With the rise of the internet and the decline of print revenue, the media industry has been shaken. The rise of the internet has allowed for many journalistic startups, including many online independents, such as Talking Points Memo, The Huffington Post (before it was sold to AOL), and Voice of San Diego, to name a few. Jeff Jarvis, one of the leading voices for innovation in journalism, put together a list of entrepreneurial lessons to consider when pitching an idea for a startup.
First, Jarvis described the need to be short and clear in elevator pitches. “If you can’t describe what you’re doing – to customers as well as investors – in 17 words, then you’ll probably trying to do too much,” he writes. I find 17 words to be a very precise number but a good indicator of how short Jarvis believes elevator pitches should be. It is often tempting for startups to try to do too much, and the startups with a more specific mission and vision are usually more successful. Being able to concisely explain the mission is essential in a startup, as well as understanding the competition the site would face.
Many of Jarvis’ lists of entrepreneurial lessons do not relate to content, however. Jarvis describes the need to formulate marketing plans to raise awareness of the websites they were planning on launching. Jarvis also described how he taught a lot about advertising and selling ads. He wrote, “I’m glad I spent a lot of time on advertising, getting down to the details of CPM, CPC, CPA, RPM, and all that. It was foreign to all the students — as it is to many or most journalists — but as they well understood, this is how they’re going to eat.” These entrepreneurial lessons about ad sales is something I have not yet learned in any of my classes, co-curricular work or internship experiences. I hope to learn more about ad sales before I graduate in case I find myself in the situation where I am pitching a journalism startup.
I found Jarvis’ list of entrepreneurial lessons to be very interesting, as well as eye-opening. Although I feel very comfortable with the content side of journalism entrepreneurship, I feel like I have a lot to learn about advertising and marketing before I were able to launch a journalism startup.
Breitbart, the controversial conservative website we discussed last week, has been in the news again this campaign season. The site has been criticized for its favorable coverage of presidential contender Donald J. Trump. More news worthy, however, is a controversy that has arisen after Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields was manhandled by Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. The Trump campaign originally denied that any altercation happened, and Breitbart published a story that supported Trump and threw their own reporter Fields under the bus.
According to Fields’ personal account, Trump was taking questions from a row of reporters and she asked him a question. Then, as she writes, “before he could answer I was jolted backwards. Someone had grabbed me tightly by the arm and yanked me down. I almost fell to the ground, but was able to maintain my balance. Nonetheless, I was shaken.” Fields was then told by Washington Post reporter Ben Terris that is was Lewandowski who had grabbed her. After Trump and Lewandowski denied that anything had happened, Fields tweeted a photo of bruises on her arm. She then sought charges against Lewandowski, who was charged for simple battery by the Jupiter, Florida Police Department. Although the charges were recently dropped by Palm Beach County Florida State Attorney, David Aronberg, video was released which showed Lewandowski grabbing her arm and pulling her away.
Breitbart responded to this incident by publishing a story contradicting the story of their own reporter. In the story, Breitbart reporter Joel Pollack wrote that new video showed “the Washington Post’s account of an altercation involving Breitbart News reporter Michelle Fields could not possibly have happened as Ben Terris reported”. After this article was published, Fields and Breitbart editor Ben Shapiro resigned, shortly followed by two other members of Breitbart’s editorial staff. Jordan Schachtel, the site’s national security correspondent, was one of the staffers who resigned. In a statement, he wrote “Breitbart News is no longer a journalistic enterprise, but instead, in my opinion, something resembling an unaffiliated media Super PAC for the Trump campaign. I signed my contract to work as a journalist, not as a member of the Donald J. Trump for President media network.”
This Breitbart controversy shows a possible downside of some independents: that they can be extremely partisan and favor certain politicians in their coverage to extreme extents.
During the 2008 election, independent Huffington Post citizen journalist Mayhill Fowler made national news through breaking the news of controversial comments by then-Senator Barack Obama and former president Bill Clinton. Fowler was at a private fundraiser for Obama when Obama commented that the job loses that plague small-town Americans have made them “bitter” and led them to “cling to guns or religion”, one of Obama’s biggest gaffes of the campaign. Fowler caught Clinton calling Vanity Fair writer Tom Purdum “sleazy”, “dishonest”, “slimy” and a “scumbag”.
