3 lessons learned from CUNY’s Tow-Knight Entrepreneurial Journalism program

On Sunday I was welcomed back to Auckland by angry grey skies, a howling wind, and “winter” temperatures that would have seemed positively tropical just three months ago.

It’s great to be home. No more living out of a suitcase, cooking in a kitchen the size of a closet, or enduring the twice-daily ritual of forcing myself into uncomfortable proximity with total strangers on the subway. My neighbourhood here is impossibly tranquil, save for my dog’s occasional protestations at innocent passers-by.

I miss New York terribly though. Its intensity and hustle are hugely motivating. It wills you to keep moving, keep achieving, keep discovering. I’m afraid of losing that momentum, but the change of pace offers the perfect opportunity to reflect on what I learned there.

  1. If you have an idea, build it.

Two months ago (although it seems like yesterday) I wrote about the process of launching Kitchen Chapters. It had felt like a never-ending battle to get all the different elements in line before putting it out to the world, but forcing myself to do so before it was perfect turned out to be the best thing for it. Once the site was live, the deadlines for story production fell into place and I began to streamline my workflow. I even managed to find time to send out a weekly newsletter, which was well received and did wonders for directing people to the site.

Having a living product gave me so much more confidence in my idea. I was showing the site to as many people as I could, getting valuable feedback and a self-populating stream of story ideas – more than I had the capacity to follow. You can watch a video of my final presentation here:

  1. Be creative about business.

We heard this over and over again from people in the industry. The ad-supported revenue model is dead and the more diversified your income streams are, the better. If you had told me before I started this course that a core part of my business would be running events, I would have given you a suspicious side-eye and said I “just want to do journalism”.

I’ve subsequently realised that Kitchen Chapters shouldn’t just be a bunch of tantalising-looking stories on a website, because that’s not how food is enjoyed. The project is all about getting to the heart of the people and communities behind that food, and what better way to do that than by connecting people offline?

Rethinking revenue also encourages you to consider your customers more carefully: who is paying for my product or service, and how can I deliver them the best value possible to ensure their ongoing custom? It’s a basic business question but one that the media industry hasn’t asked enough.

  1. Journalism is not dead!

Traditional journalism has been in crisis for years. But the issue has become more pressing in New Zealand over the past two months, with large-scale restructuring in print media and the scrapping of a primetime current affairs show on television giving rise to the most persistent bemoaning of the end of journalism we have heard in a long time.

Combine that with Facebook, Google and Apple’s increasingly bold (and often infuriatingly opaque) strides towards disrupting the news ecosystem, and it’s easy to fear that our loss of control over distribution is going to destroy anything that isn’t BuzzFeed.

Enough with the hand-wringing – what we need is innovation. New ways to engage audiences and create value that pays. My Tow-Knight class produced 20 projects with the capacity to do that, run by 20 extraordinary people who believe there is a future for good journalism.

We don’t have all the answers – but at least we’re doing something to try and find them. Mainstream media will catch up eventually, but why wait?

Tow-Knight Center Jeremy Caplan

CUNY’s Tow-Knight Center Class of 2015 (Photo: Jeremy Caplan)

Launching a minimum viable product

“Better 60% done than 100% ready.”

My classmate Sneha can frequently be heard uttering this (or the rather more piratical alternative, “F**k it, ship it”) on a Monday evening over coffee and what may just be New York’s best cookies. A small group of my Tow-Knight classmates and I have a regular catch-up at this time where we brainstorm, problem-solve, and keep each other on-track to meet our project goals. There’s also a fair amount of irrelevant discussion about politics and puppies but hey, what would life be without those.

This gentle peer pressure was instrumental in helping me launch Kitchen Chapters last week. At this point it’s not much more than a very shiny-looking blog, but the main thing is that because it’s live, I can stop talking in hypotheticals and start getting meaningful feedback, building an audience, and working on the business strategy in earnest.

