Category Archives: journalism

So…What IS It!? The Answer on the Niemanlab

The good folk at Niemanlab have been kind enough to offer a much wider platform for my musings…starting way back when I sometimes felt like all I had was musings. Now that we’re set to rollout what we’ve got and what we’ll be, it made all kinds of sense for all kinds of reasons to begin the rollout last week ovah ther at haavaad yaad…

here it is.

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Momentum v. First Impressions: Why Perfection is Not an Option

We have had a design glitch…or better, we have changed our mind on the layout of our signup page. The good news is that my partner Irene and I agree (as we tend to on most things, including design) that we have some reworking to do. But what we thought could be resolved quickly with the designer we were using, may now require a more substantial working over — and, it seems, a new designer. And that means a DELAY.

I have gradually gotten used to the fact that the calendar in my head (or even the one I stupidly declare out loud) is essentially worthless. The project has its own calendar. Still, when Irene warned me last night that the delay in question could be “weeks,” we inevitably launch into one of our by now weekly, er, lively conversations.

It is not that Irene is any less impatient than me. By nature, she is in fact probably more impatient. But there are two fundamental differences in our respective outlook on time.  The first, is that she has managed website launches before…and so the lessons I am learning about a project’s calendar, she has learned a dozen times before. She reminds me that no one has imposed any fixed deadlines, and repeats the importance of first impressions. She is right, of course.

Still….still. I have learned over the past year that a startup must also always measure up with its own limits. Of time, of costs, of people’s attention spans. I have learned this in the lonely days when this project had a lot less to show for itself (including Irene!). Perfection is not an option. The ball must keep rolling forward, even if you gotta keep kicking it up that Sisyphean hill…Momentum is everything. It is what we need to both solidify our standing and feed the imagination of potential partners, investors, consumers — and ourselves, the ones working on the damn thing every day. 

In a follow-up phone call near midnight, we are both a bit calmer. And back again on the same page. A) We can only have a layout of the signup page that truly satisfies us both. B) we need those forecasted “weeks” delay to be more like several days…Yeah, yeah: but just how many!?

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Latest Nieman Lab post…Launch approaching!?

We are getting close to launch….And can’t wait to start describing just exactly what our site will be/do. Until then, this hopefully gives a flavor of what it’s like to try to make everything happen…AT ONCE!? Niemanlab

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Meet, Greet, Talk and Tinker: 10 Tips For Your Ever Evolving Pitch…and Project

“You like that new triangle thing?,” I asked Irene with a little chuckle. We were standing on a corner in the 2nd arrondissement in the heart of Paris, having just finished one in a continuing series of sit-downs, skypes and phone calls with potential partners, funders and anyone else who wants to know more about (and maybe help) our fledgling baby. That same morning, at another pow-wow across town, I had ad-libbed a little riff about the three elements at the core of our product, which I described on the fly as the aforementioned “triangle.” And so when I repeated my new favorite metaphor in the later meeting, Irene Toporkoff, my ever patient business partner, gave it a nod of sort-of-approval. It may, or may not, make an appearance in the next meeting tomorrow evening.

As we plough on toward launch, and focus in on fundraising, the pace of meetings has picked up. I count at least 15 face-to-face meetings we’ve had since September 1, which means we are basically introducing our project once a day to someone who knows nothing or next-to-nothing about what we aim to build — and may be key in getting it built. It’s high stakes, and never boring.  If anything, we are perhaps a bit loose in the way we approach it, typically with little time to prepare, tinkering with the presentation. What we lack in polish, we make up for in both passion and agility. And ears. The questions that are posed by people who may actually end up having a stake in the thing tend are bound to be among the best (read: hardest) you’ll get…and will require you to adjust not only the pitch, but the project itself.

As I’ve mentioned before, the experience of being a professional reporter offers some good tools for us would-be startupers. Whatever skills and experience we have in conducting interviews and unpacking information can be helpful in these meetings that are the building block for your would-be news enterprise. But of course, there are also some fundamental differences.

With our recent flurry of meetings, I’ve put together a quick list (with journo types in mind) of what to know about pitching your project. One that I’ll keep off the list, though it applies very well to me: Accept That Sometimes You’ll Suck.

Work in Progress: As emphasized above, the pitch is never a fixed object. Let what you learned from the last meeting inform this one, and be willing to test and refine your product and business rationales. And again, often the best thing that comes out of a meeting is neither funding nor a partnership…but an idea.

Be Yourself: As a reporter, I would rarely prepare specific questions before an interview, usually just jotting down the six or seven topics I wanted to cover just before going in. Other colleagues work better with a more structured approach. In either case, the objective is to both get the most substance out of the encounter and to be as comfortable as possible. Indeed, those two usually go together.

