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A journalism innovation and entrepreneurship reading list

A colleague recently asked me a seemingly simple question: Would you mind sharing a recent reading list related to journalism innovation and entrepreneurship?


“This should be easy!,” I thought, given that I’ve spent the last nine months at one epicentre of journalism innovation and entrepreneurship. Even more so because I’ve been focused on the very question of how might we kickstart the journalism ecosystem of tomorrow and what might be effective ways to inspire and support reporters to start a media business of their own.

But it was not easy because I know viscerally that a good reading list is as much about what’s left out as what’s included. So I set forth to make a list — a brutally short list — that surfaces the resources that have left a mark on my thinking this past year, or that had informed my thinking coming into this year.

These are the dozen readings I believe are critical for those thinking about the ways in which journalism will be impacted by entrepreneurship and business-model innovation in the coming years. Please improve upon this list by sharing your own personal favourites in the comments.

Looking to the future

Having recently had the opportunity to get some hands-on experience with scenario planning, under the expert guidance of Lawrence Wilkinson, I found myself circling back to this resource from a few years ago with a new appreciation for the insights it held then and still holds today: The journalistic landscape in 2025 — four different scenarios. I’ve used these four plausible futures to think far ahead and to look for signals of which direction we’re heading given the events of the world today.

Digging into the research

I’ve read a lot of academic papers this past year (one of the many benefits of having Stanford library access), as well as industry research, and found myself returning to a few papers again and again.

The first, by the venerable Nikki Usher, is Venture-backed News Startups and the Field of Journalism. Usher looks at dozens of venture-backed news startups from the U.S. and Europe, surfaces some useful patterns, and confirms that these organizations have intentions to disrupt the status quo.

I also found myself returning to Lara Setrakian’s work on the Single-Subject News Model. Setrakian’s got a vested interest and investment in the field, as the founder of single-subject news site News Deeply, and yet the research looks beyond her own work and explores tough questions about engagement and revenue.

A paper that is so detailed that I needed to read it twice was Paths to Subscription: Why Recent Subscribers Chose to Pay for News, by the Media Insight Project. The work surveys readers of 90 different newspapers in the U.S. and details reader’s confessions about what makes them likely to subscribe. Spoiler alert: It’s the coupons! Jokes aside, there are many important findings here for any subscription-based news offering.

Last but not least is CJR’s must-read guide to audience revenue and engagement by Elizabeth Hansen and Emily Goligoski. It’s self explanatory.

Chasing the innovators

Though the focus of my work is currently on Canada and the U.S., I’m always looking abroad for examples of innovation that can be imported back into these contexts. This year was a windfall of examples, thanks to two fantastically-detailed reports on journalism innovation happening just to the south.

Lunch with the Sembra Media founders in Austin, Texas.

The first study of Latin American digital media entrepreneurs was brought to my attention by Janine Warner at Sembra Media just ahead of the ISOJ conference.

I was barely finished Sembra’s report when the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas released their report on Innovators in Latin American Journalism. Between these two reports, there are loads of examples of novel approaches to building desirable and viable media enterprises with insights that could apply elsewhere in the world.

Longer reads

There were about a half-dozen books that I read leading up to this fellowship, but the two that really helped me frame my thinking in terms of the historical and economic realities of journalism in the U.S. were Democracy’s Detectives: The Economics of Investigative Journalism by James Hamilton (who I have the pleasure of running into regularly on campus) and The Elements of Journalism, Revised and Updated 3rd Edition: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect by Bill Kovach.

Once I was underway and thinking about the challenge of “inspiring and supporting reporter-entrepreneurs,” I received a helpful note from Mark Briggs pointing me to his book Entrepreneurial Journalism: How to Build What’s Next for News. This quickly became one of my go-to resources to validate my thinking as I undertook countless interviews with reporters who’d started a media business. More recently, I was pointed to an open-source textbook curated by Michelle Ferrier & Elizabeth Mays in 2017, Media Innovation and Entrepreneurship — in Michelle’s words it’s “a structured textbook that goes from ideation to global initiatives in 15 week” — and I’ve just started digging in.

They just keep on giving

Last but not least are the countless initiatives that just keep on publishing great information on journalism innovation and entrepreneurship. In a typical week, I read just about everything from The Better News Project, including their guides, as well as the Membership Puzzle Project (don’t miss their report on the must read literature on membership in news).

Hopefully that’s a helpful start. I invite you to improve upon this list by sharing your own personal favourites in the comments, or by dropping me a note in one of the usual place.

As part of this JSK Fellowship, I’m working to improve the amount of “thinking out loud” that I do. This post is part of that effort and it works like this: I throw out some roughly formulated ideas that I’ve been considering, and you provide me with input to make them better. In the process, we’ll learn from each other, and you will be the first to try the resulting output: a product, an event, a course, etc. If that sounds good, you should consider following me to receive updates.

Originally published at on May 15, 2018.



Phillip Smith
JSK Class of 2018

👉 My passion is helping: 💰 Newsrooms make more money; 📈 News startups grow their audience; 🔥 Journalists succeed as entrepreneurs. Let’s talk 📩