Hacks and Hackers’ Take on Solutions Journalism

    by Catherine Cheney
    January 29, 2016
    Photo courtesy of Cat Cheney.

    This post originally appeared on the Solutions Journalism Network blog and is cross posted here with permission.

    Hacks and Hackers Connect, a series of events building regional communities of media entrepreneurs, brought journalists and developers together at Runway Incubator in San Francisco, Calif., last weekend. I was there representing the Solutions Journalism Network, and since our whole team is about spreading the practice of reporting on responses to social problems, I want to open my notebook up to you!

    "By the end of the night, it wasn’t just the beer and wine that had us all ready to take 'the drunken walk of the entrepreneur.'"

    A full Saturday agenda kicked off with mentor-led discussions. While I wish I could have replicated myself eight times over so I could make it to every session (including one on design thinking led by Solutions Journalism Network Bay Area member Ed Bice of Meedan), I chose “Elements of venture design: How to get your startup venture ready in 20 weeks” with Corey Ford of the media accelerator Matter.


    PitchA former producer for PBS Frontline, he said journalists have a special power when it comes to pitches because they understand the value of character-driven narratives. We talked about how forces tend to pull us away from the ‘fail faster in order to succeed sooner’ culture that Matter sees as the secret to success.

    And although I spent two years working for a media company that I joined as the first hire and have been hooked on tech podcasts ever since listening to the first episode of StartUp, this session made me feel more empowered than ever to do my part to shape the future of media.

    Following the session, I stood in a row of journalists and developers who pitched their ideas to the full group of 100 media entrepreneurs that would divide up into small groups. My question: “How might we incentivize more storytelling on responses to problems?”


    Phillip Smith, the producer of Connect, had asked participants to do a bit of background reading ahead of the event so we would all have a shared understanding of the Lean Startup as it applies to media and journalism. He recommended this video from Ash Maury on how to capture your business model in 20 minutes with the lean canvas.

    Dan Olsen, author of “The Lean Product Playbook,” joined our group to discuss how to find product market fit, develop our minimum viable product and iterate based on feedback (here is his presentation). Then, we broke intro groups to fill out lean canvases of our own, ranging from a quiz to track and compare political values to an action-oriented newsletter on income inequality.

    Led by our mentor, Sean Tyson, who founded a content marketing company, our team whipped out whiteboard pens. We moved from the problem to the target customers to the unique value proposition. The solution — the product or service we would go on to pitch to our peers — changed many times over. But after hours of writing and erasing, collaborating and deliberating, we landed on our big idea and placed a Post-It on the Connect board for all to see.

    After fast pitching that felt like speed dating, the groups drew lines with white chalk between the two Post-Its that marked their initial ideas and their new and improved business models. The huge improvement from version A to version B provided a visual for the way connecting the dots between hacks and hackers can ignite little sparks of surprise and inspiration, even genius.

    The day could not have wrapped up with a more motivating speaker than Ceci Mourkogiannis, founder of the virtual reality video platform Metta, which went through the Matter accelerator. “Six months ago, we had just had these amazing T-shirts delivered for our company, Papero, which was going to revolutionize the way that we interact with media online,” she said.

    The company went through many iterations before not only pivoting but rather stopping entirely then starting again. They landed on a new idea that maintained engagement and empathy at its core by creating an intimate environment for 360-degree video creators to share their content.

    She emphasized the importance of people and purpose, explaining that purpose must transcend the product you are building and define you and your team no matter the product. That resonated with my team and me. We had constructed and deconstructed as many as 10 separate business ideas but shared a purpose: spreading the value and quality of solutions journalism.

    By the end of the night, it wasn’t just the beer and wine that had us all ready to take “the drunken walk of the entrepreneur.”

    We knew that we would not have to go it alone on all the ups and downs that come with starting a business. One of the keys to success for entrepreneurs, we learned, is building a tribe. And I am glad to be a member of this tribe of hacks and hackers trying to, as Matter puts it, build a more informed, connected and empowered society. If you want to be a part of it, shoot me a note on Twitter to join the Bay Area Solutions Journalism Network tribe.

    Catherine Cheney is the Bay Area coordinator for the Solutions Journalism Network and the West Coast correspondent for Devex, the media platform for the global development community. Previously, she helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported for POLITICO and World Politics Review, with freelance work supported by institutions like the International Center for Journalists appearing in publications including The Washington Post. Catherine graduated from Yale University, where she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in political science and distinction as a Yale Journalism Scholar.

    Tagged: entrepreneurship hacks and hackers metta mettavr solutions journalism network twitter

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