Recently, a group of Knight Fellows visited the offices of Matter, a media-focused venture capital firm in San Francisco, just around the corner from the playground where Twitter was born.
It was an immersion in startup culture, which exhorts would-be entrepreneurs to â€œfocus on the user,â€ â€œfail fast,â€ and embrace the idea that â€œlife is a prototype.â€
Although we tend to think about these lessons in the context of iPhones and apps, they should resonate with alt-weeklies. When most alts were founded (20, 30, even 40 years ago), they were startups: lean, scrappy organizations designed to disrupt the status quo. What happened?
Eric Ries, author of the entrepreneurial bible The Lean Startup, defines a startup as â€œa human institution designed to create new products and services under conditions of extreme uncertainty.â€ What about that definition doesnâ€™t apply to the news industry in general, and to alt-weeklies in particular? Weâ€™re human institutions. Weâ€™re constantly creating new products and services, whether itâ€™s this weekâ€™s narrative feature or a new music festival. As for â€œconditions of extreme uncertainty,â€ itâ€™s difficult to imagine an industry thatâ€™s experienced (and continues to experience) as much disruption.
This definition is at the crux of any news organizationâ€™s battle for survival. I believe that publications that begin to think like startupsâ€”by eliminating their fear of small failures, embracing uncertainty as an opportunity for experimentation, and figuring out what their readers actually wantâ€”will have a better shot at success.
While my work as a Knight Fellow is far from complete, Iâ€™ll offer three quick (and by no means comprehensive) examples of companies that are adopting aspects of the startup mentality.
1. News & Review (alt-weeklies in Sacramento and Chico, Calif., and Reno, Nev.)
Iâ€™ve written before about N&Râ€™s two big (and decidedly non-digital) innovations: sponsored reporters and client publications. The sponsored-reporter idea arose out of a series one of the N&R papers did on poverty; after seeing the impact good journalism could have, a local food bank offered to pay for the paper to hire another reporterâ€”â€œno strings attached,â€ according to N&R president/CEO Jeff vonKaenel. But N&R is making more serious money on its client publications and has started building a separate editorial staff to produce them. Itâ€™s a good fit, vonKaenel says, because N&R can â€œuse our editorial skillsâ€”to take complicated issues and distill them and turn them into storiesâ€”to help organizations that have more depth than a regular advertiser.â€
2. Metro Newspapers (alt-weeklies in San Jose, Santa Cruz, and Santa Rosa, Calif.)
â€œEven if we have less revenue, weâ€™re more efficient [now],â€ Dan Pulcrano, the founder/CEO of Metro Newspapers, told me recently. â€œThe business is way more efficient, and thatâ€™s why weâ€™ve been able to deal with revenue declines and still put out a product every week.â€ Pulcrano, who talks about establishing a â€œculture of change,â€ has an advantage in that heâ€™s also the founder of Boulevards New Media, a network of city guides that together attract monthly unique visitors in the millions. But he still has to innovate on the Metro News side: with budding digital services for local advertisers; a new tech conference and music festival, C2SV; and keeping journalistic quality and brand integrity at the center of every new venture.
3. Berkeleyside.com (local news website for Berkeley, Calif.)
While not an alt-weekly, Berkeleyside is one example of a place alts might go for inspiration. According to co-founder Lance Knobel, local comes firstâ€”not only in Berkeleysideâ€™s journalism, but also in its digital advertising. (Check out the site and see if you can find any ads that arenâ€™t local.) Berkeleyside reps offer cross-platform (website, mobile app, email newsletter) advertising strategies and emphasize that Berkeleyside is as much a local business as their clientsâ€™ companies are. By selling â€œsponsorships,â€ or flat-rate digital ads, they avoid the eye-glazing discussions about CPM. (â€œTalking to [advertisers] about CPM is like speaking Arabic,â€ Knobel says.) Knobel also describes a low-cost membership strategy focused on â€œletting people payâ€â€”offering them an opportunity to feel like theyâ€™re fulfilling a civic dutyâ€”and Uncharted, an annual â€œideas festivalâ€ tailored to Berkeleyâ€™s intellectual, college-town identity.
Across the news business, thinking like a startup has yet to take hold. For obvious reasons, itâ€™s scary (or unacceptable) to â€œfail fastâ€ when youâ€™re fighting for your companyâ€™s very survival; finding time for experimentation and user testing feels impossible when youâ€™re on deadline.
But Iâ€™ve always believed that when it comes to innovation, alt-weeklies have enormous opportunity. Weâ€™re scrappier, and our staffs are usually young, diverse, and irascible enough to lead change in their respective markets.
Most importantly, though, we need to shift our thinking from conserving what we have to exploring new territory thatâ€™s up for grabs. We need to kill our fear of failure and start innovatingâ€”even in small ways, even if it doesnâ€™t work. As the inimitable Dan Gibson put it, â€œLetâ€™s try something; letâ€™s do something different. If we have an issue that sucks, next week we have another one!â€
Alexa Schirtzinger is a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University, where she is working on innovative business models for local journalism. Contact her at aschirtz[at]stanford.edu or follow her on Twitter.