Six growing pains every journalism pioneer will recognise

35 journalism innovators from 13 countries share their experiences

We know there are a lot of smart people doing a lot of exciting things across Europe, in newsrooms big and small, traditional and not so. We also know that the success of our Engaged Journalism Accelerator, which launches next week, depends on understanding their challenges.

For the last six months, Lucia Adams and I have been engaging the European Journalism Centre network asking hard questions. More importantly, we’ve been listening to the answers.

We heard from brand new entrants only one or two years into their existence, and maturing startups who’ve been around for five years or more. We talked to established newsrooms and innovative technology platforms, influencers and academics, non-profits and award administrators.

In total, 35 journalism pioneers from 13 countries generously shared their experiences, pain points, and ambitions for the future.

What emerged is instantly recognisable by anyone who has tried to do something different in journalism. And it has been essential in setting the agenda for how we are thinking about the core support the Engaged Journalism Accelerator needs to provide.

1. You don’t know what you don’t know

“From the point of view of a publisher, it’s really difficult to stay on top of everything that’s being published about engagement and innovation” — Accelerator interviewee

For publishers large and small, getting access to the right people and information at the right time makes the difference between just surviving and truly thriving. Fledgling projects need neonatal care. With this level of focus it is almost impossible not to be consumed by day-to-day survival. New input is hard to find.

For those who have found support, it is mostly self-driven and wide-ranging. They seek counsel from people with market knowledge, legal backgrounds and business acumen. Informal coaching relationships and isolated ‘learning groups’ featuring fellow practitioners have emerged as powerful ways to work through this challenge.

2. Relatable examples are scarce

“What if we could create this Confederation of European Cooperatives and get everyone to share learning so that people don’t have to reinvent the wheel?” — Accelerator interviewee

Again and again, pioneers told us that there aren’t enough relatable examples. Stories about other pioneers can inspire and help them develop practical solutions to tricky problems.

A startup in Slovakia can certainly admire the innovations produced by the likes of the New York Times or de Correspondent. However, they likely have neither the resources of the former, nor the accrued experience of the latter, to be able to reproduce the same effects. Pioneers are hungry to discover relatable stories so that they can be challenged and inspired as they pursue their own experimentation. Storytelling has the potential to ‘multiply’ innovation and help pioneers discover new ways of working.

3. Grants are not a silver bullet

“It’s about saying it’s fine if what you do fails” — Accelerator interviewee

The size of the grants that the Engaged Journalism Accelerator should offer is a big question for us. We learned that small grants can go a long way, just as long as there aren’t too many conditions attached to them. On the flipside, big grants seem attractive, but can trip up organisations.

Some pioneers said that the process of applying for grants can be off-putting. Their organisations are not equipped to jump through the administrative hoops of some application processes.

Most interviewees emphasised that hypothesis, testing, and learning is good discipline. However, we heard that being overly focussed on data and specific outcomes can limit tolerance of failure.

4. Not enough sustainability funding

“All the organisations that launched with only grant funding are either dead or dying — if you have everything you need, it puts you in a difficult situation; it’s not a good idea to support the projects that have no business model” — Accelerator interviewee

Growing pains are just as difficult as founding pains (maybe even more so). Pioneers told us that seed money will get them only so far. Making financial sustainability part of business discipline from very early on is key to long-term success.

It may be that a grant has enabled a new start-up to set up and have a two year runway. In some cases small teams driven by their passion are working around the clock just to keep the lights on, sometimes doing freelance work to pay the bills. But developing and refining a business model requires experimentation, a lot of time and possibly new expertise.

5. Time, skills and resource are finite

“Problem number one is that the team is made up of journalists. The groups that fail are those that are made up solely of reporters doing accountancy and human resources — the things they hate.” — Accelerator interviewee

Spinning up a new business or project from scratch in inclement political or financial conditions when your core skills are in journalism and not business administration makes for a very steep learning curve.

In the endeavour to ‘wear so many hats’, it is a stretch to be the best chief revenue officer, chief marketing officer, and chief technical officer. Finding time and ways to ‘skill up’ and learn these new things is usually at the bottom of the to do list.

6. Pivots are hard, but essential

“We thought we were in the news business, then the entertainment business, then tech, and then audience business. I think we’re in the community-building business.” — Accelerator interviewee

The vast majority of the pioneers we spoke with recognised the need to experiment with building out paths to sustainability. Almost all of them employed regular strategic reviews to assess and change their approach.

Most people we spoke to are pivoting towards towards some kind of journalism-as-a-service. The communities and revenue strategies differ, but the shift away from advertising is marked.

Six lessons, ten principles

Based on the patterns we observed in our interviewee’s answers, we developed the following guiding principles. This is how the Engaged Journalism Accelerator will provide most value to Europe’s community at large:

  1. Coach for success.
  2. Capture and share real case studies.
  3. Connect humans, help them tell stories.
  4. Support skills beyond journalism (business, legal, HR, product).
  5. Grant responsibly (not too big, not too small).
  6. Tie grants to sustainability and business innovation.
  7. Insist on great user experience for grantees (easy application, clear criteria).
  8. Support experimentation and tolerate failure.
  9. Invest in people over projects.
  10. Aid the development of diverse newsrooms and audiences.

These ten principles are guiding everything the Engaged Journalism Accelerator will become, from whom we fund, to how we provide support beyond the money.

In the run-up to the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, we’ll be publishing another post explaining how our research told us whom to fund and why.

Then, at the festival itself, we’ll be announcing our plans in full.


You can read more about how we designed our Accelerator here.

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