Lessons from Block by Block Super Camp – An experiment in business mentoring

By Janet and Rusty Coats

When local independent news publishers gathered for the first Block by Block Community News Summit in September 2010, we heard two recurring themes:

First, publishers told us just how much they had needed to connect so that they could learn, share and provide each other much-needed moral support.

Second, publishers told us they needed help figuring out how to sustain their sites and themselves financially.

At The Patterson Foundation, we took those two ideas and married them for an experiment in testing how a combination of peer learning and business mentoring might help build the groundwork for more financially stable independent news operations.

That’s how Super Camp was born.

Partnering with Knight Digital Media Center at USC Annenberg, The Patterson Foundation developed a curriculum for a year of intensive business mentoring for a dozen Block by Block sites. The goal? We had two:

• To get inside the inner workings of both for-profit and non-profit sites and learn what methods can best help those publishers improve their business practices.

• To take what we learn from working with those publishers and apply it more broadly to the community.

Our year of mentoring began with a 4-day session at the conclusion of Block by Block 2011, and it concludes with here at Block by Block 2012. What we’ve learned in this year has set the agenda for this year’s BxB sessions. It also formed the core for the Oct.  18-2- Community Journalism Executive Training program (CJET), a partnership of the Investigative News Network, Knight Digital Media Center and The Knight Foundation.

We’re hopeful we can continue to build on the success of Super Camp. And we want to share with you some of the headlines of what we’ve learned and how they might help you in your own business.

Super Camp publishers celebrate at the end of Block by Block 2012.

The Lessons of Super Camp

Build a realistic, actionable plan. We’ve attached the starter questionnaire used at Super Camp. Writing these answers and sharing them with advisors, and peers can solidify mission, roles and priorities. If you don’t like this format, find one you do – and use it.

Set milestones in manageable chunks. These should be big enough to challenge you, discrete enough to get done. The important part is setting deadlines for each small step on your way to the overall goal.

Lifeguards make a big difference. Find a mentor, coach or advisor who will hold you accountable to your goals and action plan. Writers need editors; business leaders need mentors.

Be the boss. Your role is to lead the business; as publisher, you are CEO. Learn to delegate duties as much as you can and to hold people accountable to their role in helping the business succeed.

Diversify revenue streams. Regardless of your tax status, relying on a single source of revenue – whether it’s foundation grants or banner ads – is a foolish bet. Conversely, don’t chase every dime. Define your revenue wheel.

Balance your budget. You will not get to sustainability if 90 percent of your expenses go to content and 10 percent go to “other.” Some sites will not become sustainable because they are designed not to be.

Sweat the small (legal) stuff. Business structure documentation, taxes, personnel records, insurance and other administrative middleware seems like a real pain in the ass – until the moment you are sued out of existence.

Metrics matter. How people are using your site helps you improve the site’s user interface, educate your social media strategy and gives you concrete facts to tell donors and advertisers. Bonus: They come with pretty graphics.

Investors are not donors. Investors invest because they want a return. That means a piece of your annual profit, to be paid back with interest, or to own a large chunk of your company. Forget this, and they will own it all.

Grants are great – but also distracting. Some non-profit sites build robust, diversified business plans and then abandon them to chase grant funding. This does not mean grants should not be pursued, but that time spent pursuing them should not obliterate all other pursuits.

Act (locally) like a business. Many publishers ignore opportunities to join local business groups, which are teeming with experience, networking opportunities, story ideas and new advertisers.

Hold for the sale. Don’t talk yourself and your customer into a smaller ad spend, contract or donation. When they lean forward, hand them a pen.

Utilize tools to track customers. Whether it’s a full-blown CRM (Customer Relationship Management) such as SaleForce.com or just a spreadsheet, these tools help grow existing clients into bigger ones.

Be clear on expectations for employees and contractors – and be clear on the legal differences between “employee” and “contractor.” More time spent training new hires means less time cleaning up messes later. This goes doubly true for when hiring friends or family.

