Want to launch a local news business? Apply now for the journalism entrepreneurship boot camp

A custom-made program for people who are ready to create a viable business based on delivering reported news or information

July 7, 2020 by Phillip Smith


A custom-made program for people who are ready to create a viable business based on delivering reported news or information

I’m excited to announce that applications are now open again for the journalism entrepreneurship boot camp. And I’m even more excited to share that the boot camp is now part of the newly announced Google News Initiative Startups Lab that is being piloted in partnership with LION Publishers, an association for independent digital news startups.

The first phase of our GNI Startups Lab will include an eight-week fully-remote boot camp that includes live online classes, one-on-one coaching and peer learning. Upon completion of the program, participants will also receive a free year-long membership to LION Publishers, and the opportunity to apply to the second phase of the GNI Startups Lab program, which will help participants to further grow their project from a plan into a news business — one with loyal customers and recurring revenue.

And, the best news of all: the only cost for you to participate is your time. You can apply today, right here. Applications are due by August 17.

This journalism entrepreneurship boot camp — the first of its kind when piloted in 2018 — was born of more than two decades of experience working with startup digital newsrooms. Over that time, I saw reporters and upstart publishers struggle again-and-again with the same challenges of turning their passion and skills into a viable business that paid the bills. It was a problem that I believed could be solved.

Three years ago, I took that burning question — “How might it be possible to better equip people to succeed at creating financially-sustainable news businesses?” — into a year-long fellowship at Stanford University. There I studied every entrepreneurial offering available, both at Stanford and across the U.S. I took classes. I participated in boot camps run by others. I attended a “startup school.” I spent months shadowing experts in the field and got certified as a startup coach. All of my passion and experience over the last decade, and everything I learned in these last three years, is at the core of the journalism entrepreneurship boot camp.

The curriculum is laser-focused, and immensely practical. It’s infused with my own experience as the CTO of an award-winning local online newsroom, and has been battle-tested with more than a dozen news startups. And I’m honoured, humbled, and fired up to be able share all of this with you again.

A curriculum that is remote-first by design.

Over the last several weeks I’ve burned the midnight oil with my colleagues at LION Publishers and Google News Initiative to put together the program details outlined below, and we’ve tried our best to anticipate your questions.

If you have questions not covered here, there are three information sessions planned between now and the application deadline, August 17:

  • Tuesday, July 21 8–8:30 a.m. PT (RSVP)
  • Wednesday, August 5 at 2:30–3 p.m. PT (RSVP)
  • Thursday, August 13 noon–12:30 PT (RSVP)

Finally, as part of the GNI Startups Lab effort, we’re building an online community of practice and peer learning that’s open to anyone who’s passionate about news startups, “micro media empires,” tiny news organizations, and the intersection of journalism and entrepreneurship. If you’re ready to meet like-minded people and dive into the weeds of running a news business, join the community here.

With the above out of the way, let’s move on to the Frequently Asked Questions for the boot camp:

How much does the boot camp cost to attend?

Like the last boot camp, If you apply and get accepted into the boot camp — you give it 110% — it will cost you nothing but your time.

That’s right: all of the boot camp costs are covered. This includes the weekly seminars and one-on-one coaching, several tools to help you refine and test your idea, and access to our community of practice.

No fees, no tuition, no income sharing arrangement. No financial barriers to your success. Just the support you need to become independent, and stay independent.

Plus, upon successfully completing the bootcamp, you will receive a year-long “aspiring entrepreneur” membership to LION Publishers.

What are the dates of the boot camp?

Classes will begin the week of September 21 and end the week of November 9, 2020.

What kinds of business ideas are eligible?

  • Efforts focused on delivering local news and civic information
  • Reporting-based businesses focused on encouraging civic engagement
  • Businesses focused on single-subject reporting that isn’t geographically bound

We are platform agnostic. That means you could plan to deliver your product through a podcast, newsletter, event series, app, messaging, videos, a website or anything else.

Also, we will not be accepting participants from businesses that want to serve journalists/journalism as their primary customers or legacy publications that are trying to make a transition to digital. We are also not looking for applications that are primarily aggregation of existing content.

