What I would fund: An imaginary challenge for news business models

Last night, I was browsing this year’s public Knight News Challenge entries ahead of the midnight deadline to enter, and I caught myself thinking about what the project doesn’t fund when it comes to supporting journalism.

And the answer appears to be business models.

My friends at the Foundation might dispute this, or maybe not, but rather than make this into a post about what they’re doing right or wrong (after all, I won a News Challenge grant in 2008, and thus, am friendly with a wide swath of the winners thanks to some fun conferences the Knight Foundation was kind enough to fly me out to) I’m far more interested in just playing a bit of Fantasy League Foundation here, making a short list of the things I would support if I had 5 million dollars or so to give away. (Full disclosure: I do not have 5 million dollars to give away.)

Two specific projects I would fund:

1. Technically Philly’s News Inkubator

The team at this Philadelphia tech blog includes Sean Blanda, who you might remember as the organizer of BCNI Philly, along with his other varied credits as a student and professional. Their KNC10 proposal, News Inkubator, would serve as a source for news startups looking for help with the legal, financial, and administrative issues that come with running a real live business. In short, they would have allowed hyperlocal journalism impresarios to focus on content and outsource a modicum of worry on the business side of things to the Inkubator project. At the very least, they’d learn something and put it into action, rather than casting about for friends and neighbors to provide legal support, accounting, and a sales force.

From a post at Wired Journalists by Sean about the News Inkubator project:

“With the administrative burdens outsourced, the barrier for creating a sustainable news organization in the city is lowered dramatically.”

2. CoPress

(Full disclosure: I’m pretty sure I’m still an adviser to CoPress, which became a for-profit company earlier this year after their KNC09 proposal was rejected.)

CoPress is a disruptive innovator in student media, providing student news organizations of all shapes and sizes with hosting, support, and a network of interested developers and journalists to lean on as they move away from legacy content management systems with little flexibility and no room for learning about the actual management of content and systems.

Here’s an excellent short presentation from CoPress on innovation, especially in student news organizations, but with a stylish overview of the challenges facing everyone in the newspaper business:


And a few ideas for projects I’d like to fund:

  • Match up local businesses with mobile news consumers. Foursquare and Gowalla get this. Google certainly gets it. Show me a model that involves delivering deals to mobile news consumers based on their current physical location, and I’ll throw money at it.
  • Connect local nonprofits with local journalists and technologists to provide job training for underprivileged neighborhoods. I’ve written a bit about how I think a coworking space could fit into this sort of model.
  • Replace low-value remnant ad networks and AdSense with forms of advertising that don’t embarrass readers, journalists, and publishers. (Hint: I come to your news site for content and information, not to whiten my teeth.)

Here’s what I wouldn’t fund:

Anyone claiming that their hyperlocal news model is going to scale up to become a cross-country overnight success. Hyperlocal is made of people. You can build something awesome once, in one town, but neighborhood news and advertising is about shoe leather, guts, and determination — not about software. No two neighborhoods are the same, and no two hyperlocal mavens are the same.

What about you? What’s on your news business wishlist this year?

3 thoughts on “What I would fund: An imaginary challenge for news business models”

  1. Hey Ryan:

    I agree that there’s a big disconnect in the problem (lack of revenue) and the sorts of innovation that are getting traction and attention.

    That’s why I’ve teamed up with the Emerging Media + Communications school at UT-Dallas to try to start a “Local News Revenue Lab.”

    Here’s our Knight News Challenge application. Hope you’ll rate and comment:



  2. Sometimes, I wonder if it really even is possible to create a hyperlocal news outlet/business/structure that can really go “cross-country,” specifically for the reason that you mentioned. Each region, neighborhood, and even street has its own unique flavor and way of communicating. You can even think about it in terms of neighborhood gossip and how it usually passes- based on where you’re at, it usually sounds different and if its not face-to-face might trend over-the-phone or online depending on where you’re at. Along those lines, different types of people are going to want different types of hyperlocal news- some will want it coming directly from “communication” or “journalism” or “news” professionals, while others get it off of a Yahoo! groups list-serv. Specific areas have specific personalities and unless you go directly there, talk to people and see what their needs and wants are, you can’t succeed. Plus, most of that content is going to be user-generated anyway, and while people CAN use a new interface, there’s already plenty of software allowing them to do that now. Unless you make it even easier, you’re probably not going to have much luck— and lots of start-ups trying to do this will probably find that certain areas don’t want to sign up for this or that, follow specific guidelines, etc.
    Just some thoughts!!


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