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J-Lab's Schaffer sees civic impulse driving journalism's future

by: Sally Duros |

J-Lab founder Jan Schaffer sees an emerging civic impulse driving the future of journalism. As part of that, she sees journalism outlets that are more catalyst than commodity.

Schaffer has been leading the edge of innovation in the news sphere for 20 years and most of her work has been enabling others to innovate. In late October, she wrote about her coming pivot where she's taking J-Lab to a new chapter and concentrating on projects of her own.

Schaffer will still be around under the name J-Lab, since she owns it. She's writing a book on Law for Media Start-ups for the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism, and teaching media entrepreneurship at American University. Beginning in January, Schaffer will have a one semester visiting professorship in Memphis teaching entrepreneurship and working with the start-up community there. And she has several other projects waiting to be born.

"My aspiration really is to spend more time writing stuff I want to write, and less time writing grant proposals," Schaffer says.

She and I discussed the trends she's observed over the past 20 years and what important trends she sees emerging.

Become a cause

Any conversation about the future of news revolves around issues of sustainability. As part of that, Schaffer sees a redefinition of what journalism is.

"I do believe that people will be less successful asking stakeholders to pay for journalism, and more successful when they ask them to pay for a cause. And what do I mean by a cause? Well, a cause may just be disseminating news and information," Schaffer says. "But, it's like the Guardian's model. People will pay for the Guardian because it's something they believe in, they don't necessarily pay for it to get stories."

If community stewardship is the newsroom's core value, then that could be cause enough.

"I think that we already are seeing new taxonomies of journalism emerging that have more of a civic impulse then the kind of journalism I grew up with," Schaffer says. "So, what does that mean? Well, it means that some of the people who are getting involved in community news and information really want to build community, and not just cover it. That doesn't mean build it with one agenda, but instead be stewards of good community life. And that's a different mind set."

In the past many professional journalists would have squirmed at that idea. Schaffer says that in that past, she would have as well, but she doesn't anymore.

"In fact, I find the kind of journalism I like to consume right now has a little bit more of a civic impulse," Schaffer says.

This brand of journalism is evident in a range of online reporting -- from the work of journalist Glenn Greenwald -- which Schaffer labels as anti-government -- to the social justice reporting by The Marshall Project.

Spotlighting problems that can have solutions

"While it's not actively campaigning, it is, by force of it's journalism, spot-lighting problems that can have solutions," she says.

As another example, she cites Catalyst Chicago, a long-standing publication -- now online —founded by Linda Lenz to report on education.

"Catalyst is very much covering public schools. But they're unabashedly doing it from a lens that says 'We care about good public schools.'"

Schaffer did a case study of a Catalyst's program, through which the publication held community meetings to educate the public about preschools.

"Well, you know, that's not a classic kind of activity that a standard journalist would be comfortable with," Schaffer says. "But again, for the mission of the Catalyst it was fine. (Lenz) felt comfortable doing it. And it worked out pretty well. … (The program) got a lot more enrollment as a result of informing the community face to face instead of just writing a story."

The kind of function Schaffer describes used to be the work of intermediaries, non-profits, often service providers, who were subject matter experts and had long reach into their communities. They'd have held the meetings and Catalyst would instead have reported on them.

In the case Schaffer describes, the intermediary party has been replaced with a newsroom.

"Just like a lot of non-profits are creating their own media. I think a lot of journalism outlets are becoming less of a commodity, and more of a catalyst," Schaffer says.

That's not a bad thing. Although in this scenario, newsrooms have to be careful that they're not banging the drum for something with a hidden agenda or that the community would not support.

The changing definition of pure journalism

"But I think you could still be pure, in the journalists definition of pure. But also catalyze some community conversations, and brainstorming around problems and issues and solutions," Schaffer says.

What's considered "pure" is being redefined.

"The definition of pure is changing. And I think a lot of where it's changing, and a lot of the drive for change, is happening with entrepreneurial news start-ups who don't feel quite as constrained by the do's and don'ts of the old rules," Schaffer says.

She sees evidence of that in her students who are less resistant to the idea of advocating for an outcome.

