Open Matter Phase I: Complete

Reflections on an experiment to support local news innovation

At CUNY: the first of four class photos.

To say this year started with a bang for Matter is an understatement. Just two days into the New Year, I learned that:

  1. We were moving ahead with our local news innovation bootcamps with the support of Google News Initiative.
  2. I was in charge!

It was a shot of adrenaline that launched us into rapid action. Over the next month, we finalized plans with Google, enrolled News Media Alliance as our industry partner, and secured the support of our incredible university partners at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, UC Berkeley Advanced Media Institute, the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute at the Missouri School of Journalism, and the James M. Cox Jr. Institute for Journalism Innovation, Management & Leadership at the University of Georgia’s Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.

The Berkeley scramble for prototyping supplies.

We then dove into our curriculum, adapting, tweaking, and changing elements we’ve put into practice with our entrepreneurs and publishing partners over the years to make sure we were providing concentrated, standalone experience that participants could take home and put into action. Across two and a half days, news organizations would be mixed together, then build new startups from scratch, culminating with a pitch session, before rejoining their colleagues to begin applying the methodology to their everyday work and news innovation projects.

We built an application process, posted announcements detailing the opportunity, and had one last phone call with the principal partners. We dreamt up ways this program could impact for-profit newsroom across the country and decided to call it Open Matter. And then, we pressed go and waited.

Building in Georgia

Having run similar application processes for our startup accelerator, I can say that one of the great sources of joy in evaluating applicants is getting to be blown away by an out-of-the-blue team that you could have only hoped would throw their hats into the ring.

And, I can tell you, having wrapped up this first phase of Open Matter a few weeks ago, we got blown away again and again. Whether it was the crew in New York, Mizzou, Georgia, or California, the 23 teams (assembled from more than 44 newsrooms and comprising 133 incredible people) we hosted for Open Matter represent a vital cross-section of the local news fabric. Each team was unique but had shared challenges that brought them to Open Matter: Declining print circulation, aging readership, the challenges of distribution in a post-app world, how to motivate readers into becoming true members. They were inspired to put in the work, to get uncomfortable, try new things, and then be ready to put what they learned into immediate action, before they even left bootcamp.

Camaraderie in Missouri

At each of the bootcamps I helped lead I felt a tremendous sense of satisfaction, as the talent, energy, and enthusiasm of the people fighting for the future of local news manifested at four great journalism schools. But my satisfaction, nor Matter’s, isn’t terribly important. What counts is what the people we designed for thought about the experience, and what they’re doing with what they learned.

And the data is clear — across all four Open Matter bootcamps, participants were very satisfied indeed.

— Overall satisfaction: 4.33/5 average
 — This will have a positive impact on my work: 4.35/5
 — Likelihood to recommend to a peer: 4.45/5

Coming to Open Matter for a full three days, usually in another city or state, is a tremendous commitment for any local news organization in the current era. We really, really didn’t want to let them down, and the numbers suggest we largely succeeded.

As for what they will do, well, that’s still somewhat to be foretold. I’ve been checking in with teams and gathering stories, and I will be sharing some impact in this very publication before long. I can tease that a few teams have embraced the Open Matter material to a degree and depth I could not have guessed in advance. But that’s a story for another time.

As for Open Matter’s future, all I can say is that this wave was meant to start a lot more experiments in the future of news. It wasn’t meant to be the full set we ever work on. This is the end of chapter one. There’s much more to be written and done. Stay tuned… or give us a call if you want to collaborate on something similar!