Completing the Circle: Ottawa’s Entrepreneurial Ecosystem

Startup journalism ecosystem chart

Startup journalism ecosystem chart

For startup journalism to really work, it will take a healthy ecosystem – one that includes universities, mainstream media partners, the technology community and public support.

I’ve been travelling all fall, talking to entrepreneurs and academics from across North America about how to encourage media innovation and motivate students.

But now I’m back at home – and drawing on the eager and passionate mentors and business success stories in Canada’s capital.  In the following posts, I’m going to highlight just some of the people and companies that are part of Ottawa’s ecosystem.

 

BUILDING NEW TOOLS:

photo-4Some startups in this city are building tools to be marketed to journalists. These are the creators of technology that can help us do our job.

GnowitMohammad Al-Azzouni and Shanzad Khan run Gnowit out of Ottawa’s economic development incubator, Invest Ottawa. It’s a media monitoring company. But this company’s technology drills down and customizes the data it monitors for its sources.

Khan says for some clients it’s used almost like a wire service – they receive email alerts. And they can map out “interest graphs” to show what’s going on that might be of interest.

Right now, Gnowit has nine employees. And it hopes to hire someone with a journalism/communications background in the new year.

“Within the next year we want to start growing, said Al Azzouni. “Content marketing is really important now. We need people like that. It’s really important to have writers, to do blogs, to be thought leaders.”

BRANDING

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Untether.tv 

Entrepreneur and startup coach, Rob Woodbridge has deep roots in Ottawa’s technology community.  Woodbridge is experienced in startup development, but recently he pivoted into storytelling. With some simple, cheap equipment Woodbridge brings mobile and new media stories to his subscribers. Check it out.

He says this web based TV show allows him to get to the CEOs who might like to hire him for his advice in digital, mobile and media innovation. For Woodbridge untether.tv is all about reaching out and brand building.

“Now that I do it, I love doing it. It’s addictive,” said Woodbridge.

“I’m not a journalist. I actually hate the fact I love it. But I’d rather be doing this than anything else right now.”

Not long ago Woodbridge spent a year inside Post Media, trying to help the vast, traditional media operation figure out how to make it into the future by developing a digital strategy. Woodbridge says when it comes to the churn and change of the media industry, newspapers are the canary in the coal mine.

“At some point TV will suffer even more.”

One answer, according to Woodbridge (and he’s definitely not alone in this) is the development of hyper-local news, and making that news, its collection and delivery more audience focused.

“Like having mobile ads pop up, depending on where the phone owner is,” said Woodbridge. “Look at niche blogs, there’s a ton of money to be made.”

His advice to the young, entrepreneurial journalist: Go out and interview people – what do they want? Brand yourself. And then do content marketing.

“How do you create a market? Tell your story. Then use analytics to see what’s resonating with people.”

Starting Startups

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Click here to see video of James Baxter of iPolitics

(For startup journalism to really work, it will take a healthy ecosystem – drawing on the eager and passionate mentors and business success stories in Canada’s capital.  I’ve highlighted some of the people and companies that are part of Ottawa’s ecosystem.)

 iPolitics:  Experienced reporter, James Baxter modeled his upstart digital news organization on politico.com  (a politics and government digital news source in the U.S.) As editor and publisher, Baxter’s message to readers is: “Canadians deserve a venue where this country’s unique political personalities and policy issues are reported on fairly, discussed by experts and debated in an open arena, all in a timely and efficient manner.” Three years in, he believes the iPolitics team is finding success doing just that. But Baxter wants to do more.

“We should have someone in Alberta, BC and Quebec,” said Baxter of his reporting staff. Right now iPolitics has seven reporters and a few, part-time contributing editors in various parts of the country and world.

The organization was built thanks to private funding by “a family with a long history in journalism” along with help from some public funding agencies. Baxter says he’s been very careful about who to partner with – as iPolitics wants to maintain its integrity and independence.

And while he wants his own organization to grow, Baxter is also interested in helping incubate other digital, journalism enterprises.

