Last weekend, I was delighted to speak at the Knight Foundation’s Community Information Needs Boot Camp for local foundations that won matching grants from Knight for projects aimed at finding creative ways to use new media and technology to keep residents informed and engaged.
This was my first presentation to foundation folks after having given many talks through the years to people in the media industry. When I thought about what I would say differently to my new colleagues in the foundation world, the answer was, “Not much!” And I offered this advice about how to succeed in the world of local media:
Be Aware of Your Location
I started out by showing a picture of the solar system, with planets orbiting around a giant sun, and people started laughing without my having to say a word. My point, which thankfully was understood right away, was that when you create a startup it’s easy to become confused about your location. You think you’re the sun around which everyone else revolves, but in reality, you are just the latest entry in a local information ecosystem that has been around the time when people learned to communicate (and yes, that pre-dates the Internet). Your job is not to be the sun (or act like the sun), but rather to find ways to plug into the local network.
Networks as Drivers of Media
It was a watershed moment earlier this year when Facebook began driving more traffic to key portal sites like Yahoo than Google. I believe that network-based information-sharing by individuals and groups is THE driving force in media today. If you are not taking part in social networks, then you risk being invisible. Recommended reading on this topic is Pew’s Understanding the Participatory News Consumer.
Fish Where the Fish Are
In learning your local media ecosystem, you need to find and befriend other local content content creators. Here are some places to go fishing:
- Facebook’s advertising interface lets you see how many Facebook members are in your community, and drill down by age, gender, interests and more.
- Find local photographers by searching for your community’s name on Flickr and YouTube.
- Look for local business reviewers on Yelp.
- Find tweeters in your neighborhood using Twellow.
Focus on who and why (not just what)
Most startup proposals are long on the “what,” describing features and functionality in painstaking detail but devoting little time to why anyone needs this in the first place. You should spend time consider the practical needs you want to meet (such as saving time and money) as well as the emotional needs (such as feeling safer in your neighborhood or looking smarter at happy hour). In the world we live in today, you need to explain why a time-starved, stressed out and cynical person should make time in the day for what you’re creating.
Stop talking about yourself like a vitamin
Often times, earnest community startups talk about how what they are doing is important, is badly needed, will be good for the community and make for a better world. This sounds like the media version of “Eat your carrots.” Please stop talking about your projects using the same language as One-A-Day. Guilt and obligation are not positive ways to motivate someone to take time out of their day to spend with your project. Be specific and energetic in talking about your work. Show some personality! Have a point of view! This is an especially important point for foundation folks, who easily lapse into jargon.
We had some time for Q&A at the end, and several questions were about the topic of how foundations could learn to tolerate risk, especially when it came to media startups. I do two things on this front: (1) strongly emphasize that funding independent media means it is highly likely that some coverage will annoy us as funders because we would have told the story in a different way or prioritized other topics, but that the overall benefit of the grant will be a positive one; and (2) budget for risk. Set aside a small percentage of your grantmaking budget for the express purpose of investing in higher-risk or emerging media. That limits your exposure and creates a way to manage the risk so that it doesn’t seem out of control.
Foundations are always interested in the question of sustainability — will this project endure beyond the initial funding period? But as Lisa Williams so eloquently said in response to a question about this (and I’m paraphrasing her), “Why does a project need to last forever? A song or a film are not considered unworthy simply because they have a beginning and an ending. Why can’t we think of other kinds of media this way?” Amen.