In one example, a news site run by volunteers in Milwaukee ran a series on a run-down section of town, with a photo of the existing streetscape. They then hired a graphic artist to draw an improved streetscape, with street lights, trees, new curbs and bike lanes. The site ran the before and after pictures side-by-side. Once shown the possibilities, the community and the alderman jumped on board and made it happen.

"I'll show that example to some journalists and they'll say, 'Oh, well, we don't do that.' Then I'll show it to some students in my classes, and they're kind of scratching their heads and saying, 'What's wrong with that?' You know? So there's really different mindsets emerging," she says.

As the ground shifts, what is allowable shifts as well. But for the new ground rules to work ethically, transparency is essential. There's also the fact that "If people don't agree with what you're doing they're not going to read you," Schaffer says.

N.J. model for community foundations

In terms of news ecosystem development, she sees the work of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation in New Jersey as a model for other community foundations.

"To me, it's a classic example of building capacity and infrastructure, not just funding individual sites as commodities," Schaffer says. "The foundation is really building an ecosystem for the state that feels good. There's a lot of collaboration. There's training. There are some small grants for seed funding."

"New Jersey is a densely populated state with a thin sprinkling of major media. If if gets major commercial television coverage, it comes episodically from stations based in New York City or Philadelphia. Its largest newspapers, the Newark Star Ledger and the Asbury Park Press, have dramatically downsized.

What is emerging is a media ecosystem of independent startups -- NJSpotlight to cover the state legislature and scores of local and niche-topic sites. Dodge, with some Knight Foundation funding, is helping to build both a support network and some connective tissue among both new startups and legacy news outlets. I think they are doing that to a greater degree in an individual state than anyone else I know of," she says.

"Dodge funds NJNewsCommons, which is really acting as a robust hub for the new landscape, providing training, brainstorming, consulting, seed funding and even a place to work from at Montclair State, if you need a desk to sit at. I think there are some 50-60 partners or more, now that are part of the Commons," she says.

They share story, tech ideas and revenue ideas to try to achieve sustainability.

Newsrooms must find appropriate scale

At the newsroom level, Schaffer says sustainability is all about finding he appropriate scale.

"I think the sustainable model is not to scale up too quickly. Stay small."

That means for members of the Investigative News Network, a budget less than $500,000 per year, and for members of the LION publishers, budgets less than $250,000 a year.

The key is to work backward from your aspirational budget -- and determine what's possible.

"I think there's a finite amount of income you're going to get from advertising in any small community. So you figure out what that is, and what your penetration can be for that," she says. "There's a small amount of income that you can get from donors or members. And then at that point, you have to just decide what you can do, and what you can't. "

Some newsrooms have grown accustomed to paying for operations with large multimillion grants.

"Really, funders are not looking to pay operating costs," Schaffer says.

Big newsrooms with $8 million to $10 million per year budgets, such as the Center for Investigative Reporting, ProPublica as Public Integrity, have "a lot of money to raise every year," she says.

Schaffer sees micro-streams of revenue as the key to sustainability.

"I think there's not a sustainable model, I think there are models, plural. And I think they're all based on micro-streams of revenue," Schaffer says.

Micro-streams include some advertising, events and consulting as well as members, donors, or subscribers. She also thinks running press releases could become a lucrative stream.

What's ahead for the J-Lab founder?

"I feel excited about it, I feel very energized, and I'm happy for the change. The exception is, of course the Baby Boomer Grant program. But I think that's going to be my swan song. That's going to be the last one I launch."

J-Lab's Baby Boomer Grant program has been christened "Geezer Grants" by some. It will offer $12,000 in startup funding to people age 50-plus who want to launch a news project. Learn more and apply now. Deadline: Dec. 15. (Download a preview application.)

"(In the boomers) you have a cohort of people who often can bootstrap some of the stuff themselves. They have skills. They have a network. They have experience in the community. They have people that they can tap to help with the effort. So I think there are robust opportunities there, if somebody wants to dive in."

Sally Duros

Sally Duros is an independent journalist and digital communications strategist. You can connect with her on Google+ and on Twitter at SaDuros. She also
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