Entrepreneurialism and the bright, slightly terrifying future of journalism

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I recently had the opportunity to speak with fellows at John S. Knight (JSK) Fellowship at Stanford University about different ways storytellers use crowdfunding to enable journalism.

I got to exchange ideas with journalists from China, Columbia, Australia, and the United States about how to sustain journalism.

I also learned a little about how crowdfunding is treated in India where it has not spread as much as it has in North America and Europe.

JSK allows journalists with big ideas to take a year-long sabbatical to develop those ideas while taking classes at Stanford. As fellowships go, JSK might be the most prestigious one for journalists associated with entrepreneurship and innovation

Though the program isn’t an incubator, alumni have gone on to start companies like Storify and global media entrepreneurship champion Hacks/Hackers (actually that’s just Burt Herman).

Through the Cracks believe innovation happens at the edges with the BuzzFeeds and Vice’s of the world, and so too among scrappy indie news outlets who use crowdfunding as a tool. JSK is sort of a middle ground between the two. 

Several current fellows looked to crowdfunding to support their independent journalism including comic journalist Susie Cagle, All Digitocracy founder Tracie Powell and Civil Eats founder Naomi Starkman.

Djordje Padejski, the fellowship’s impact leader, started the FOIA Machine campaign, which brought in more than $50,000.

Civil Eats and FOIA Machine are two of the top 25 most funded campaigns in the Kickstarter Journalism category.

If you dig ideas that could change the way we tell stories or run news organizations, you should consider applying for JSK (applications due each fall). I didn’t share this during my talk at Stanford but completing an application in 2014 for the JSK program helped refine, evolve and move along our thinking about Through the Cracks.

Before the talk with fellows, I had a great conversation with Djordje. The topic of why journalists might make natural entrepreneurs came up.

We know where to find issues that cause frustration, how to identify solutions, and tell a story. Doesn’t hurt to be practical, familiar with iterations and occasionally obsessive either. You could make an argument that journalists make terrible entrepreneurs and I’d hear you out, but this makes sense to me.

These qualities closely match the kind Marc Andreessen believes will make media grow 10 or 100 times larger in the next 20 years. He said some something really stupid about India recently but he’s right on this. To build the future of news will require 

  • Scrappiness
  • Experimentation
  • Adaptability
  • Focus
  • Deferral of gratification
  • Entrepreneurial mindset

I’ve written about this before (see “Reporter’s notebooks might make good startup seeds”), but it can be hard to take serious when the business of news is so embattled.
We’ve been told for so long to keep our eyes on everything else but the business of news, and to do otherwise is a violation of the separation of church and state. 

After a decade or so of layoffs and the rise of a new generation with an entrepreneurial spirit, that idea seems to be fading away. It’s becoming a more common belief that the two go hand in hand. News is a product, and business acumen matters.

It’s an exciting, terrible, slightly terrifying time for journalism. 

We all know why it’s terrifying: ad blocking, decline of newspapers, and journalism made by chasing page views to name a few (hollow reporting was the way one journalist described it at Hacks/Hackers Connect). The bottom falling out of GigaOm and other promising startups have scared a lot of people.

The ability to build with near zero barrier of entry and all that’s made possible in this age of entrepreneurship is the exciting part. When basically all you need is a laptop and a smartphone to report the news, it makes me optimistic because what hasn’t been built yet can still be made. We can reimagine the news, rebuild or build things that never were.

If you have any ideas for stories you think we should be writing about, send them our way – be they related to crowdfunding or entrepreneurial journalism. We’re as interested in entrepreneurism as we are about journalism.

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Khari Johnson
Khari is founder and editor of Through the Cracks: Crowdfunding in Journalism. He also writes about bots and artificial intelligence for VentureBeat. He has built news startups in the U.S. and Europe for the last decade.

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