Who’s the program for?

You should consider this boot camp if:

  • You have identified a community’s need for better news, information and/or engagement and think you can deliver a solution
  • You’re less than a year into running your news business and want to re-evaluate some of your core hypotheses and make adjustments to improve your financial sustainability
  • You’re committed to public-service reporting with communities, not on communities
  • You’re committed to making your business idea financially sustainable as quickly as possible
  • You’re able to commit at least eight hours a week for eight weeks to turn your business idea into reality (ideally, you can commit more time)

We are especially interested in entrepreneurs who want to serve communities that don’t often see themselves or their stories reflected in their local news.

Who is eligible to apply?

  • You should be based in, and plan to launch in, the U.S. or Canada
  • You should be comfortable with written and spoken English, as all sessions and assignments will be in English only for this session (I hope we can deliver the boot camp in Spanish and French in the near future.)
  • You can join as an individual or as a team. If you already have a team, up to two of you can participate in the boot camp sessions and coaching. (Sidenote: If you do have a team, a good goal is to have one person for each of these core expertise areas: editorial, business and/or marketing, product and/or technology.)
  • You have some journalism experience or a business background and passion for the community you want to serve
  • If you decide to apply to a future part of this program, you will need to be authorized to work in your country of residence.

How many people are you selecting to participate?

We’ll be selecting up to 24 teams.

Where will the boot camp be held?

The boot camp is entirely online. It’s intentionally designed to be an online experience because we want you to stay in your community and to do the work in that context.

What is the format of the boot camp?

There will be a 90-minute live webinar each week. At the end of the webinar, we’ll have a conversation as a group about the tasks you’ll undertake that week. Once participants are selected, we can choose the day/time that works best for everyone. The sessions will also be recorded for later viewing. At least once a week, teams will have a one-on-one coaching session with me. Teams can select this time each week based on their schedules.

Some weeks there will be extra “peer review” sessions, where teams present on their progress and we unpack the learnings.

In between our live video sessions, we’ll communicate using a chat platform that’s comfortable for everyone, e.g., Slack, private Facebook or LinkedIn group, etc.

How many hours per week will I need to invest?

I like to answer that by saying “at least part-time hours; ideally a full-time commitment.” I expect participants to plan for at least eight hours a week, preferably a lot more.

If you’ve already launched a project that’s less than 12 months in and aren’t sure what to do next, the boot camp should complement what you’re already doing.

If you’re in an existing full-time position and thinking about the boot camp to grow your side hustle into your main hustle, that’s great! You’ll want to think about how to fit the minimum number of hours into your schedule. (And, if the weekly webinar happens during your paying job working hours, you’ll need to make time to watch the recorded version.)

Ideally, you and your partner will be on the calls together. At least one of you is responsible for attending, or watching the re-cap. You can also switch off weeks if that’s easier.

Typically each week will consist of 90 minutes of seminar time, two or more hours of assignments, and two or more hours of readings. The more time you put into the assignments, the more you will typically get out of the boot camp experience.

How far along should my project be before applying to the boot camp?

I’m excited for you to apply at any stage where you believe the boot camp would help you achieve your objectives. That said, I describe the boot camp as a pre- pre- accelerator program. Practically, that means this is for very early-stage entrepreneurs (or those with entrepreneurial aspirations) and early stage ideas.

You could simply have a strong sense of a problem you’d like to solve in your community, or you could have already taken steps to realize that idea. Both are a great fit.

If you simply have passion for starting your own journalism or information business and are still searching for the right idea, that’s also a great fit. You’ll want to take advantage of the pre-boot camp reading and exercises to help you define an idea to bring into the rest of the boot camp.

Does the boot camp include information on financing my project?

Yes and no. Pulling from interviews I’ve done with successful journalism entrepreneurs, we will discuss the common ways that new businesses are financed in the early stages. And I’ll point you to resources that can help you explore all of the options in more detail on your own time.

However, there will be no formal curriculum specifically on how to obtain grants, small business loans, or investment. I made this decision because it is far more likely that a new business will fail due to lack of customers rather than a lack of financing. So, for the boot camp, we will focus on finding customers first.