Follow Their Lead: Some will just want to hear you go on and on, others will interrupt you with questions before you even sit down. Ultimately it’s your pitch, but their show. Indeed, it’s more like the interview you had for your first newspaper job than the big interview you landed with some VIP.

Adjust the Dial: No two meetings and pitches are alike, but there are certain categories of people you’ll be meeting: funder, networker, partner, expert. Think before going in what you would ideally like to get from the person, and what are the essentials they need to know about what you’re doing. It’s not disingenuous, but a question of emphasis, especially because time will always be limited.

Getting In Isn’t Good Enough: Sometimes for a reporter, just getting in is 80 percent of the battle. It doesn’t have to be a brilliant Q&A, as long as you were there to get subject X to answer some of your questions. You may have had it no easier getting to the person you’re pitching to, but here you gain no points just for face time.

Start Strong: This is one I’ve always needed help on. On big interviews I was always slow out of the box, and would often try to think of something specific to say for an intro….though that sometimes made it even worse!? There are no second takes when you’re pitching, but at least if you can wow them later in the meeting, they may forgot that your opening line was…Uummm.

Props, People Here too, there are different approaches. Irene has convinced me that the best way is to bring a printed copy of our biz plan along, but to try to go as long as possible without pulling it out. Indeed, we sometimes mention it only at the end of the meeting, and send afterwards via email. Others may prefer pitching — or being pitched — with slides from the get-go. In either case, you are there  to make an impression, a human one.

Get the Next Number: Irene always reminds me that every meeting should lead to another meeting. Or two or three. Ask for contacts, make connections, get the numbers/emails before you actually walk out the door.

Finish Strong: As things are winding down — after whatever detours into the details or the state of digital media — look for an opening to bring the discussion back to your core product, and the reason it is needed now.

Follow Up: Thank you, thank you, just one more thing I’d like to ask, thank you again…

…and good night.

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Jay Rosen in Paris, J-Schools in America, and a Global Struggle for the Next Press

Yes, these are the best of times…” With a dash of sheepishness and a tablespoon or two of self-satisfaction, NYU J-school prof Jay Rosen confirmed the recent skyrocketing status of American journalism education that I had just described to Irene Toporkoff, the French co-founder of our soon-to-be world news startup. We were in the Latin quarter after Rosen’s inaugural lecture of the academic year Thursday at Paris’ prestigious Science Po University… his invitation itself a confirmation from abroad of the realignment of the US media biz star system in the internet age.

Of course in France, the entire humanities academy is already firmly planted both on a pedestal and within the chatter of daily life (and the daily press) in a way that some US profs would only dream of. As for the specific case of the métier of journalism, universities have long been the accepted training ground and certification process for a healthy tranche of the profession, paving the way for the status of card-carrying members of Europe’s intellectual class.

In the US instead, where we don’t like the ‘i’ word, journo types have tended to revel in our hackdom, boasting of bar stools and pounded pavements and gumshoe labors. At our most highfalutin’, we’ll describe our work as a craft or justify the obsessive nature of the job as a calling. But the ideal still remains the smart and resourceful small-town kid who rises from news clerk to beat reporter to foreign correspondent and bigtime editor, without ever becoming too, er, fancy. In this context, journalism education (both undergrad majors and master’s programs) has long been viewed within the news industry as a bit silver-spoonish and generally superfluous.

I for one went to J-school in 1992-93, and it gave me some real practical training and the tools to think critically about the profession I was stepping into. But it was also true that I learned more about being a reporter in the first few weeks on the cops beat at the local paper where I started than I’d learned that whole year in my branded grad program (though such a contrast is probably applicable to many kinds of career training, no?) Still, the point is that I would never advertise my master’s degree to colleagues (or sources) over the years, and would find myself justifying the choice as just about “helping me get that first job…”

In addition to veteran reporters and editors who could teach me the ropes, I had professors with more academic backgrounds like Rosen’s, who some grizzled colleagues would hold up as the best proof that j-school was worth neither the time nor money. Rosen describes himself this way: “I’m not really a member of the press…I’m more an anthropologist of the press tribe.” But by the time he was featured in Paris last week, he — like the journalism academy as a whole — had conquered a standing well beyond just detached researcher-scholar. In the full throes of the digital information revolution, and resulting economic/existential crisis in the news business, the most valued resource is R&D. And with neither media companies nor the government inclined to lead the way on such innovation, the laboratories of academia not only allow for foresight about the changes underway, but can provide active, practicable solutions. J-schools are no longer just churning out journalists, they are reinventing journalism.

Still, for his much anticipated lecture Thursday, the new media guru chose not to offer API crash courses or theories on the semantic web. It was in some ways, very much a traditional American academic lecture, rooted in a historical narrative (and geographical context) and some of the latest thinking from his field of study, from the French Revolution to the Paris Peace treaty of 1919 to a post-Internet reading of the “mad as hell” scene in Network….which led to his urging the would-be young French journalists that “the way you imagine the users of journalism will determine how useful a journalist you are..”

