In late October in Los Angeles, more than 30 community and investigative publishers came together for a weekend of intensive, hands-on business training. The Community Journalism Executive Training (CJET) program, funded by the Knight Foundation, The Patterson Foundation and the McCormick Foundation, hosted by the Knight Digital Media Center, and organized by the Investigative News Network, aimed to equip people running startup community and investigative media outlets with highly practical coaching and ambitious, but realistic, 100-day action plans.
All eyes on the exit strategy
"What, really, is your exit strategy?" Rusty Coats, who designed the CJET curriculum, asked at the first working session of the first training day. "If you have no exit strategy, you have no ability to define success. If you don't have your eye on where this is going, you don't know where you are."
Many publishers figured "exit strategy" meant calling it quits. Many had not considered how they might strategically end the business they had begun.
"Besides turning off the site?" replied Jesus Sanchez, who covers several Los Angeles neighborhoods on his site, The Eastsider LA.
"Yeah, we give up," said Trevor Aaronson, co-director of the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.
"A disaster strategy. The cliff," said Brent Gardner Smith of Aspen Journalism.
"To me [exit strategy] means sort of like a DNR, do not resuscitate strategy." said 100 Reporters founder Diana Jean Schemo. "I came here seeking a survival strategy."
Survive, sustain, sell?
For some CJET participants, focusing on an exit strategy felt just plain wrong.
"I disagree profoundly that the notion of exit strategy is important," said Lance Knobel, one of three founders of the independent California news site Berkeleyside.
Knobel brings a background in economics, strategy and management, as well as journalism, to the local news organization. He said thinking about an exit strategy may be fine for venture capitalists, but he believes it's "exactly the wrong thing" to consider if you are an entrepreneur seeking to build a lasting institution. "I actually think is a big negative, a really dangerous thing," Knobel said. "Energies and concentration needs to be on how do we get this to a really durable sustainable state?"
Berkeleyside is successful by many counts. Unique monthly visitors periodically come in higher than the city's population; events sometimes beat even the organizers' expectations; and other media turn to Berkeleyside staff as experts on local issues. But Knobel said it's not yet clearly sustainable -- to the point the founders could depart and the site would carry on.
Neither is Yellowstone Gate, a site covering the national park and the five communities surrounding it. Founder and editor Ruffin Prevost wants to sell Yellowstone Gate eventually, but he agrees that focusing on his exit strategy now is not important in the short- or mid-term.
"It's important to focus on that somewhat, so you know it has to be something that has real-world value," Prevost said. "If you're not doing that, it means you're probably not returning value to your readers or your advertisers."
But two years after starting the site, thinking about an exit strategy doesn't sit comfortably with him. "If you focus too much on directly monetizing that, you lose sight of the whole idea of building some community service into the model."
Brandy Tuzon Boyd, who started The Natomas Buzz to cover her community in Sacramento, said spending time developing an exit strategy is not a priority. "My priority is taking my website from a passion project to a viable business," she said. "That's really the long-term goal for me at this point."
Change 'exit' to 'legacy'
CJET curriculum creator (and small-business owner) Rusty Coats said it is never premature to plan further than your current focus. He said this business norm may feel jarring to journalists, but thinking as far out as the end can help get you where you want to go.
"I don't know a single startup business outside the indie news space that doesn't articulate its exit strategy up front," Coats said. "That sets the path for growth and helps set benchmarks for success."
He said publishers can use a different word if they want. "Substitute the words "exit strategy" with "legacy" and you get to the same place," Coats said. "It doesn't mean being bought out as much as it means evolving."
CJET participants do know where they want their organizations to go. Suzanne McBride wants AustinTalks.org, based at Columbia College Chicago and covering a nearby neighborhood, to become a model for colleges creating news sites in underserved communities. Lance Knobel wants Berkeleyside to become an "enduring institution." Teresa Wippel would be thrilled to leave MyEdmondNews in the hands of her writer son. Mark Thomas wants to take CityLimits as far down the sustainability path as he can before the next director of the organization comes in. How far is far enough? "Where you can see two years ahead, and if they do the same things you'd been doing they'd be OK," Thomas said.
Exit as opportunity
Jason Alcorn was one of the few participants in CJET whose job focuses on financials more than editorial. He is director of development and community engagement for Investigate West, a non-profit that partners with other news organizations to sell or distribute its stories. Alcorn said internal conversations about the organization's future are always put in the context of market assessment. "How do we fit in?" he asked. "We're complementary to larger investigative news non-profits, like CIR or ProPublica. So in the same breath we see a business opportunity there; we see an exit strategy, potentially."
Alcorn said this is contingency thinking -- Investigate West's intent is to succeed as a standalone news outlet. But he acknowledges some things are out of the organization's control, and broad thinking embraces that.
Ned Berke, running Brooklyn neighborhood site Sheepshead Bites, said thinking about an exit strategy led him to imagine a few different futures. "One is sell the business; one is make sure it can survive without me; or third, turn it into something larger."
And Amy Senk, founder (and chief everything) of Corona del Mar Today, said considering possible exit strategies gave her ideas for ways out beyond just shutting down.
"I was thinking I would probably just stop doing it, and I don't know, maybe find a job," she said on the last day of the CJET training. "Now I'm thinking maybe I'd merge with another paper, or another site, or maybe I would have staff writers who I could direct and I could do more of a publisher role."
A personal exit strategy
No matter the future of their organizations, many CJET publishers don't want to spend the rest of their lives as deeply involved as they are now.
"What I think is important in exit strategy is succession," said Brian Wheeler, executive director of Charlottesville Tomorrow. "I'm assuming the organization will keep going, but I need a plan to make sure someone else can come in and take it over someday."
Anne Galloway of VTDigger.org agrees. Although she said on the last day of CJET she "still" hadn't developed an exit strategy, she thinks about it in terms of the next generation. It's about "building a large enough staff and infrastructure that I could step away from the role of executive director," she said. "I'm really sort of training people up and trying to raise enough money, and build our brand enough to get there."
Engaged in a huge experiment
During the CJET session when Coats asked publishers about their exit strategies, one participant asked a particularly potent question.
"The assumption is," she said, "that if we do these things you're telling us to do, the charitable world and the world of commerce will embrace us." But it felt to her -- and many in the room -- that this is an untrod path -- that community and investigative publishers are actually "engaged in a huge experiment."
Coats could only agree. And again, saw opportunity. He told everyone in the room that how they build their businesses will lay the foundation for the future of local publishing -- investigative, community, regional, non- or for-profit. "This work," he said, "begins to inform the model ... of what is possible" in building new journalism businesses in a sustainable way.
Emily Harris is editorial director of the Journalism Accelerator, a website designed to help journalism find more financial sustainability. She comes from public broadcasting; Harris reported for National Public Radio from Europe, Afghanistan, Iraq and Washington, D.C., and shared in NPR's 2005 Peabody Award for coverage of Iraq. She has produced and reported for many radio and television programs, including Marketplace, NOW with Bill Moyers, Which Way, LA? and Fox News. She spent a year at Stanford as a Knight Journalism Fellow and helped launch and hosted the award-winning public affairs program Think Out Loud on Oregon Public Broadcasting.
A version of this article originally appeared on the Journalism Accelerator.