Does the boot camp include information on how to write a business plan?

Yes and no. Your weekly assignments will result in documents that answer questions similar to what is often found in a business plan. But these will be in a format that I believe is far more useful in the early stages of a business. For example, simplified revenue projections, a growth roadmap, and various forms of “pitch” documents that help you clearly and concisely explain the idea to others.

Does the boot camp include information to help me decide on the right structure for my project (e.g. non-profit, for-profit, LLC, C-Corp, S-Corp)?

Yes and no. We will discuss the options in the context of a decision that you’ll eventually need to make. And I’ll point you toward ample resources for when the time comes to make that decision.

However, in the earliest stages of a new venture, your focus should be on building relationships with your community — readers, listeners, watchers, advertisers, sponsors, etc. — and moving those relationships toward something that supports you financially.

The question of business structure can easily become a rabbit hole that can consume a lot of mental energy and limit your options far too early in the development of your project or business. If you’ve already made the decision, great! If not, that’s obviously fine too.

What are the outcomes of this program? In other words, what should I walk away with?

  • The ability to describe your business idea concisely and compellingly
  • A realistic revenue forecast for the next six, 12, 24, and 36 months.
  • A set of three-month objectives and a plan for how to achieve them
  • A deeper understanding of your community’s needs, and how your project will meet those needs
  • Confidence from having run small experiments to prove your idea and that have provided you with valuable, objective data on your business’s viability
  • Knowledge of which technology and tools are the best fit for your undertaking
  • A “continuous innovation” mindset that will help to keep your project relevant for years to come
  • And, most optimistically, some customers!

How do I participate in the program?

Applications are now open, and you can apply here by August 17, 2020. When applying, you will be asked to provide basic information about your personal and professional backstory, as well as the business idea that you hope to develop further in the boot camp. Here’s a copy of the application to download before you begin.

What must I do to complete the program?

  • Attend or watch the weekly seminar each week (if you have a team member, you may switch off and all sessions are recorded)
  • Complete at least four out of eight one-on-one coaching sessions
  • Submit a weekly status update and short survey
  • Demonstrate significant effort at completing the weekly assignments
  • Submit a final video pitch for your project

Will you publicly announce my participation in this program? Do I need to let my current employer know I will be participating?

We understand that some participants must continue to work a full-time job while participating in this boot camp, and that some participants will be working at existing news organizations. We will give participants the option of being included in the announcement about who is accepted into the program — it will not be required to be identified as a boot camp participant.

Additionally, we will follow “Vegas Rules” during the boot camp — meaning whatever is discussed in the boot camp, stays in the boot camp. Participants who do not abide by these rules will be dismissed from the program.

Does applying for the GNI Startup Boot Camp preclude me from applying for other GNI-related programs or funding?

No, it doesn’t. You should apply to whatever opportunities are best suited for you at this moment — applying to multiple ones will not help or hurt your chances of being selected.

How will I know if my idea, startup, non-profit, or company is a good fit for this?

If you would fall into LION Publishers’ aspiring entrepreneur membership criteria, or full member criteria and you’re still in the early days, then it is probably a great fit.

Have a look at the questions What kinds of business ideas are eligible? and Who’s the program for? for more detail.

Are you looking for volunteer coaches and mentors for the boot camp

Yes. Absolutely. If you have deep expertise in a very specific area like sales, marketing, finance or accounting, law relating to new business, or presentation coaching, I’d be really happy to hear from you.

I have more questions! Who can I talk to?

With the help of LION Programming Director Anika Anand, I’ll be hosting three information sessions between now and the application deadline:

  • Tuesday, July 21 8–8:30 a.m. PT (RSVP)
  • Wednesday, August 5 at 2:30–3 p.m. PT (RSVP)
  • Thursday, August 13 noon–12:30 PT (RSVP)

If you’re unable to make one of those, please reach out directly to LION Programming Director Anika Anand at [email protected] with any questions you have. If they are questions specific to the boot camp curriculum, she’ll pass them along to me.

Sign up for the weekly newsletter

Join the LION mailing list to get our weekly roundup of opportunities and resources for news entrepreneurs. View our most recent issues.