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Lost in the gloom, an entrepreneurial boom

“Let’s stop the handwringing about losses in legacy journalism and work on creating and growing the next acts in media.”

Even as revenue-strapped news outlets continue to cut staff, we need to celebrate in 2014 a new reality: Media entrepreneurship is at an all-time high.

jan-schafferOnce-fledgling startups now count their employees in the 100s. International news players see enough U.S. market promise to open operations here. Startup accelerators are nurturing scores of ideas for media “jobs to be done.” Journalism schools are designing media entrepreneurship programs to meet growing demand.

The Investigative News Network (INN) counts more than 90 members. The new Local Independent Online News (LION) Publishers association has attracted more than 100 members just in its first year.

Some of this growth has been by acquisition, some by adding new products, some by internal expansion and some via new launches. Vox Media, for one, counted 85 employees in 2011 and had expanded to some 300 by earlier this year — and that was before it acquired Curbed, Eater, and Racked. Politico lists some 180 employees on its website plus another 26 at its newly purchased Capital New York. The Huffington Post identifies 317 employees online — not counting operations outside the U.S. Likewise, Buzzfeed says it has more than 300 staffers. And that’s just for starters.

The Qatar-owned Al Jazeera America launched here four months ago. The three-year-old RT America, the first Russian English-language news channel, has become one of the most-watched foreign news channels in the United States. The Guardian U.S. launched its New York-based online operation a little over two years ago, finding fertile grounds for expansion here.

We saw some important media-entrepreneurship milestones this year; more will come next year. All will have a ripple effect on redefining news, reconsidering news conventions, validating new players, and re-imagining news distribution. Consider the possibilities of some of these 2013 mileposts.

  • Tech-daddies (and mommies) entered the journalism space. How will Jeff Bezos reconfigure The Washington Post? What will Pierre Omidyar create with his embrace of Glenn Greenwald? How will Twitter advance with Vivian Schiller as its new head of news?
  • Public broadcasters entered full-bore mergers with independent news startups. In Colorado and in St. Louis, public broadcasters have formally combined with enterprising startups to begin to increase and amplify local news coverage. These efforts promise models not only to sustain local news coverage but also to open new doors for engaging audiences.
  • Also this year, we saw the first individual hyperlocal news startup execute an exit. The five-year-old Sacramento Press figured out how to calculate a valuation so that a local Internet marketing company could buy it. It is in the vanguard of working out how small news sites can establish their value so they can be sold when their founders need to move on. Serial entrepreneurship should be as doable in media as it is in Silicon Valley.

One of my many hats is journalism educator, teaching mid-career professionals who have ideas for media startups. Of the 12 in this year’s MA in Media Entrepreneurship cohort group, only two hailed from journalism. Others came from Siemens, NASA, private schools, nonprofits, and advertising.

They all have very focused ideas for “jobs to be done” (in disruptive guru Clay Christensen-speak). They are not necessarily journalism jobs, but they are definitely media jobs, anchored in the digital information space. So for 2014, let’s stop the handwringing about losses in legacy journalism and work on creating and growing the next acts in media.

Jan Schaffer is executive director of J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism and entrepreneur-in-residence at the American University School of Communication.

Updating regularly through Friday, December 20