Fowler was part of the Huffington Post’s “Off the Bus” initiative, which aimed to offer citizen journalists the chance to write about candidates and their campaigns. Her reporting of Obama’s “bitter” comments was at an event that was closed to mainstream journalists, and Clinton’s comments were captured when Fowler asked him to react to the “hatchet job” story published about him in Vanity Fair. “Of course he had no idea I was a journalist,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “He just thought we were all average, ordinary Americans who had come to see him. And, of course, in one sense, that is what I am.” She was criticized by Salon staff writer Alex Koppelman for crossing lines by not identifying herself as a reporter.
Despite the fame of a couple of her stories from the election, Fowler is no longer nearly as influential as she was once. A 2010 review of her e-book in the Los Angeles Times described her as the “most famous citizen journalist in the world” but noted after her notoriety she had had a “rough ride”. The review notes, “Her former editors, after the campaign ended, unfriended her on Facebook and moved on. Nobody is much interested now in paying her to pursue her new craft.”
In 2010, Fowler stopped writing for the Huffington Post. In a post on her personal blog, Fowler wrote, “I want to paid for my time and effort – or at a minimum, to get a little remuneration in return for the money I spend myself in order to do original reportage.” She went on to write that she believed her work was as good as the work HuffPost’s paid reporters were producing and more influential. Fowler, now in her late 60s, is “semi-retired”, continuing to write occasionally on her personal blog. Fowler is an interesting example of an independent journalist who gained notoriety on the campaign trail.
Brandon Smith, a young independent journalist in Chicago who was widely praised for his work uncovering the police video of the Laquan McDonald shooting, visited Ithaca College to accept an Izzy award last week. Smith also visited our independent media class on Thursday to discuss his work and his life as a young independent journalist.
Smith is most well known for suing the city of Chicago after the city denied his request to obtain the video of the murder of Laquan McDonald. Smith’s efforts helped lead to the arrest of a police officer and a Justice Department investigation of the city. The city fought to keep the video undercover, and it did long enough to ensure mayor Rahm Emanuel’s re-election. Glenn Greenwald, perhaps the most well-known independent journalist of his generation, wrote that Smith “just broke one of the biggest and most important police brutality stories of the decade through intrepid determination and an adversarial posture to those in power.”
While the mainstream outlets in Chicago had accepted the rejection of a FOIA, Smith fought to get the video released. In an interview with Greenwald, Smith described that the other media in the city were too cozy with the police department and other official sources. “I do agree with a lot of people who say that they, these other media outlets failed in their watchdog job,” he said. “But it’s not so much like a really obvious failure it’s more of like, just a general trusting on their part of government and process.” When the other outlets were told releasing the video would impact the investigation they accept it; Smith admirably fought on.
At Ithaca College, Smith spoke about the struggles of being an independent journalist. He left his job as a reporter at a small daily in Ohio to strike it out on his own. Smith spoke a lot about the advantages and disadvantages of being an independent. For Smith, the advantages are centered around the freedom from strict oversight and corporate influence and the disadvantages were mainly financial. Smith joked about his family wanting him to get a “real job” sometimes, but said the freedom he receives as an independent to cover the stories he finds important is worth the financial instability. Smith is an inspiring independent journalist and I am happy we got the opportunity to meet him and talk to him.
In a talk at Ithaca College in 2008, Talking Points Memo founder Josh Marshall described the growth of Talking Points Memo and the importance of independent media. The year he gave the talk, Marshall had won the Polk Award for his 2007 investigation of politically-motivated firings of U.S. Attorneys by the White House that led to the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Marshall was at the college for the 2008 Park Center for Independent Media Symposium.
Marshall described the importance of an active readership for independent media. When he asked his readers to help him fundraise for a trip to cover the New Hampshire primary, Marshall raised between $6,000 and $7,000 in less than 24 hours, which he said “was a very very big deal” due to the state of his finances at the time. Marshall said the blog evolved into a hybrid between traditional journalism and collaborative journalism featuring help from readers. Marshall described how he used readers to find what individual members of Congress were saying in town hall meetings. This allowed him “to follow the debate at the ground level in a way that traditional journalists weren’t able to do.”
Readers also played a major role in TPM’s investigation about the firings of U.S. attorneys across the country. Marshall had readers send in information about fired U.S. attorneys that was reported locally. Marshall said the “very deep level of skepticism we had about the people we were covering, and the neat advantages of our relationship with our readers” were essential in the uncovering of that story.
