Oct 11th, 2010 @ Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

At Block by Block: The dirty secret of journalism startups

A few weeks ago, I was one of the hundred or so journalists lucky enough to be invited to the Block by Block conference, a gathering of what are now being called “community journalists” in Chicago. The event, organized by Michelle McLellan and Jay Rosen was – in my mind – the most significant gathering of entrepreneurial journalists since Jeff Jarvis’ New Business Models for News on November 2009.

Since that CUNY meeting, I feel that the community has made significant progress. Gone are the debates about whether a journalist can sell advertising (they should) or whether a reporter can become a cheerleader for their community (they can). People were less concerned about ethics and more concerned about best practices.

There are plenty of more comprehensive write-ups, but after stewing for two weeks, it seems as the debate on how to make money is over. Slowly but surely people are making a living off of journalism. However, I’m now worried about the toll it is taking on the journalist.  As of now, community journalism can not scale, resulting in low salaries and overworked journalists.

In talking with an owner of one news startup, the owner said he works 50-60 hours a week to generate roughly $100,000 in revenue a year which he has to split with another employee. Not profit. Revenue.

Most of the attendees were obsessed about how to sell advertising to local business, but not many people mentioned that most journalists are chasing down $100 ads from local business to try and cobble together a decent income. The advertising space is an uphill battle as journalists not only have to learn the sales game, but have to educate advertisers about the web, design the ad, place the ad and then chase down the payment. Oh, and they also have to write.

I’m (very, very, very, very) glad to see independent journalists focused on revenue, but now it’s time to get creative. There were probably less than five people at Block by Block that could afford to work a sub-50 hour work week and make a middle class living.

We should no longer be satisfied with sustainability, we should push for scalability.We should push for the consolidation of sales across various local news sites. We should push for using our knowledge of the web and our community to land a few big wins as opposed to the pizza shop down the street. But mostly, we should push to build a better career path for journalists where we can still report the hell out of our communities without 50 hour work weeks.

I don’t have the answer. But judging by how far we’ve all come in just a year, we’ll get there.

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