The Prodigal’s Return

The Prodigal’s Return
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Lecturing to our entrepreneurs in Matter Seven

Twelve years ago, I left full-time journalism because I realized couldn’t do anything about the challenges I saw all around me. The Internet was eating everything. I could write, edit, and design a newspaper, but I couldn’t make a newspaper have healthier income. I couldn’t figure out how, if it was even possible, to build a digital news product that people, especially people my age, would want and that would be economically viable. And, moreover, I knew I would never figure out how to do any of that if I were working in news full-time. The famous great wall separating journalists from the business dynamics of their industry was very real and very strong in me.

Journalism schools are doing a much better job these days in preparing their students to be more versatile and entrepreneurial in their work, to master the digital tools required to tell stories in ways that cut through the noise and can make money, too. In spite of this, the truth is that the challenge is too great to be overcome by turning out more versatile journalists. More, the individuals equipped to make positive change happen are too unevenly distributed to rebuild the ecosystem made up of our proud local newsrooms. Vox, the New York Times, the Washington Post and other top-tier national publications have gathered the greatest news talent of the generation and have built business models that show signs of actual growth, from hardened paywalls to superior video studios to standalone subscription apps for crossword puzzles and cooking. That’s been great for global and national news.

But the Times, Vox, and the Post are local papers to very few. And while there are positive signs around converting readers to paid digital subscriptions everywhere, the standby of advertising on local news sites is getting harder every year. Facebook ate, and is now ejecting, digital news distribution, even as it’s promising to treat local news more favorably in its news feed now. Major metro papers that once had hundreds of newsroom staff have fewer than 50 today. The picture gets even more challenging the smaller the publication is. It’s a crisis, among the most pressing in our society. Trust in journalism stems from trust in local voices. People believe, with good reason, that they can’t get covered fairly by national media who don’t know their communities deeply. When there is less and less local media to cover them, people trust all media less.

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Me shortly before leaving journalism, as editor of the Windsor Times in Sonoma County, California. I’m experimenting in two-handed rock paper scissors competition with former “Celebrity Poker Showdown” co-host Phil Gordon Saturday at Roshambo Winery outside Healdsburg. I stomped Gordon each and every time pretended money was at stake, which was all-day long. Photo by Kimra McPherson

Like many others, including Matter’s co-founder Corey Ford (a fellow ex-journalist, as are my colleagues Lindsay Abrams and Shereen Adel), I saw these looming challenges almost 15 years ago, and I realized I needed to leave daily journalism if I was ever going to make a difference. So after 10 years of training and three years of working as a newspaper journalist, I took a leap, landing at Jump Associates, a design and strategy consulting firm in San Mateo. Jump ultimately was both grad school and first employer in the innovation consulting field to me. I entered as an untrained PR manager and exited as a very trained director of design strategy for major consulting engagements for companies like FedEx, Samsung, and HP. I even got the chance to apply some of what I’d learned to local news in a one-month sprint with a major publishing company.

It was right after that sprint that Matter came into my life. Corey had worked with me briefly at Jump before leaving to start his first accelerator, and I’d read about Matter; it seemed like exactly the place I’d hoped could exist when I left journalism in the first place. After a chance reconnection with Corey, I became a mentor in Matter’s first class, sharing what I knew about growth, revenue, and crafting resonant products with inspiring teams tackling some of the thorniest issues in journalism. Then I did it again. And again. I was hooked. Ultimately, I had the chance to join the Matter team, channeling my experience and expertise into the industry I dreamed of when I was a kid and had left when I was an older kid.

In the last two years on staff, I’ve had the chance to work with an incredibly inspiring community — our incredible entrepreneurs, our legendary partners, and our tireless mentors — on some of the biggest challenges in media today. To be honest, though, nothing I’ve worked on excites me quite as much as the Open Matter Local News Bootcamps we’re putting on thanks to Google News Lab and News Media Alliance with support from CUNY Graduate School of Journalism; the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute at the Missouri School of Journalism; the James M. Cox Jr. Institute for Journalism Innovation, Management & Leadership at the University of Georgia’s Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication; and UC Berkeley Advanced Media Institute.

And the reason I’m so excited, to be clear, is that the kind of journalism I did as a full-time professional is the kind of journalism that every community in this country needs. Local-interest features. Coverage of parades and picnics. Long hours at town council meetings. Character sketches that show the community to itself. I wrote for a small daily newspaper before I left to edit a smaller weekly so I could get closer to the community.

That’s the world of journalism I walked away from so long ago now. And it’s where I hope to empower a whole bunch of people like me to do a lot about the things that helped me realize I needed to leave.

I’m sorry it took so long, but I’m really glad to be back with a new bag of tricks. Hope to share them with you soon!

Matter is an SF & NYC-based startup accelerator and venture capital firm grounded in the principles of design thinking that supports early-stage media entrepreneurs and mission-aligned media institutions building scalable ventures that make society more informed, inclusive, and empathetic.

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