Today, eight years later, it is still clear Talking Points Memo has a strong relationship with its readers. Directly under the banner of “TPM” on the website, there is a link to an email address where readers can submit comments and news tips. Although the site has grown into an operation that employs more than a dozen editorial staff members, it is clear TPM remains a site with a close connection to its readers.
In 1999, the Hartford Courant announced they were purchasing five weeklies in Connecticut, New York and Massachusetts. At the time, Mike Allen wrote a story in the New York Times that detailed the purchase. The Courant was aiming to increase its youth audience, purchasing the five papers that reached a combined circulation of 270,000. Although the publisher of the Courant said at the time the publications would remain separate, readers were concerned about the Advocate’s future. Alyssa S. Peterson, the owner of web design firm, was quoted in the article saying, “This is big brother taking over. The Advocate is everything The Courant isn’t. Where do we go now?”
The five papers purchased were the Hartford Advocate, New Haven Advocate, Fairfield County Weekly, The Valley Advocate and the Westchester County Weekly. Today, only The Valley Advocate still exists. The Westchester County Weekly folded into the Fairfield County Weekly in 2001. In 2013, the Hartford Advocate, New Haven Advocate and Fairfield County Weekly merged into a single publication: CTNow.
This was hailed by the Courant as a “strategic realignment of our suite of entertainment products”. This statement shows a sad truth about the devolution of the once journalistically-strong alt-weeklies. The 1999 story in the Times about the takeover of the alt-weeklies noted the “tough political coverage, including unflattering recent cover articles on major figures in both major political parties, and persistently critical takes on the state’s deal to bring the New England Patriots to Hartford. The environment and campaign finance also get heavy coverage.” CTNow, on the other hand, is solely an entertainment publication.
However, it is not all bad news for the independents. The Valley Advocate is still going strong, over forty years after it was founded. According to the Valley Advocate’s website, the paper “invests time developing stories about people, places and topics that the mainstream media doesn’t have the time or, in some instances, the desire to pursue.” As I wrote in February, a couple of independents have arisen to in Hartford to cover the state capitol, and The New Haven Independent was founded by a former New Haven Advocate reporter dedicated to continuing independent journalism in New Haven. Although the alternative weeklies have disappeared from the state, new independents have risen to fill the gaps.
The Nation, one of the oldest, most prominent progressive magazines in the country, is facing the problems that are facing other legacy media: the struggle to change their focus to online-first as print struggles industry-wide. The oldest weekly magazine still in existence, The Nation launched a beautiful new redesign of their website in July 2015 to celebrate their 150th anniversary. In a press release from the magazine, editor and publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel is quoted as saying, “While I am delighted to honor the magazine’s illustrious history, these times demand that The Nation be ever bolder, willing to unshackle our imaginations and ready to think anew,” she said. “The site redesign is elegant, nimble and innovative, and I believe it will ensure that The Nation is more vital than ever for the next generation of readers.”
The press release offers some interesting information about The Nation’s online audiences and strategies. According to the release, TheNation.com’s audience has grown “exponentially year over year, with traffic driven by a vibrant social media presence and accessed across numerous platforms- nearly half of its readers come from mobile.” The Nation now reaches nearly 3 million unique readers a month, which is more than four times the amount TheNation.com had reached a few years ago (the release is not specific about this time frame). The most interesting thing I discovered about TheNation.com was that the largest online demographic reached is millennials, people aged 25 to 34. Ten percent of TheNation.com’s readership is under 24 years old, another impressive feat.
An Editor’s note from Richard Kim adds additional information about The Nation’s online strategy. Kim writes The Nation publishes about 70 articles online each week, which go out to 420,000 Twitter followers, 290,000 Facebook fans and 200,000 email subscribers. “It’s become an industry cliché to lament how the Internet rewards content mills that churn out the equivalent of digital fast food,” Kim said. “But here at The Nation, the exact opposite has proved true: The more we learn about our readers, the more inspired we are to create great journalism for them.” Kim wrote that the most-read articles online at The Nation were reports on the crisis in Ukraine, Israel’s siege of Gaza, online feminism, police brutality and the effects of lobbyists on American politics. The Nation shows that it is possible for legacy independent media to be successful online.