Of course, both his history lessons and survival tips for the digital media jungle are also useful for we veterans, both in trying to move the big ship of MSM companies (where Rosen and other profs are now busy consulting), and providing intellectual oxygen to those of us creating new journalistic experiments of our own. For Irene and me, and our global news project, one of the most relevant thoughts he shared was at the beginning, as he noted that Thursday was also the beginning of the academic year back home at NYU journalism school…a reminder that: “the struggle for the next press is an international thing…” Oui!! When history is unfolding, hearing about the past can only help imagine the future. And when you’re flat in the middle of a revolution, it will always be the best and worst of times.

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The Diary I Never Kept: Old School Reporter Becomes Online Editor (Blogger…? not so much)

My pace in this space is slowing down. My first three months: 24 posts. The last three months:…errrr…. 5. I am not here now to apologize, nor blame Hurricane Earl, nor vow more regular entries from this day forward.

I knew starting out that I wasn’t a natural blogger, in the traditional sense of this modern pasttime-cum-profession. My initial burst of posts can probably be explained by an odd mix of self-consciousness (validation for my decision to open my own digital soap box) and lack of self-consciousness (an editor-less, free form space where I could choose both topic and tone). I was also in search of an outlet for the energy of the actual web project I was chronicling, and the need to start spreading the word.

But the output rate, which is still paltry compared to some, wasn’t bound to last. The truth is that I’ve always had my doubts about whether I was even a natural writer, tout court. Sure, the turns of phrase sometimes come pouring out, and in terms of both organization of thoughts and occasional moments of eloquence, I’m light years ahead in writing than in speaking. Uhh..? And what should be the plainest proof of all: I’ve managed to actually make a living by cobbling together sentences for major print publications. That makes me a writer. Right? But even as I made my way in this line of work, I was never driven by some primordial pangs to put it all down on paper, never filled separate notebooks with my musings, never kept a diary or wrote short stories in the midnights of my youth.

Ultimately though, my doubts about my scribbler proclivities were tamed by the understanding that a beat reporter is both more and less than a writer. More, as in more hours on the horn begging some police clerk or political flak to cough up some access or information…and Less, well, you get the idea. In both its higher and lower guises, hackdom calls upon the actual production of words as the final step in a multi-faceted, often rushed and unpredictable process. And as I thankfully learned sooner rather than later, the writing should always err on the side of utilitarian rather than Joycean.

This all comes up in the wake of a bunch of revelatory hemming and hawing by some smart online writer folk about twitter (microblogging) killing blogging with death by a thousand tweets. The takeaway line comes when Leo Laporte realizes that no one noticed that his buzz/twitter updates weren’t being posted. I was shouting into a vast echo chamber where no one could hear me because they were too busy shouting themselves. Without getting into the useless question about who qualifies as a writer, and who just a shouter: these are the folk that were indeed jotting stuff down (or shouting it out) in the 3 a.m.’s of their youth…and beyond. Folk like Laporte and Paul Carr and Dave Winer are lucky to have found an audience, and their sizing up the various platforms is just figuring out how to get heard…not, as it were, how to get writing.

But alas, this is not a digital (and sporadic) diary about writing…it’s about a guy who has made his living in the news business… trying to figure out how to continue making his living in the news business, as the walls appear to crumble all around. And more than ever I realize that this moment…and this project…are as much a way for me to pivot from reporter to editor. For the past few years, I’d realized how much I like working with other writers to improve their copy, and I’d become convinced that “why not me?” on story selection, packaging, et al. I’m sure there is much to learn, but I’d also seen one of my colleagues who I most identified with do it with aplomb and enjoying it to the hilt.

And if all goes well, my project would allow me to step across the threshold without having to jump into the scrum of an MSM middle management that must respond to an upper management forced to chase its proverbial tail and run for proverbial cover amidst those proverbial crumbling walls!?

None of this–nor even my proverbial cliches!?–means that my writing and reporting career is dust. I hope that stuff that I have written, and have yet to write, will one day see the light of day. But my focus is now elsewhere. And if you’re reading this, you may be in a similar position as I was one year ago: XX years of staff experience under your belt, facing a backward step to freelancer status, eyeing a new way in the new media jungle. There are lots of ideas, lots of energy, real opportunity, new ways to tell and deliver stories. Yes, you must be ready and able to do everything. You cannot avoid working hard on the business side of the equation. But on some basic level, the  same reporter/editor dividing line still exists. Which side are you on? Do you ache to write? To be heard? Or are you driven now by something else? The answer to that question may help you discover the right tree to plant in the proverbial digital media jungle. (Clearly, my writing needs an editor more than ever….)

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Nieman Lab post #5

HERE is the 5th installment of my monthly posts for the Nieman Lab on the future of journalism. More on partnerships…

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