Getting outside the newsroom: How 12 news projects applied Lean Startup thinking to journalism

They arrived at News Foundry with passion and left with a team, a well-tested business model, a pitch deck, and a roadmap of where to go next

Sue Spolan
Dec 13, 2018 · 6 min read
The Deliverance Team at News Foundry

Journalism has splintered into a million pieces. News outlets aim to thrive in an era when civic communication is no longer the exclusive domain of newspapers, TV, radio and their digital counterparts. Nearly every sector of the audience for U.S. news media fell in 2017, according to the Pew Research Center for Media & Journalism.

News Foundry, a “Startup Weekend for local news & information projects,” was recently created to help uncover financially viable methods to deliver civic information. Co-organizer Phillip Smith convened 70 participants for the Foundry’s first weekend workshop at the Lenfest Institute for Journalism in Philadelphia. “The mandate is to start with a hypothesis and a back story,” said Smith. “What assumptions do they come in with, how can they test those assumptions, and how does that testing change their hypotheses?”

Smith said, “Traditional news organizations were, by design, focused on serving advertisers, not consumers. The consumers of the news, as it is with Facebook today, were a derivative asset that was sold to advertisers.”

Editorial as Business

News Foundry participants were encouraged to take a different path. They were directed to focus on the customer.

Burt Herman, Director of Innovation Projects at the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, served as one of 22 coaches and judges at News Foundry. “This is a good way to surface ideas without spending a lot of money at the outset,” said Herman. Newspapers, like the Lenfest-owned Philadelphia Media Network, which includes the Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News and philly.com, continue to make money. But Herman wonders, if legacy organizations stumble in weaning themselves from print, “What will eventually replace the Inquirer?”

What Matters in Media

Team Bloc by Block at News Foundry

On a chilly Friday evening in mid-November, the first task of News Foundry was to assemble teams. Participants traveled from across the United States and represented a wide range of ages and backgrounds, with an even mix of men and women. About two dozen people pitched ideas and startups in progress. Twelve pitches moved forward. Participants organized themselves into teams. Several themes emerged:

  • With the disappearance of local news sources and ad dollars going online, some teams addressed the problem of news deserts by creating digital versions that would cover local, county and regional community news. Examples include Deliverance, an effort to provide data-based journalism to rural communities, and Avocado Toast, created to replace coverage lost when the arts and culture section of a local newspaper disappears due to budget cuts.
  • Traditional media has made great strides when it comes to diversity, but it does not serve all audiences equally. Several teams’ missions aimed to reach underserved populations and topics that traditional media can’t or won’t. The Texas Latino Project seeks to repair the problem of negative representations of Latinos in the news; Spore envisions a mobile news team that visits areas lacking in coverage.
  • Display advertising is no longer a sure bet for turning a profit. What happens when you treat the journalism industry like the music industry, where event sales surpass content sales? Is it possible to make a profit on events associated with journalistic content? Collective.ly wants to help emerging local media outlets host experiential events that attract sponsorships and generate revenue. Print is Not Dead considers events a vital aspect of community building that supports publications.

Smith did not expect or encourage the creation of an end product during the weekend. Rather, he wanted participants to go through the process of de-risking new business ideas. “People get an idea, like doing a pop up newsroom in a news desert, and this process helps them to realize that there are risky assumptions they haven’t tested.”

Team Collectively at News Foundry Philadelphia

Identify, Validate, Pivot

Building on the format of tech-focused events, like Startup Weekend and Lean Startup Machine, News Foundry brings lessons from the Lean Startup movement, modeled on Steve Blank’s work, to journalism. Each team brainstormed a hypothesis for the problem; they identified assumptions and were asked to validate those assumptions by conducting interviews with potential customers. The underlying lesson is that faulty assumptions about who customers are, and what they want, can lead to business failure.

Some groups hit the streets to interview people. Others used social media polls and online interviews to gather feedback. Teams had to pivot in order to more closely align with what they discovered about their customers. By examining assumptions, teams refined and pivoted solutions toward actual customer pains, not assumed ones.

Team Spore hits the streets to talk to people about their information needs

Smith emphatically did not want participants to focus on revenue. His goal was to teach a lean entrepreneurial process. Before considering profit, Smith encouraged teams to be problem solvers.

The Result: Information Entrepreneurs

After the weekend ended, some of the plans continued to develop. Ruqaiyah Najjar is moving forward with her event collaboration concept Collective.ly, now Collectively.News. She’ll begin with healthcare or tech. “Even smaller spaces that have taken the leap to hosting events as a revenue stream could use a bit more editorial direction,” said Najjar, an editorial producer who came to the conference from Washington, DC. “Journalism as we know it, or knew it, is dying.” She considers the 2016 US election a turning point for the field.

Several team members say that they’ve maintained close contact with their peers following the weekend. Some are in the research phase; others have begun implementation. Journalist Bobbi Booker, a seventeen year veteran of The Philadelphia Tribune and weekend participant, said, “I’ve never been in a session that addressed journalism and business equally.” Booker, who went into News Foundry expecting a conversation about how to survive the changes in journalism, was delighted by the emphasis on entrepreneurial teamwork. “It was a true learning experience because I had to cooperate and achieve with a group I had not known prior to the event.” Booker worked on the startup Fight Like A Girl, created to serve news to female fight fans.

Coach Merrill Brown was the founding Editor in Chief of MSNBC.com and cofounder of the Online News Association in 1999. Brown’s latest effort is The News Project, designed to leverage tech to build robust media properties. Brown said, “If weekends like The News Foundry had taken place 20 years ago, we wouldn’t be where we are today.”

Curious to know more, check out the 3-minute video recap of the News Foundry workshop in Philadelphia below, or read these team profiles:

3-minute video recap of the News Foundry workshop in Philadelphia

Sue Spolan is a freelance writer and CEO of Cohegent LLC, a marketing consultancy. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn.

Sue’s work was generously supported by News Foundry’s “knowledge mobilizers” the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship at Stanford University and WordPress.com.

News Foundry was made possible through with support of the Facebook Journalism Project, Google News Initiative, Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corp., Journalism Entrepreneurship Training Co., and Lenfest Institute for Journalism.

News Foundry

Forging journalism businesses in the fires of coaching, mentorship, customer validation, and rapid iteration.

Sue Spolan

Written by

CEO Cohegent LLC

News Foundry

Forging journalism businesses in the fires of coaching, mentorship, customer validation, and rapid iteration.