Why Entrepreneurial Publishing is Catching Fire in Local Digital

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money tunnelRandy L. Bennett, who is the first director of entrepreneurism and partnerships at the University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communications, has 35 years’ experience in digital media. That “35 years” is no misprint. In addition to focusing on digital media at the Newspaper Association of America in his 22-year career there, Bennett was one of the original 30 employees at pre-Web Aol. Earlier at Knight Ridder, he was part of the team that worked on the pre-Web interactive-media initiative called Viewtron, the first graphics-based digital service in the U.S.

Traditional journalistic publishing models are collapsing right before our eyes as entrepreneurs — often with no standard journalistic background — are starting highly innovative and financially promising community news websites in many metro markets. In this Q & A, Bennett explains how and why this new model of publishing is catching fire and starting to replace the old models exemplified by the corporate businesses of “legacy” newspapers and broadcasters, and how the theory and practice of entrepreneurial publishing is being integrated into the curriculum of  j-school.

We’re seeing more successful entrepreneurial publisher-editors in local digital news, and many of them don’t have a standard journalistic background, like having been a reporter or editor at a newspaper and gone to j-school. Does this say something about the traditional journalistic model in the digital age?
There are also a number of executives at local digital news startups who do have a more traditional background. The notion of media entrepreneurship – as we think about it today – is relatively new, born, in large part, from the collapse of the traditional media business model. Digital platforms have been around for almost two decades, but it is just in the past several years that we are seeing local digital media startups emerge. New tools and platforms and lower barriers to entry have opened the door for increased experimentation and new approaches that can sit alongside traditional journalism models. As a sustainable local media business model continues to unfold, all of these ventures — new and established — are building off core journalism skills and developing new storytelling techniques.

What exactly does the entrepreneurial model bring to local digital news that’s both new and necessary?
It brings fresh thinking about storytelling and the ability to serve very niche audiences (geographically, politically, demographically, etc.). There will be more failures than successesm but each startup will bring new ideas into the conversation. The consolidation of the traditional media business and economic challenges have left some audience segments underserved or issues under covered. The emergence of new startups will help fill the void and find new ways to engage audiences.

Randy Bennett
Randy Bennett

In your department at the College of Journalism at UF, does the curriculum include a hands-on element? Are there teachers with entrepreneurial backgrounds?
“Hands-on” is the hallmark of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications’ journalism program. Our students work alongside professionals in a real-world newsroom feeding two TV stations, four radio stations and companion websites owned and operated by the college and serving 19 North Central Florida communities. The head of that newsroom – Matt Sheehan – has had a foot in both the traditional and start-up worlds and brings that entrepreneurial thinking into the operation. We are also teaching new skills – in courses such as Advanced Storytelling and Data Journalism — that will help support students who are interested in either a traditional or non-traditional career path. Next semester, we will introduce a course focused on entrepreneurism.

We are also exposing our students to successful media entrepreneurs. Last week we launched our Innovator Series with Storyful founder Mark Little. Mark’s interaction with both students and faculty was inspiring and stimulated meaningful discussions about the changing practice of journalism and journalism curricula.

How can a legacy publisher — a newspaper chain or broadcast group — integrate entepreneurism within a corporate structure beyond lip service? It seems antithetical for legacies to do this.
I do think it’s very hard — maybe impossible — to be truly entrepreneurial in a legacy operation. You can innovate and encourage new thinking, but there are too many institutional and organizational barriers to be truly bold and to take risks with no guarantee of ROI. Several news organizations are setting up incubators within their buildings to support entrepreneurism and I think that’s smart. But none of the current crop of digital startup successes — Mashable, BuzzFeed, Business Insider, Vox, to name a few — grew up in a traditional organization, although many of the leaders of those companies did. Which suggests that traditionally trained journalists can be entrepreneurial if given the right the platform and right opportunity.

And leadership is key. As today’s young media professionals start moving into leadership positions, entrepreneurial thinking will flow more naturally.

Many entrepreneurial publisher-editors have planted their flag successfully in local markets where legacies have been long established. I write about them all the time. Does this say something about the limitations of corporate legacies?
It is hard for legacy organizations to be nimble and, with fewer resources, it is much more difficult to serve all communities (geographic or otherwise). That has opened up new business opportunities for entrepreneurs. I believe that traditional companies will find their own sizable niche — and serve it extremely well — while entrepreneurs leverage new platforms to serve different audiences or provide different types of coverage.

Does that mean there’s room for competing legacy and pure-play community news sites in at least the larger markets?
Yes. This will not be a winner-takes-all proposition. Legacy media may, for example, focus on an a more highly educated, higher income audience with deeper analysis on community, national and international issues while pure-plays serve smaller geographic communities or specialize in entertainment, prep sports or other niche. And I think you’ll see more collaboration between the players when they carve out their own non-competitive niche.

What are examples of legacies that have adopted the entrepreneurial model in local digital news?
Certainly, the Deseret Digital model of operating entrepreneurial ventures parallel to their traditional business has been successful for them. I don’t think any company has been as bold as Advance, transforming into true digital media companies who also have print assets in markets such as Cleveland, Portland, Ore., and New Orleans.

The essence of entrepreneurism is making a sustainable business out of quality news publishing. But it’s proving very hard for a local digital site to make a profit beyond paying the utility bills. Both legacies and many pure plays — corporate networks as well as independents — are having a rough time. What’s missing that your brand of entrepreneurism can help provide?
Believe me, we don’t have the answers to business model challenges. Being a news organization in a local media market is a tough, tough proposition (and even tougher in a major metropolitan market). Our role is to expose students to a range of career opportunities, share insights on what is possible and to equip them with the skills to head down a variety of paths. There is a tremendous amount of innovation happening at journalism schools and whether or not the models or products that are emerging succeed, it is helping students think more creatively about the craft and their careers. As a result, I believe this current generation of young journalists will find sustainable models and that what we think of as the local media space today will look quite different five years from now.

In your Huffington Post article last April, you stress the importance of community engagement in news today. From my experience, this is not something that most journalists or the colleges that educate and train them know how to do well. What is your college doing to change this “Fourth Estate” culture?
Students are learning about community engagement not only from how we approach journalism education, but also from how they are using media today. Social media is a form of community engagement. But ultimately, community engagement for journalism organizations is about listening carefully to your audience and helping them live better lives. It’s infused in our college philosophy (and not just in our journalism programs, but in our public relations program as well). As our college’s Dean Diane McFarlin is fond of saying, “We succeed when our students talk, not of who they want to work for, but of what they want to do.” Toward this end, we just launched — on the idea- and story-sharing site Medium — “Captivate: Perspective on the Business and Craft of Audience Engagement,” which will feature 30 opinion leaders over the next two months.

This is a more civic-minded and socially conscious generation and if we stress the importance of not just reporting the news but helping find solutions, community engagement will be a natural extension of what they do as journalists.

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of the in-development hyperlocal news network Local America that rates communities on their performance across a broad spectrum of livability — Local America Charleston launched earlier this year.