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Find starters, not stars

“It’s a trap to conflate popularity and the ability to build a new property.”

2013 was a big year for “stars” in the news industry — Nate Silver (and Jason Whitlock and Keith Olbermann) to ESPN, Peter King staying at Sports Illustrated to launch his spinoff site The MMQB, David Pogue (and Katie Couric) to Yahoo, Brian Stelter to CNN, and Kara Swisher, Walt Mossberg and the All Things D team leaving News Corp for Comcast-powered indie life.

dan-shanoffHere’s the issue: Your star pundit is not Nate Silver. You don’t have ESPN’s cash flow or distribution firehose or sales strategy. And if you aren’t ESPN, to try to replicate the so-called Grantland model (or the “Marquee Brothers” model, as Reuters’ Jack Shafer cheekily labeled it) — hiring a very expensive individual “brand” to run their own product, perhaps adding in the extra cost of letting them hire an entourage of editors and writers — is folly.

The star system qualifies as a bold branding move for a media company. However, between the small number of true individual stars (ones who combine entrepreneurial acumen with the ability to deliver a healthy ROI) and the constrained financial resources of most media divisions, the strategy is largely reserved for a handful of deep-pocketed media monoliths that can afford what effectively becomes a marketing expense. What about everyone else?

Forgo the star and invest in the starter.

The starter system is built on recruiting talent to work entrepreneurially — a showrunner, to compare it to pop culture — and building startup (or startup-ish) franchises and products around their strategy and ability to execute. A few advantages:

  • Starters are wired to think about the larger opportunity, not just their personal brand.
  • Starters’ efforts are scalable across more people and not leveraged on a single name.
  • Starters are almost always less expensive to compensate, fund, or acquire.
  • Starters’ initiatives come with a built-in business model rather than an incidental one.
  • Starters are more likely to seek out data to ask the right questions.
  • Starters are more likely to produce multiple wins than personal brands.
  • There is a bigger, more dynamic pool of starters out there than bonafide stars.

There are plenty of examples of starters in news media from the past year (or two), and if the people’s names aren’t recognizable, their companies should be:

Inside larger media companies, folks like Atlantic Media’s Kevin Delaney, Digital First’s Jim Brady, NPR’s Matt Thompson, Newsweek’s Alex Leo, my USA Today Sports colleague Jamie Mottram, The New York Times’ Aron Pilhofer, Twitter’s Geoff Reiss, and many others. In the media startup ecosystem (alphabetically listed and apologizing for glaring omissions), it’s folks like Skift’s Rafat Ali, The Awl’s Alex Balk and Choire Sicha, Vox’s Trei Brundrett, Lockhart Steele, and Alexis Juneja, Circa’s David Cohn and Anthony DeRosa, CityNotes’ Dan Frommer, MediaREDEF’s Jason Hirschhorn, Medium’s Kate Lee, The Information’s Jessica Lessin, Buzzfeed’s Jonah Peretti and Ben Smith, MediaTakeOut’s Ron Mwangaguhunga, The Toast’s Mallory Ortberg and Nicole Cliffe, PolicyMic’s Liz Plank, TheList’s Rachel Sklar and Glynnis MacNichol, serial starter Elizabeth Spiers, The Skimm’s Danielle Weisberg and Carly Zakin, NowThis News’ Katharine Zaleski, and others — including longtime industry kingpins like Gawker’s Nick Denton and Gigaom’s Om Malik.

To be sure, there is a small handful of uber-stars who combine huge personal brand and an entrepreneurial ethos — Swisher & Co, Silver, Bill Simmons. But keep in mind that in those unique cases, individual stardom was necessary but not nearly sufficient to leverage it into a full-fledged business.

The question then becomes: Where can you find starters?

  • Start internally. Quality starters can be sourced throughout your organization — identify internal editors and product managers who have shown a track record for starting new things, then give them the license to think up new opportunities. (This isn’t the same as handing the keys to a popular columnist or reporter; it’s a trap to conflate popularity and the ability to build a new property.)

    Take advantage of the fact that entrepreneurship is increasingly popular: Put out a call for relevant new business ideas throughout the organization and modestly fund initially promising ideas with money and dedicated time for the starters to see if bigger opportunities are there. At Gannett, we run an internal innovation grant program that sees eight to ten new ideas get funded a year, in addition to the many others proposed — it gets people thinking in the right ways.

  • Source externally. Media companies can recruit starters from other organizations. Pay less attention (and less money) to the reporters winning prizes or earning tweeted accolades for individual stories and pay more attention to people launching products that seem to move the needle. (In a rich-get-richer example, ESPN did just that when they hired product honcho Ryan Spoon from the West Coast VC firm he was working at after founding his own startup.)
  • Create two internal investment groups, neither of which have to be costly.

    The first group should manage a modest seed fund that leverages new platforms like AngelList to make small very early-stage investments in relevant media startups, both for the potential of the startup and, arguably more importantly, the access to exactly the kind of starters that could define your company. (This could also be the group that supports an internal grant program.)

    The second group — in conjunction with your traditional corporate development group, if you have one — should be monitoring the media startup landscape for companies that are potential strategic investments or acquisitions, which brings in not just new products but the starter talent behind them.

If media companies are going to make bets under more restrictive and realistic conditions, they should recognize the inefficiency of conflating expensive star power with enterprising starter savvy. They should allocated more resources and funding to the folks whose entrepreneurial chops have the potential to scale and impact a business in a way that the stars — however individually brilliant — might not.

In the end, innovation in the news-media industry in 2014 and beyond will be driven by people who are earnestly entrepreneurial about opportunities to build something beyond their personal brand. Starters don’t generate the headlines of the stars, but they will make up many of the true stars of your organization in 2014.

Dan Shanoff is the founder of Quickish, a quick-hit news curation service acquired in 2012 by Gannett, where he now helps develop new content ideas for USA Today Sports Media Group.

Updating regularly through Friday, December 20