“Create a hot house with a collection of programmers and journalists that come up with their own ideas.”

This would make iPolitics a very important instigator in the startup journalism ecosystem.

Bring it on.

Media Innovation at Northeastern University

IMG_1479Hedgehogs, geeks, artists and storytellers are all part of Jeff Howe’s vision for a new, journalism education ecosystem at Northeastern University in Boston. 

Howe is an author (Crowdsourcing, 2008) and former writer and editor at Wired. He’s now a Northeastern professor. He envisions a multidisciplinary, learning team at the university.  The idea brings together investigative reporters (he calls them the hedgehogs), computer scientists (he “lovingly” calls them the geeks) and graphic artists who can dream up new ways to visualize stories online.

“And finally a storyteller, because I will need employment in the brave new world, because I write long form narratives…We are in a period where narrative and story telling are more important than ever.”

This graduate level program for experienced journalists would have input from other parts of the university including business, computer science, art and design. Diversity is key.

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Click photo see video from Northeastern U

“The idea is to bring in constituencies that haven’t always interacted a lot, and bring them together in essentially a newsroom — a university newsroom.”

Howe is a smart, dynamic guy. We found a common interest, as we’re both developing new media courses. He calls his program Media Innovation.

“I think teaching innovation within institutions is really essential, because I think a lot of these kids are going to graduate and they’ll need to shake things up. It’s tremendously important that we make students aware that there is an option that there wasn’t before to create media startups and that’s very exciting.”

Investigative Startups

IMG_1392Lisa Williams says she’s a fairy godmother for investigative journalists.

She’s the director of Digital Engagement for the Investigative News Network, headquartered in California.

This is a nonprofit, umbrella organization for news services across the U.S.. It represents groups that produce original, high-impact investigative stories – filling the gaps they say have been left by cuts to traditional media.

I met with Williams at a Cambridge coffee shop, across the street from the innovation space where she works.

Williams was originally a native of the technology industry, but she says she loves how journalism and technology converged. This well respected, journalism innovator was a fellow at the MIT Media Lab’s Center for Civic Media  and founded Placeblogger.com, an index of local weblogs. (Read about Placeblogger in Jay Rosen’s PressThink archives.)

“A lot of my kin are chained up in the basement of insurance companies,” Williams said of her former technology colleagues.  “How lucky am I, I get to work with you people.”

Williams brings her passion and startup sensibility to the nonprofit sector. All 92 Investigative News Network members are nonprofit organizations. The network helps these fledgling investigative forums distribute stories, find efficiencies by pooling resources and develop new revenue streams in the hopes of becoming sustainable operations.

“A lot of these centres are newbie entrepreneurs. They need help with legal and ethical policies and freelance contracts with lawyers,” said Williams.

The list of investigative news sites includes: the Ohio Centre for Investigative Journalism, Hidden City Philadelphia  and the Broward Bulldog in south Florida.

Williams says each news site must apply to become a member. It has to meet certain requirements including: being nonprofit, have donor transparency, be nonpartisan and apply high standards for accuracy, fairness and integrity.

The organization has no Canadian members – yet – but the Investigative News Network hopes to spread across North America and around the globe.

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Click the photo to see video from NECIR

Across the Charles, in the basement of Boston University, is where I find Joe Bergantino. He’s the Executive Director of The New England Centre for Investigative Reporting –an INN member.

The Centre partners with the Boston Globe and WGBH (Public Broadcaster) to produce investigations on issues including: campaign finance, energy and environment and health and safety.

“It’s constantly evolving and we’re looking for new revenue streams,” said Bergantino.

The New England Centre is a good example of what the Investigative News Network is hoping to incubate. This centre started out with generous grants, but it has since developed a unique way to pay for its important investigations: by training a new generation of young reporters.

Every summer, Bergantino’s team invites high school students from across the U.S. to take a two-week investigative reporting workshop at Boston University – earning more than $200,000 for NECIR.

“I see myself as an entrepreneur,” said the long-time reporter. “I started a newspaper when I was 9 years old. It has always been my passion.”

