NJ CJET: Sustainability training, empathy and “The Voice”

We were only a few minutes into the New Jersey Community Journalism Executive Training session when Deborah Smith, publisher of Jersey Bites, piped up with the perfect description of the class:

“It’s like The Voice!’’ she said.

The popular singing show works because it’s not just about providing aspiring singers with expert coaching – it’s about the empathy those coaches have with the folks who are trying to emulate their success.

That’s how NJ CJET is like The Voice. The coaches we brought to help these 19 entrepreneurial publishers develop and refine a business strategy have both business smarts and emotional IQ.

These publishers need both. Most of them come from a journalism background where the value was to separate journalists from the business side – a fact that kept so many of us in newsrooms ignorant about the financial realities of the craft we loved.  They need instruction in how to size their opportunity and then a step-by-step, bite-sized plan to execute on it.

They also need some therapy, and that’s where the empathy comes in. Hyperlocal news sites are filling a vital need in the news ecosystem, as traditional media continues to fall away from the neighborhood and community space. But this is work they often do alone, over endless hours and with little financial reward.

We’ve heard over and over from independent publishers that the business is running them instead of the other way around. It’s hard to build a sustainable news site when you are worn to a frazzle.

Revenue development is a skill, and it can be learned – but only if someone will make the investment in teaching it.

We believe in this training so deeply because we see the very real gap it fills. Foundations have funded content development, and they’ve funded lots of technology. But those are just two legs of the stool, and neither one of them can be sustained without revenue.

That’s been the ultimate purpose of all of the training efforts that Coats2Coats has enabled as a project of The Patterson Foundation. Beginning with the pilot Super Camp program in 2011, continuing through the initial CJET program in Los Angeles last fall and on to NJ CJET, we’ve now worked with 65 community publishers to help them understand the business side through a journalist’s lens.

The NJ CJET program, held at Montclair State University May 16-18, was the brainchild of one of our Super Camp alums. Debbie Galant is one of the most influential voices in independent community news and founder of the pioneering site Baristanet.

Debbie now directs the New Jersey News Commons at Montclair State, an innovative effort to help journalists and news organizations of all stripes across the state to work more cooperatively to provide vital news coverage. She saw the opportunity to inject business mentoring into that mix of services NJ News Commons provides, inspired by the value of her own Super Camp experience.

I was already talking to Debbie about a business mentoring program when Hurricane Sandy hit last fall, and the need for business help became even more acute. These community sites are a vital part of providing the very local information communities need to recover and rebuild. But they have to be able to sustain themselves to do it.

The Patterson Foundation teamed up with the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation to provide the financial support for NJ CJET, and Coats2Coats assembled the program and our experienced team of coaches to execute on it.

NJ CJET was an intense experience, and we’re all still digesting what happened over 2 ½ days.  But we know it resonated. As Janine Torsiello of the site MorrisBeats said at the conclusion: “I don’t know where else we could have gotten something like this and have it speak to us at our level.’’

In my next blog post, I’ll tell you what we taught – and what we learned from these inspirational publishers.