What Is Your Startups Real Added Value?

I am a big supporter of anyone trying new things in journalism. I think my actions over the last several years speak to that. If you have an earnest drive to push boundaries in journalism and serve the public interest, consider me part of your team. Publish2.com, CoPress, NewsTrust, NewsWire21, The Public Press, and more are all projects I support and advise to various degrees.

With that disclaimer out of the way – there is something that has begun turning me off from wanting to advise media startups. Which is to say – the main piece of advice I’ll give them is to check their motivation. I tweeted that advice today and received some interesting responses. As a resultĀ  I thought it merited more explanation.

The Tweet: “I love journalism, but if you’re a new media startup your value proposition is NOT “saving journalism” – that is meta and only journos care.”

Why the Tweet?

I came across a new journalism venture that launched today. I won’t name or link to it – because I have nothing flattering to say. Aside from making obnoxious distinctions between “bloggers” and “journalists” it suffered a fatal flaw which I am starting to see way too often: Journalism for the sake of journalists.

First: I love journalism, the role it plays in our democracy and more. Again, I think my actions speak loud here. I’ve dedicated my career toward it – even in shaky times.

I don’t even mind journalism for the sake of journalism – ie: because it plays an important role in our society. This does smell of “eat your vegetables” journalism and it’s not my favorite attitude – but at least it’s food. But journalism for the sake of journalists – is wholly cannibalistic.

Admitted – journalists are a diaspora now. But journalism must remain relevant to the larger public – not just a wandering cult of scribes. Too often journalists can’t see the forest for the trees in our startups. We believe that because we are journalists and all our colleagues are journalists that everyone will see the value in the great site/product we are producing.

BZZZZZZZ (that’s a buzzer in a game show to signal the wrong answer). I think there are a few exceptions to this rule – startups like Publish2.com and NewsTilt which are building tools for journalists – but overall, the value of your startup can’t just be that journalists will benefit and like it.

Okay, so who/how do we appeal to a larger audience?

Let’s start by at least asking this question.

Journalists are typically pretty bad at asking ourselves what the public would want. When I talk with A.M. McReynolds I’m reminded that figuring out what people want is a process of discovery – not assumption.

Increasingly I find that people do care about journalism – they just don’t think of it as “journalism” that they are caring about – rather it’s their communities.

Take the connection between communities and small businesses.

“Rarely would people ever use these civic institutions as landmarks to describe my location. Even in Los Angeles, where I grew up, most people would name the Westside Pavilion (a mall) over the Federal Building (where my father protested during Vietnam) or the West LA Library, just a few blocks away from me.”

What people care about are communities – but they might not define them via civic institutions or journalistic frames.

One of the best moments of this for me was around this time last year when the Northern California Society for Professional Journalists held an emergency meeting at the SF Library when the Chronicle faced a potential collapse. I can’t find the SF Guardian article now but it started something like this

“Room full of journalists bemoan the future and fate of journalism, written up by every media outlet. Nobody cared.”

Journalism often faces a bit of a public relations problem. This is fitting seeing as how we have a distaste for PR flacks, but now – it’s become a problem. Some reporters who are starting up great new projects can’t seem to think about what the value proposition is beyond serving the needs and interests of other journalists. And while I am an advocate that anyone can be a journalist – that doesn’t mean everyone identifies themselves as such – certainly not on a daily basis.

Someone who I think does a great job of this is Eve Betty at SF Appeal. She and I certainly talk about media – but if you look at The Appeal, you’ll see that it isn’t a site for journalists. It just does….. journalism. Moreover, it’s the kind of content that regular folks might find… echem… ‘appealing.’ Same with Oakland Local (which requires another disclaimer – that I help them out when/where I can).

Okay – so that’s the rant. Last disclaimers/thoughts.

Of course I want to “save journalism” – who doesn’t. I just don’t believe that a startup with that mission will attract enough of the public to do it. Rather the mission statement will be to serve the public – or even “save the public” if I’m to be so bold. That is something people can relate to and get passionate about.

Also: Saving the journalism industry is very different from saving the process of journalism. The second doesn’t really need your help – it’s doing just fine. Consider then the implication when you say you want to “save journalism.” What you really mean is “you want to save the journalism industry” – a noble mission, but one we should be clear about and think about who that attracts.

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