But for Bergantino and his small team, it’s a constant hustle, searching for new revenue streams.

Lisa Williams knows first hand how difficult it is to find ways to monetize investigative news. But the Investigative News Network sees strength in numbers. Williams says INN is attempting to build the health and wealth of each site, through the development of the network and by establishing a sense of community.

“I’m not sure the INN members feel like a “we” yet,” said Williams. “But we’re working on it.”

Entrepreneurial Journalism at CUNY

IMG_1517Just footsteps from the New York Times in midtown Manhattan, is the easy-to-miss doorway of the City University of New York. Only eight years old, CUNY has a somewhat small, but progressive journalism school with just 100 students.

“I’ve been teaching this from the beginning,” said Jeff Jarvis, the entrepreneurial journalism professor and author.

“I was brought in to be the interactive, crazy guy.”

CUNY sees itself as a leader in the emerging field of entrepreneurial journalism. In 2010, CUNY’s Tow-Knight Centre for Entrepreneurial Journalism was founded thanks to Knight Foundation grants.  And it teaches big “E” entrepreneurialism.

“I insist students must do for-profit businesses,” said Jarvis. “They need to understand how to make journalism sustainable…and we teach ethics early in the term.”

In an earlier post about MIT’s Centre for Civic Media I talked about Ethan Zuckerman’s discomfort with entrepreneurial journalism and his preference for the non-profit type. Zuckerman and Jarvis know each other, and I’m sure have lively debates.

So what Jarvis and his colleagues, including Jeremy Caplan, encourage is the actual development and creation of start-ups as course projects. Each of the 15 students comes up with a business plan. Some of these projects make it beyond the classroom, some don’t. Then there are CUNY graduates who take their innovative ideas and made them work inside a mainstream media organization. (Some call this intrapreneurialism.)

“The goal is to make them more literate in business. And past graduation there’s mentoring.”

On my morning at CUNY, I sit in on Caplan and Jarvis’s class. They’re practicing their elevator pitches. All the students have been developing projects since September. Now each needs to be able to explain it in 4 minutes – they must clearly, concisely sell their plan.

Journalism Class at CUNY

Click photo to see the journalism Class at CUNY

The first few are pretty clunky. Jarvis points out their weaknesses including “up-talking, verbal ticks and lack of eye-contact.” But the main point these profs are pushing is the clear delivery of their key message – one that must be ready to present to potential investors and consumers by the next class.

“You need to sell it,” Jarvis said to the students. “I’m a reader, or an investor, you need to convince me this is a viable business. And you need to anticipate my questions.”

Over the past 10 weeks, these budding entrepreneurs have been taught that their businesses must be based on a solution to a problem. Many of the solutions in the room involve creating a niche website for a particular community in New York.

One is a news forum dedicated to “queer” news (both curated and original) in NYC. Another student is developing a site for artists in the Bronx to advertise what’s being ignored in that part of the city. A South-Asian arts magazine is the last pitch I hear. It’s already up and running, has advertisers and allows readers to buy stuff on-line.

The course pushes the students to research potential business models, audience and competition. They need to develop a budget with expected costs and cash flow. They build charts to show their enterprise’s hopeful revenue trajectory.

To close this day’s class, Jarvis welcomes in a guest – a former student who has made good. Annaliese Griffin is Editor-in-Chief of Brooklyn Based.  “The best source for events, food and cultural news in the borough.”

Brooklyn Based has a web presence and produces an email newsletter to keep subscribers up to date with events, people and places in Brooklyn. It makes money through events and advertising. It’s a good example of what can be accomplished. But Griffin gives the students a reality check. Nurturing a fledgling business means hard work, little sleep, a lot of hustle and tough decisions.

CUNY doesn’t sugar coat the business of journalism. But it does provide skills that will help reporters and editors whether they work within a traditional organization or create their own. It may be “for profit”, but that doesn’t necessarily mean making a whole lot of money.  It does mean making journalism, creating a buzz. Like any kind of entrepreneurialism it means trying, failing and trying again.