been a simpler and faster path forward: launch something and hope people get on board later. But we decided instead to take a much slower, more deliberative, more democratic path instead.

We started with a small meeting of product thinkers at an airport hotel in Dallas in April 2019 just to see if we thought the idea of yet another membership organization made sense to people. It did, and we set as a goal to build an ever-larger group of product leaders who would, we hoped, embrace the News Product Alliance as their own.

We held our first public event in Philadelphia in February 2020, SRCCON:Product, as a way to test the idea and to rally support for a new organization dedicated to news product. The event sold out almost immediately, with a lengthy waitlist. We knew there was an audience.

But we needed to make sure the leaders of this new organization felt like founders, not passengers. We held a larger session after SRCCON:Product to start bringing more people into the fold.

The process was slow – sometimes frustratingly so. But over time, that group adopted the News Product Alliance and made it their own, and the organization is stronger for it. How do we know? None of the people involved in those initial conversations has any official leadership role with NPA today.

That may sound counterintuitive, but NPA avoided innumerable organizational minefields by taking the time needed to ensure its leadership and board felt like the organization was theirs. NPA avoided the pitfalls of “founders syndrome,” in other words, because the would-be founders left before it started.

I am proud to say that when we turn the lights out on News Catalyst at the end of June, every significant project we had a hand in starting will continue on without us.

Here are just a few examples of the legacy that News Catalyst has enabled:

  • Our technology projects – PressPass and Challenge Tracker – are now fully embedded with and embraced by our partners, Muckrock and the American Press Institute respectively. PressPass – now rebranded Muckrock Accounts – is a first step toward a sort of single-sign on platform for journalists. Challenge Tracker helps participants and coaches in API’s Table Stakes program better organize and track their work. 
  • The Tiny News Collective is now fully funded and a completely independent 501(c)3 nonprofit. The organization just announced the hiring of Amy L. Kovac-Ashley as its first full-time executive director, and it is well-positioned to grow and succeed having just landed a $2 million grant from the Knight Foundation.
  • The News Product Alliance is now home to thousands of news product thinkers around the world. The organization just received its 501(c)3 status, has stable funding, and is led by a brilliant, committed group of product thinkers.
  • The Product Immersion Training for Small Newsrooms program is a double win of sorts. As News Catalyst stepped away, a new partner stepped up – The News Product Alliance. That’s right, an organization we helped launch is now supporting a program we helped launch.
  • We are now seeing a kind of ripple effect. This year, CUNY and NPA collaborated to launch a new training program together – the first-of-its-kind Product Management Certificate Program. News Catalyst provided some seed funding, but the development and execution was entirely theirs.

The necessary “failures” that helped the industry 

Not every project we approached in this way succeeded. Along with our partners at the Local Media Consortium, we tried (and, sadly, failed) to launch The Matchup, a subscription sports news product designed to help local newsrooms compete with The Athletic. In the end, the project failed because it required buy-in from too many media companies to work.

We also set out to develop what Lenfest Institute Executive Director & CEO Jim Friedlich coined “Wirecutter for News” – a comprehensive catalog of digital news tools that could help local news organizations choose the right platform for their needs. We developed a proof of concept focused on content management systems with the Poynter Institute. But in the end we couldn’t find a partner willing to own the project long-term, or a way to sustain it.

In a different world, we might have simply launched The Matchup as a startup of sorts, hoping to cajole media organizations to play ball, as it were. Similarly, we might have launched Wirecutter for News anyway, despite having no partners or clear path to sustainability. We certainly wouldn’t have been the first.  

That we were allowed to say no to both projects – essentially, to fail – is a tribute to the amazing partners we have: Diana Lu at the Fund as well as The Lenfest Institute and Knight Foundation. Funders often talk about the need to take risks, but few actually embrace it. Being given flexibility to experiment, test, and do what is needed, not what simply sounds good, is what allowed us to move away from things that didn’t work and allowed us to direct resources to things that did.

To my mind, that’s the definition of catalytic funding, and why News Catalyst worked so well. That the projects, programs and organizations we helped launch are far better known, and have far eclipsed News Catalyst itself, is in our view the greatest indicator of success.

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