What can newsrooms learn from startups?

There are stark differences between the culture in a newsroom, especially one attached to a legacy news company, and the culture in a tech startup. Monica Guzman and I explored some of the many ways these two cultures are different and what newsrooms have to learn from the startups last night at an ONA-SPJ meetup in Seattle.

MonicaMonica (@moniguzman) went from a Seattle-Post Intelligencer newsroom staffed with more than 140 to an online only seattlepi.com newsroom with 20 and now works at Intersect, a social storytelling startup. She said some of the biggest differences in those cultures stem from how the people who work there view their audience – and each other. Internal competition for scoops at the newspaper-based P-I contrasted greatly with her incredibly team-based experience at the online-only P-I and even more so at Intersect.

She also talked about how much love Intersect has for its users. A new startup just getting its name out and hoping people will give it a try views the audience much differently than most traditional newsrooms, where a certain disdain for the “idiot readers” is accepted behavior (and occasionally warranted, of course).

I’ve spent 15-plus years in newsrooms and two years at a startup. I also have talked to dozens of news startups as part of my research for my upcoming book on entrepreneurial journalism. So I tried to add some of those insights to the discussion last night and a couple of quotes seemed to really resonate with the audience.

One was from Texas Tribune editor Evan Smith, speaking about the sense of urgency and lack of complacency at a startup.

“I feel like Indiana Jones outrunning the boulder. If I look away for a second, I’m gonna get run over.”

Another was from Techdirt founder Mike Masnick, who suggests the measure of a successful news startup should be directly related to the engagement of the audience.

“The really successful ones are the ones that have focused on building a loyal community.  Once you have that community in place, it enables so much more.”

And people really liked Pegasus News founder Mike Orren’s comment that, when his site was still finding its way, the employees exhibited a loyalty to “the cause” that made him feel like the whole operation was “a pirate ship.”

That level of dedication in a newsroom would make for some very different outcomes for legacy news companies in the digital age. As UW student Lucas Anderson remarked on Twitter, “Gotta find myself a pirate ship.”

Note: For more on this topic, see Lauren Rabaino’s post on 10,000 Words.


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