There is difference between being a business and running a business. Running a business means it runs when you are away. It has clients who do business with the brand, not a person. Its owners take an occasional weekend off.

The Super Camp approach

There is training available to help publishers build their business acumen, but it has its limitations. We wanted to move beyond the classroom, to provide ongoing dialogue and support for publishers has they applied what they learned in the marketplace.

Super Camp began with 12 publishers, representing a mix of business models, market sizes and experience. And while all were well-established news outlets for their audiences, all publishers indicated that they needed strategic and tactical tools to help them turn the corner on sustainability.

Our system of mentoring allowed our coaches to develop deep knowledge of the specific issues that confront independent publishers – whether for-profit or non-profit – in building sustainable businesses. Prior to their 4-day session in Chicago, publishers provided deep background on their businesses, including information on finances, sources of revenue and expenses, personnel and day-to-day business practices.

In their 4-day sessions in Chicago, we worked with publishers to create detailed strategy documents create a business plan for their site. They described their customers, competitors and partners, developed a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats), analyzed current and potential revenue sources and provided a detailed exit strategy.

We put those publishers into work groups, pairing them with a business mentor who had expertise in sales, relationship management and the intricacies of running a small business. In those groups, the mentors helped publishers create a 100-day implementation plan, designed to bring their business plan to life.

The program was designed to use the Chicago session as a launchpad, with the 100-day plan as a guide for deeper, ongoing coaching. Mentors worked with the publishers through a combination of individual calls, group work sessions and site visits to help them refine their plan, confront obstacles and stay on task.

Coaches communicated weekly to share breakthroughs and breakdowns, and often doubled up to provide publishers more assistance. In addition, The Patterson Foundation provided small-business books and funded webinars with experts in such areas as recruiting and on-boarding personnel. Mentors and publishers communicated regularly on a shared Facebook page, exchanged documents in a shared cloud. This helped us maintain a high level of touch over the course of a year.

Our Super Camp Team:

The coaches:

Rusty Coats – An online media pioneer and executive with experience in both content and sales, Rusty designed the Super Camp curriculum, recruited the coaches, lead our training session in Chicago and served as “coach wrangler’’ during the year-long mentoring process.

Eleanor Cippel — As managing director of sales, business development and operations for the E.W. Scripps Company, Eleanor is responsible for leading sales initiatives at the community level and driving new strategic opportunities that grow revenue through a diverse offering of advertising products.  In her consulting work Eleanor works with publishers to guide business, sales and revenue strategy.

Emily Lowrey — Emily owns and runs Magic City Post in Birmingham, Ala., that pairs intensely local news with a shopping platform that includes e-commerce, newsletter marketing and marketing services for local independent businesses.  Prior to Magic City Post, she was the Director of Online Operations for the Buffalo News, and before that she led a team that helped GateHouse Media grow digital revenue more than $60 million in their first two years.

Joe Michaud — Joe  began his journalism career on the content side of newspapers and magazines before moving to the business side of online media in 1995, when he helped launch MaineToday.com. Affiliated with three newspapers and a TV station, MaineToday was recognized as a pioneer in original online content, community engagement and successful online business models. Since 2008, Joe has been advising media companies and entrepreneurs as a business coach and consultant. He volunteers as a mentor in Maine’s entrepreneur training program, and has his own startup, ConcertRat.com.

Partner Organizations

The Patterson Foundation has provided financial and logistical support to the Block by Block community beginning with the first summit in 2010. TPF is focused on working through collaborative partnerships to create new realities, seeking to reach beyond single acts of philanthropy to create a ripple effect of change.

Knight Digital Media Center, at USC Annenberg under the leadership of Vikki Porter, has been one of the leaders in teaching journalists and journalism entrepreneurs the skills they need to succeed in a digital age. KDMC’s pioneering work in its Boot Camp programs deeply informed the Super Camp experience.

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