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.