Journalism Prof. Jake Batsell wins fellowship to study the survival of nonprofit news

Journalism Prof. Jake Batsell wins fellowship to study the survival of nonprofit news.

Jake Batsell

By Caroline O’Donovan

At the International Symposium on Online Journalism this year, SMU journalism professor Jake Batsell presented a paper on taking the idea of engagement out of the web browser and into the real world through events. Batsell had visited newsrooms all over the country because of an interest in finding alternative revenue streams in panels, parties, bar nights, quiz bowls, sports events, cook offs, and more. He’s currently wrapping up the manuscript of a book on the subject, Engaged Journalism: Rethinking News in an Era of Digitally Empowered Audiences.

But news evolves more quickly then academic publishing calendars can allow, so he’s diving into a new role. Texas Tribune CEO and editor-in-chief Evan Smith recently announced that, beginning in August, Batsell will be one of two Knight-funded fellows at the news nonprofit. In Smith’s own words, Batsell will

have a charge to travel the country and the globe, collecting, chronicling and disseminating juicy bits about all the innovative and impactful (and hopefully replicable) work going on…Jake knows more about who’s doing what in our fast-changing world than just about anyone we know. It will be a pleasure, not to mention enormously enlightening, to be a regular visitor to the new website he’ll curate as part of his fellowship.

When I caught up with Jake, he was continuing his ongoing tour of newsrooms in London with the Telegraph. We chatted about monetizing niche news, getting out from behind the desk, experimentation in metrics and measurement, and a hoped-for esprit de corps when it comes to transparency in business.

O’Donovan: Are you going to be spending most of your time in the Tribune newsroom or are you going to be doing the same kind of travelling you’ve been doing in your most recent research?

Batsell: It’ll be kind of a mix of both. I will have a desk in the newsroom, I’m told.

Part of my mission, as I understand, is certainly to travel to newsrooms around the country and kind of look for best practices to share and to put together a curricular resource for the industry to look at for guidance — especially for folks who are starting out to build nonprofit sites of their own. But part of my mission, too, I think, is to leverage the Tribune’s experience.

The Tribune certainly hasn’t figured everything out, but they’re doing a lot of things right in the arena of nonprofit news — so I think really my mission is to immerse myself in the Tribune newsroom and culture and get a sense of how they’re doing things, but then to broaden the perspective a little bit and get out there to some of the Tribune’s peers, both nonprofit and for-profit, around the country and see what they’re doing that the Tribune isn’t. So I think the Tribune is looking to learn from this fellowship as well, and to have me as a window to some of what their peers are doing in the industry.

Another thing is that the Tribune gets a lot of requests from, whether its students or researchers like myself or other nonprofit news organizations around the world, and they’ve never had a go-to resource. And it can be kind of a drain on their staffing — it takes away from the journalism that they’re doing.

They enjoy and are very flattered by the attention and the requests for guidance that they get, but I think part of the mission is to — through a website, white papers, through other platforms — to put together a pragmatic, almost evergreen curriculum that when people call or they’re starting up their own news venture and they’re coming to the Tribune for advice. So the Tribune can first point them to this resource, and hopefully that will answer a lot of questions that folks have and be a one-stop-shop sort of place.

O’Donovan: So it’s going to be taking the wisdom that the Tribune has stumbled upon in its early years and comparing that with what’s going on in the field?

Batsell: Yes, absolutely, but really focused especially in a really pragmatic, business-oriented sustainability focus. Obviously, Nieman Lab does a lot of great work, CJR, Poynter, GigaOM — there’s a lot of operations out there that are covering the future of news. So we don’t want to replicate any of that with this fellowship. I think it’s to take a specific focus at the business side of things in a way that the Tribune can learn from and a lot of the news industry can learn from. So I’m going to certainly do my best to not replicate the great work of Nieman Lab and Ken Doctor. INMA does great things as well.

I’m going to really try to make it as pragmatic as possible. How do you put on your first event? How do you handle a situation if a major donor becomes a major story? What are the different types of membership models that work? Really how-to, granular stuff from the Tribune’s perspective and what they’ve learned, but then branch out and go to some of the other interesting news experiments going on around the country and combining what I’ve learned at the Tribune with what I learned by visiting newsrooms for the past year or so working on this book.

I’ve visited two dozen newsrooms. Now that I’m here in the U.K. — I visited the Telegraph on Tuesday — I’ve done over 100 interviews, and there are certain themes and best practices and common elements of audience engagement strategies that I’ve encountered in my visits to different newsrooms. So I really see the fellowship as a continuation of the research with the book.

O’Donovan: It sounds like you’re aiming for something a little more prescriptive. Will there be a blog component, or are you really focusing on being more curricular?

Batsell: I think we’ll figure more of that out once I actually start. I’m going to start in August sometime with a soft launch of the blog, probably in Tumblr form, with some of the things I’ve learned here in the U.K., and also explaining what the goal of the blog is going to be.

And then, I think I’ll be simultaneously working on longer term things like white papers and more of the evergreen curriculum sort of thing that can be a standing resource.

I do hope to build an audience. I think of the audience as certainly people in the industry who are working valiantly but sometimes get frustrated in terms of trying to figure out this equation. It’s not just about journalism anymore. You’ve got to figure out how to pay for that journalism in a much more direct way than you ever have before. That’s what I kind of see as my mission: looking at the business aspects of how to do online journalism right.

Read the full interview.

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