What makes a great GNI Startups Lab boot camp application? Let’s dig in.

How you can increase your chances of getting accepted, and what we’re looking for in prospective candidates.

Phillip Smith
LION Publishers


Photo from News Foundry, November 2018. News Foundry was an in-person boot camp with similar aims.

Back in 2018, shortly after the first cohort of journalism entrepreneurship boot camp participants graduated, I reached out to many friends, advisors, and colleagues for input on how to grow the boot camp beyond the pilot phase.

One of the colleagues I reached out to was Josh Stearns at the Democracy Fund. He asked a deeply challenging question that I was not expecting, which was “How much are the people you choose actually the secret sauce [of the boot camp and its outcomes] versus the curriculum itself?”

I wasn’t expecting it because I’d had the same question of many journalism funders who often give out grants to the same people and projects year after year. I didn’t see how it was going to be possible to reinvent the media ecosystem if funders kept investing in the same “winners” and never made the necessary (and more challenging) effort to reach out to and engage new entrants. It’s a big part of what led me to launch the boot camp in the first place.

But had I fallen into the same trap? Had I just “picked winners” in the hopes of demonstrating that the boot camp curriculum was effective?

Thankfully, the answer was clear: I had received four times the number of applications for the number of spots that were available. And as I spent days reviewing them, looking through a variety of lenses, I honestly struggled to select just four projects. I knew almost nothing about the finalists when I invited them to join the boot camp — the application form was very short, and I relied almost entirely on their project idea, goals for the boot camp, their reporting examples, and a LinkedIn profile.

When I looked back across those first applications after receiving Josh’s question, I saw that there were definitely “stronger” applicants (in the sense of “picking winners”) than the ones who joined that first cohort: people who were already well underway with a project; projects with notable people on their team; individuals with more seniority, experience, and a huge network.

What I was looking for, however, was a cohort of people who would work well together. I chose projects that were at a similar stage of development and scope, and projects that were led by people who had a demonstrated ability to do reporting (because this is not part of the boot camp curriculum). I believe this idea of a “coherent cohort” is part of this boot camp’s secret sauce. The first cohort bonded early and demonstrated an incredible spirit of openness and cooperation, which I believe has been critical to their overall progress.

A similar cohort-centric lens will be applied this time, and — thanks to the tireless efforts of Anika Anand — we’ve added a greatly-refined rubric for assessing each application, as well as the addition of a judging team to provide additional perspectives. In the spirit of transparency, we’re sharing that rubric with you. We’re also happy to answer your questions about it during our upcoming info sessions on Aug. 5 and Aug. 13.

And, if you’ve already submitted an application and would like to update it, submit a new one and reach out to anika@lionpublishers.com who will delete your original.

If you’re ready to apply, you can do so here.

The Rubric

We’ll be evaluating your responses to the following questions in the application based on the following criteria:

Does it meet the basic requirements for eligibility as defined in our FAQ?
Before we apply any of the criteria below, we’ll confirm that the application meets the requirements for this program. Specifically:

  • That the project and the applicants are based in the U.S. or Canada
  • The project is focused on delivering local news or civic information, ideally from an under-represented perspective or to address an under-reported topic
  • The idea is for a reporting-based project focused on encouraging civic engagement, or focused on single-subject reporting that isn’t geographically bound
  • You have some journalism experience or a business background and passion for the community you want to serve

Eligible applications that meet the above requirements will then be evaluated by our review team as follows:

Is this a compelling idea? (Related application question: Briefly describe the solution.)

Put simply, does the idea have the potential to grip its audience in some powerful way? Is there a seed of something really special described here? There’s a whole boot camp module on improving the “pitch” for your idea, so we don’t expect it to be perfect at this stage — but when you describe your solution, we are looking for signs of it being a diamond in the rough.

Is there an audience(s) for this? What’s the potential impact you can have for them? (Related application question: Briefly describe the customer need.)

It is often stated in the startup community that the most common failure of new projects is that they’ve developed something that nobody wants. You may love writing about the finer details of overpriced, artisanal avocado toast, but if there is not a large group of people who are interested in reading (or listening to, or watching) something on that topic, it’s probably more of a hobby than potential for a financially-viable for-profit or nonprofit business. (That said, avocado toast, sadly, would probably have a big audience, sigh.)

So, what we’re looking for here is how you’ve demonstrated that there are people who want this information, or who need this information. And what possible impact that reporting might have on their lives.

If there isn’t currently a minimal version of this idea developed, is it realistic that it will be created by the end of this boot camp? (Related application question: Goals coming out of this program.)

Let’s be honest, this is an eight-week professional development experience and it’s only going to take each project so far. So with this question we’re asking ourselves, does the vision described for your personal objectives line-up with a typical range of what’s possible to achieve in two months?

We do expect you to be able to launch a minimum viable product by the end of this boot camp. That means, you should be able to put some very early version of your product in front of potential customers and get some feedback on it. Show us in your application that it is feasible for you to do this — even if it’s just an early version of your idea. For example, one day you may want to have a website for your publication, but you could start with a newsletter first because it’s much simpler to launch. Or maybe you want to have a podcast that publishes daily, but you might start with just one episode and a landing page that describes your concept.

How well does the person/team’s skills and background line up with their vision? (Related application question: You or you and your teammate’s bio/experience.)

This is a tough one because — as described in the preamble above — we’re not trying to “pick winners.” We’re looking for people with the potential to be leaders in their field or coverage area. That said, we’ll be looking for signs that you’ve got at least some experience that relates directly to the project idea. What we’d like to understand is your “founder’s story,” what is the connection between your life experience and solving the problem you’ve described?

Does this person/team/project have an unfair advantage? Or the potential to develop one? (Related application question: You or you and your teammate’s bio/experience.)

Founders often don’t have an unfair advantage on day one — so don’t sweat this too much. But what we’re looking for here — building on the prior question — is: Do you have a connection to the topic, place, or community that you’re going to cover that’s unique and defensible? Are you a long-time community member? Did you grow up in this place? Is the topic something you have unique insight into because of some special life circumstance? These are all potential unfair advantages.

Is there something novel or unique about this approach? Does it have the potential to change the status quo?

Here we’re looking at the application in its entirety. We are not looking for innovation for innovation’s sake, but instead keeping an eye out for a unique perspective that you or you and your team members have. There’s an often-cited quote in the startup community: “Tell me something that’s true that very few people agree with you on.” If you can do that, we are curious to hear that perspective.

If you’re ready to apply, you can do so here.

Phillip Smith is the director of the Journalism Entrepreneurship Boot Camp.
Anika Anand is the Programming Director for Local Independent Online News (LION) Publishers.



Phillip Smith
LION Publishers

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