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May 26, 2009, 9:53 p.m.

News entrepreneur boot camp seeks to launch 15 journalism ventures

I’m back from 5 days in Los Angeles at the Knight Digital Media Center News Entrepreneur Boot Camp, held at the University of Southern California under the auspices of USC Annenberg.  Long ago I lived in San Francisco for a year and never felt an earthquake, but for the occasion of our five days in L. A. there were two “moderate” quakes, 4.7 and 4.1 on the Richter scale.

More significantly, if not of earthshaking import, the boot camp met the expectations of participants to help them shape their visions into plausible business ventures.  As both a participant and an observer, my feeling was that the proceedings lent credence to the idea that going forward, successful journalism can happen not just in large organizations but in small, bootstrapped operations that target well-identified local, regional and national needs.

The businesses being formulated by the campers ranged from hyperlocal news sites to local, regional and national niche sites on politics, economic development, technology, entertainment, health, education and consumer issues.  Several of them underwent major revisions in their focus or funding options during the camp.

The source of the camp’s funding, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, will be keeping a close eye on our progress, so it will be possible at some point down the road to disclose the success rate.  Several blog posts by instructors and participants provide some insight into the boot camp’s atmosphere and benefits:

  • Robert Niles on search engine optimization tips for online news startups (reporting on a talk by Danny Sullivan, editor of Search Engine Land to the group)
  • Niles again on emerging from a culture of failure. (“Journalism is not doomed; people can make money publishing online. All that needs to change to make that happen is journalists’ toxic attitudes toward themselves and the value of their work.”)
  • Michele McLellan, who will be keeping track of our progress over the next year, on whether journalists can be entrepreneurs.  She lists three affirmatives (journalists have brains, persistence and networks) that are offset by three negatives (traditional thinking, business phobia, and math phobia).

One irony in the process was that much of it was focused on polishing a pitch for funding, culminating in a five-minute presentation to a panel consisting of actual investors of the angel, venture and banking variety, plus a technology firm VP.  Yet none of the plans needed much more than $50,000 to launch, a level under the radar screen for professional investors (although SBA loans seemed to be a popular option).

Rather than any likelihood of shaking loose shekels from the realms of angels, for us campers the value in preparing the pitch came from the opportunity to have our business plans vetted by a thoughtful set of instructors; to have our thinking reshaped, where necessary, to meet market realities; and to help us discover ways to launch our ventures by bootstrapping rather than by the unlikely avenue of major outside funding.

POSTED     May 26, 2009, 9:53 p.m.
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