It takes more than love to sustain an independent news site

“I started this out of love.’’

This is one of the phrases I heard more than once – more than a few times – from our New Jersey Community Journalism Executive Training participants.

It is the common characteristic of all entrepreneurial journalists that they have started their site – be it community, investigative, niche or some combination of the three – out of passion for the content and the community.

As Rusty  has said over and over: No one who wanted to start a successful business would look around at all the possibilities and say, “I think I’ll try journalism!’’

No, these publishers are driven by a vision of journalism’s future and a desire to serve communities they care deeply about. But soon enough the realities of paying the bills intrudes – and very few of these publishers have the experience or skill set to translate the journalism into a business.

That’s where CJET comes in. Having an objective eye in the form of a business coach to look at what you’ve created, help you size the opportunity you have and figure out a specific plan to take advantage of is something the publishers have viewed as a luxury. In fact, it’s a necessity to have someone give you direct and unvarnished feedback.

Given that NJ CJET was our third business mentoring workshop, we’ve heard about 70 publishers present their 100-day plans for improving their business prospects. We’ve learned a few things from those plans:

  • The areas where they need to focus break down to five categories: revenue, audience, engagement, workforce, platform. You might say that’s the whole business, but the insight we’ve gained is that it all lies in how these elements connect. Publishers tend to focus on one or two of these areas instead of looking at how they all work together in support of a sustainable site.
  • So many publishers begin from an audience perspective and then focus intensely on platform issues. We’d argue: Platform last. Figure out who you are trying to reach and who your paying customers are, then focus on the platforms that best fit those needs.
  • Publishers have to be willing to shift from their original thinking. Inevitably, we see several publishers have the moment of recognition about what they are really good at – and what actually has monetary value. Focus is everything, and sometimes that means giving up an idea you love in favor of one that has staying power.
  • Running a community site has far more in common with running a small business than with running a news organization. Being from Florida, we use the “pool store franchise’’ as our example. Many of the issues bedeviling local publishers have to do with hiring and keeping staff (ad reps or reporters), keeping the books, dealing with tax issues. These aren’t the kinds of things you learn in journalism school, or from years in a newsroom.

Finally, in the words of one CJET participant: Perfect is the enemy of progress. Journalism is a culture of perfectionism – organizational studies show newsrooms have the most in common with hospitals and the military – but that very perfectionism is the enemy of entrepreneurial publishers.

You have to prioritize, you have to be willing to let some things go, and you have to be willing to make an imperfect start on building a business. Because if you wait to build the perfect plan, you’ll never get there.