Mistakes I Made with the Next Newsroom Project

    by Chris O'Brien
    December 11, 2008

    Now that I’ve officially completed the work on our Knight Foundation News Challenge grant that funded the Next Newsroom project, I wanted to share some of the horrendous, grotesque mistakes I made over the past 18 months. I’m doing it not because I’m feeling particularly masochistic. But rather, I hope there will be something valuable here for those still working on projects, and those who are going through the current application process.

    For some context, let me confess that I’m a full-time, paid journalist at a newspaper. I’d never written a grant proposal before applying for a News Challenge grant in late 2006. And when I decided to apply, it was a last minute decision that was almost a whim. I figured I had nothing to lose. But on the other hand, I can’t say I had sat down and thought about what would actually happen if I was selected. I co-wrote the application with another Duke alum on behalf of The Chronicle, the student newspaper at Duke University. My partner and I never even discussed who would actually run the project.

    Turns out the answer was: Me. (That, by the way, turned out to be a good decision as far as I’m concerned.)


    That brings me to Mistake No. 1: I drastically underestimated the amount of time I would spend on this project. I figured it would amount to a few a hours a week. Nope. This was a second full-time job. And that brings me to…

    Mistake No. 2: Underestimating the amount I should request for my time. If I have one thing I wish I could do over, it would be to ask for enough money that would have allowed me to just focus on this project. I’m not complaining, mind you. And who knows whether Knight would have been as interested in the project if it came with a higher price tag? But still, it was exciting work, I always found myself wishing I could be doing more as the year went on.

    So my advice to avoid mistakes 1 and 2: Think long and hard about what is really going to take to make your project work in terms of your time. Don’t cut corners on this. Be honest with yourself and request money to allow yourself to really focus your energies on being successful.


    Mistake No. 3: Volunteers. I underestimated my time in part because I also envisioned recruiting lots of volunteers to help. And in fact, I got more than four dozen folks to offer their help doing everything from interviews to research to site visits. However, the problem with volunteers is that they’re, well, volunteers. I spent an incredible amount of time managing these folks, prodding them to complete tasks, and gently nudging them to follow up on things. Eventually, I allocated some of the grant money to hire someone for a few months to manage volunteers and do some research. She proved to be way more productive and efficient.

    So if you’re thinking about using volunteers, my advice there would be to seriously consider asking for enough to hire one or two folks, at least part-time. This might prove to be a more efficient use of time and money. Because while passion is great, money, alas, is still the great motivator.

    Mistake No. 4: Our website. I knew from the start that I wanted to create a site where we could post our research and build a community to hopefully foster discussion around our plan. A firm came forward and offered to build us a site for free using Drupal. Now, I had never overseen the creation of such a site before, never managed a web project, never written a spec sheet or site map. So, no surprise, this part of the project floundered for several months. Worse, it turned out the folks who offered to help really didn’t know all the much about Drupal.

    It wasn’t the easiest thing in the world to fire someone who is working for free. But once we parted ways, I re-started the site using Ning.com, a free social networking platform that took me all of 15 minutes to launch. So, the advice here is that there are an enormous number of free tools out there. Give these some consideration before pouring time and money into building something that may be far more complex than what you need anyway.

    So those are the big ones. Despite all this fumbling, we still managed to produce a plan for a Next Newsroom for The Chronicle. That plan is now moving into negotiations with the university, a process I expect will take some time.

    So what’s next?

    I’m going to continue running the Next Newsroom site, including blogging on a regular basis, and continuing to post a long backlog of newsroom profiles to the site. So keep checking back and keep sending suggestions for interesting people I should interview. And I’m going to continue blogging here as well, from time to time.

    I’m also helping The Chronicle over the next few weeks develop a new strategic plan for its newsroom, to begin transforming what they do in anticipation of one day moving into a far more advanced newsroom. And The Chronicle is moving ahead on plans to develop a student media incubator, one of the ideas that came out of our proposal. I’ll be posting more on that as well and asking for some suggestions from this community.

    Tagged: duke university knight foundation nextnewsroom the chronicle
    • moses mccall

      Good post, Thanks

    • Chris, I hear you! The Public Press has been a labor of love, but it’s been a lot of labor. The director of a new effort like this can’t be the volunteer coordinator too, if he or she wants to get anything done.

      Management of projects in the for-profit world are so much easier because, in general, the funder doesn’t assume you’ll work for free because you love it.

      But you know you love it.

    • One of the things about the non profit world in general is the invisibility of project management as a distinct job title. It’s one of the reasons they work so hard and sometimes get not enough done.

    • Great post, Chris! I admire you for being so honest. It’s going to help other people who go down this path, whether in the News Challenge or a startup.

      We’re 6 months into our Printcasting project (and just started alpha testing — more on that soon). I’m feeling pretty good about where we’re at 3 months before launch, and while I can’t point to anything just yet that I would consider a big mistake (ask me again in a year), I can tell you that I have made many in past projects.

      My colleague Mary Lou Fulton and I are fortunate to have worked on a lot of different web projects over the last 10 years. Each of us has a list of things we would do differently today based on what we know now, and yes, even some failures. But the best thing to remember about failure is that they’re important learning experiences that help you later. The value of a startup is not just in the widgets you generate, but also what you learn in the process. I think there is a lot of truth to that adage, “If you don’t have some failures, you’re not trying hard enough.”

      I think so many newspapers are in big trouble now because they haven’t tried hard enough to change out of fear of failure. For publicly held companies, there’s the additional fear of failure leading to shareholder distrust. But what’s better: being so conservative that you write off your future, or creating a culture of innovation at the cost of a mix of successes and failures? Smart companies (and individuals) leave their egos at the door and choose the latter.

    • Hey all: Thanks for the comments and the supportive words.

      Michael: Yes, without a doubt, I do love it! And it’s why I’ll keep up much of the work beyond the grant.

      Dan: It’s all about lessons learned. One of my favorite professors in college once gave methe advice that one of the most important things we can do in life is give ourselves permission to fail. It’s all about lessons learned, and failure is often the key to that. I’ve found its critical we share those lessons with each other if our industry is going to move forward.

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