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Inevitably, the future of viable news startups will involve lots of sticky notes.

News Foundry aims to address news deserts by forging new journalism businesses

Over 54 exciting and inspiring hours, News Foundry will bring together 100 people who want to launch reporting or information businesses for local communities.

Phillip Smith
Sep 7, 2018 · 7 min read

It’s funny how these things start. Back in May — on May 1st to be exact — I got into one of those Twitter back-and-forths with someone that I didn’t yet know very well but whom I didn’t want to piss off right away. Twitter is a tricky medium like that — all text and no emotion (but lots and lots of emojis).

That specific day I was on rant about how entrepreneurial and startup culture — cultures that I’m obsessed with applying to the field of journalism — can, at times, be pretty darn uninviting to women and people of color. Some have said the same about the field of journalism itself, and some have gone further to propose that it might be that very specific hard truth that has increased the trust divide between traditional media and the communities they report on.

When I dwell on the above, here’s the thing that really keeps me awake at night: Access to financial capital, coaching, and mentorship is not evenly divided in the U.S. and Canada (and probably everywhere else). Sure, this is a big problem in and of itself. And yet, it’s also a big problem for me personally.

It’s a big hairy problem because this big idea I’m in love with — that digital upstarts are going to make a dent in the information shortfall ahead — is going to fail because the media ecosystem of tomorrow is going to look exactly like the one we have today. The same one that isn’t working for a lot of people.

So there I was on Twitter, debating this nuanced topic with a person I hardly knew, trying to be firm yet polite, trying to get some of these ideas across, and then an unexpected thing happened…

That person said, “Let’s try to solve this. I’m in. Let’s make it happen.” And, you know, it was like a gauntlet being thrown down. Without thinking, I said, “Deal. Let’s do it.”

The result, after months of planning is News Foundry, which we just announced this week.

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News Foundry is new three-day workshop series that provides people who care about the role that journalism plays in our countries the skills to start building a viable news and information business. And this first event — happening in Philadelphia, November 16–18, 2018 — is going to focus on local news and information businesses. Mark your calendars.

With News Foundry, our commitment to you is simple: Arrive with passion and leave with a well-tested business model, a pitch deck, and the roadmap of where to go next to launch a new local journalism initiative.

If you’re ready to take up that challenge, all you have to do next is submit a quick request to attend.

You may be asking yourself, Who’s behind this thing? Who’s going to deliver on that commitment? Well, I’m glad you asked because I believe we’ve got a heck of an all-star team.

Your hosts for the weekend will be Julie Makinen, a veteran writer, editor, innovator and foreign correspondent for publications including the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post and International New York Times; Burt Herman, Director of Innovation Projects at Lenfest Institute for Journalism; Jeff Brown, Founder and Executive Director of The Fourth Estate and Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Florida International University; and yours truly — the founder of Journalism Entrepreneurship Boot Camp.

But, as the event hosts, we’ll be working mostly behind the scenes. The real magic is going to come from three places:

Just the start of an incredible team of coaches and our pitch feedback panel.

First, the exceptional coaching team that is going to support you through this process. We’ve already twisted the arms of some of the hardest working people in the field of local news and sustainable journalism, including friends from Broke in Philly, Hearken, GroundSource, The Lenfest Institute, Pico, Spirited Media, Technical.ly Philly, The News Project, and WordPress.com. You can see our progress on pulling the coaching team together, as well as their bios, on the News Foundry website. (And, if you’re interested in coaching, please reach out.)

Second is the enlightened organizations that have made it financially possible for us to bring this event to life: the Facebook Journalism Project, Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corporation, Google News Initiative, John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships, Journalism Entrepreneurship Training, Lenfest Institute, and WordPress.com.

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The third, and most important, part of the making this a success, is you. (Sappy, perhaps, but also very true.)

We’re looking for participants from a wide range of backgrounds — editorial, reporting, product development, business, design — people with passion and an understanding of the impact that local information can have on people’s lives. People who feel rooted in a community, and who want to build something with that community.

If that’s you, tell us about what makes you tick and how we can help you grow your ideas to the next level.

The next question you might be asking is, How’s this going to work? Like, specifically? Well, I’m glad you asked too.

Effective teamwork, as well as business model validation, through customer interviews and small experiments that can be done in a weekend

There’s this idea in the startup movement called the “High-Level Concept.” It’s your “Like X for Y” sound bite that helps the person you’re talking with get the core of the idea immediately. For News Foundry, our high-level concept started out as “Like Startup Weekend or Lean Startup Machine, but for journalism startups.”

You may not have heard of either of these events, but the idea is pretty simple (and also well tested): Drawing lessons from the Lean Startup movement, the event aims to teach effective teamwork, as well as business model validation, through customer interviews and small experiments that can be done in a weekend.

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Will local news be delivered on drones?

The weekend will start with a party. But not just any party, it’ll be a “demo party” where you’ll learn more about tools that can help connect your reporting to your community. We’ll then get into ideation and team-formation exercises. The weekend will culminate with a lively pitch competition (though it won’t be competitive). In between those two moments, each team will receive generous amounts of guidance and coaching from newsroom leaders, editorial innovators, and the forward-thinking investors who have been part of creating viable journalism businesses.

Most importantly, you and your team will get outside of the building — into the streets of Philadelphia — and talk to real people about their news and information needs. And we’ll be there with you every step of the way. All you have to do is let us know that you’re ready to take the leap.

Getting outside of the building can be scary as hell. And yet all of us have done it and believe that it’s a critical part of getting this right; a critical part of building news businesses that will last for the next decade or more.

But you know what’s even scarier than getting outside the building and talking to potential customers? The idea that “news deserts” are growing across the continent and that there are whole communities that don’t have a local news source to turn to for reliable information. Or that there are whole communities that don’t see their stories or perspectives represented in the news sources that are available. That keeps me up at night too.

It’s been said that there are only two things that lead to great change in life: inspiration and desperation. And that’s the really amazing thing about the team putting News Foundry together — we all prefer the story of inspiration over desperation. Thankfully, there’s a lot of positive to this story!

For example, the business of local journalism is ripe for reinvention. It has never been easier to start a business: the costs to publish and promote content have dropped to the point of being in reach of many people. The stories of successful digital upstarts are everywhere around us. Audiences are looking for new voices to trust.

The time for disruption is now. Local news and information is desperately needed. This is a market opportunity for the wildly aspirational journalism entrepreneurs who are willing to take a shot at displacing the incumbents.

Are you ready to be a part of the movement?

News Foundry, November 16–18, 2018, Philadelphia, PA.


See you there,
Phillip & The News Foundry Team

News Foundry

Forging journalism businesses in the fires of coaching…

Phillip Smith

Written by

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

News Foundry

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

Phillip Smith

Written by

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

News Foundry

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

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