The process went something like this, although it is important to note that most of these steps were happening simultaneously:

  • Begin producing content. Organising, researching and conducting interviews, then writing and editing.
  • Set up a basic site. I chose a free WordPress theme that loosely fit my desired aesthetic without needing extensive customization, which is an unnecessary cost at this stage.
  • Start building an audience. I began to increase activity on my Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest accounts: posting interesting links, participating in live chats. I discovered how time-consuming it is to manage multiple accounts, each of which has a different purpose. Adding to the challenge is the fact that my audience is split between New York and New Zealand, giving me an additional factor (and mathematical headache) to consider in when deciding on the timing of posts. I also experimented with a small Twitter ad campaign, which pointed to a landing page with signup form. I gained a handful of new followers from my target demographics, but engagement with the ad was low (0.44%) and none of the clicks through to the landing page translated into signups. I may revisit social media ads again when the site is more developed.
  • Seek feedback. Once the first story was live, I sent it to my classmates and mentors to get suggestions of improvements to make before putting it out to a wider audience. The first important discovery was that 20 people trying to simultaneously access the site was enough to crash it!
  • Provide early access to subscribers. Throughout my user survey process I had been collecting email addresses of people who were interested in Kitchen Chapters, promising to give them first access to the site. I have received useful feedback from several of them since sending the first newsletter last week.
  • Soft launch. I posted the first story to social media so people know the site is live.

The challenge now is to keep building on the initial momentum. My biggest concern is making sure I can produce enough content to give people a better idea of what the site is about, and to ensure they keep returning. Before launching, I drafted a publishing schedule based on material I have been gathering in the last couple of  months, with the aim of having something new once a week. This will get me through the initial month but I’m not entirely confident beyond that. With business models still needing to be developed, end-of-course presentations looming and an influx of people coming to visit me, my time management skills are going to be tested more strenuously than ever.

Also this month:

The founders of Spoon University taught us how they built a their huge community of contributors and readers through the college network. Their student focus puts them in the unique position of being able to source quality content for free because they offer skills training program together with a way for budding food writers to start building up a portfolio of published work. However, they remain a good example of how food provides an ideal framework for creating a highly engaged audience, if you find the right approach.

I learned more about food media publishing during a visit to Tasting Table, which began as an email-only newsletter in 2008 and now has two million subscribers along with a website that receives one million unique visitors per month. Co-founder Geoff Bartakovics provided valuable insights into the company’s revenue model and the importance of the three million-strong users across their social media accounts.

Also particularly pertinent was a talk from Kevin Kearney of Hard Candy Shell, a strategic design and development agency. Much of his work focuses on improving the digital properties of large media organizations, including NBC, Bloomberg and The New York Post. I found myself nodding furiously in agreement as he was describing the challenges of working within these large companies. But his user-focused approach is exactly what they need, and I wish we would see more of that in New Zealand too.

Big Apple bites:

Watched: Hamilton. This bound-for-Broadway musical about US founding father Alexander Hamilton is the hottest ticket in town, and justifiably so. It challenges assumptions, teaches history and features some of the most inspiring writing and performances I’ve ever seen. I went into this (having won a coveted lottery ticket) skeptical of the hype, on account of my indifference toward rap music – but was hooked by the end of the first phrase. Lin-Manuel Miranda has created a very, very special piece of theatre. Hamilton heads to Broadway in July – be there.

Ate: Cookies. Lots of cookies. I am on a quest to find New York City’s best chocolate chip offering, which seems to be driving my friends of lesser fortitude to exhaustion. But it is all for your benefit, dear reader. I shall report back in full at a later date, but for now I can confirm that these monstrosities, from Baked, are in contention:

You want #cookies? @tastingtable has cookies. And they are monster-worthy.

A photo posted by Kim Choe (@kimchoe) on

Attended: Food Book Fair 2015. It’s so exciting to be in a market that can justify an entire three-day conference about food writing. I got a lot of inspiration hearing from cookbook authors and co-authors, culinary historians and journalists including the indomitable Mimi Sheraton. I was also introduced to the art and science of coffee “cupping” – apparently my slurp is not half bad but I wish I could say the same for my sensory faculties: acid, oil, citrus, berry… it all tasted the same to me!

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How news organizations are playing the social media game

There’s been more hand-wringing than usual in the media industry this week, after confirmation that Facebook is close to forming deals with mega-publishers such as Buzzfeed and The New York Times to host their content within the social media platform.

It was wishful thinking to hope that Mat Yurow, Associate Director of Audience Development at the NY Times, would shed some light on his company’s top-secret talks when he appeared on the panel at last night’s Daily News Innovation Lab.

Little is known publicly about the mechanics of these deals: how advertising revenue and data will be shared, whether smaller publishers will be strong-armed into the same models or simply left out in the cold, what impact it will have on publishers’ brand identity, and what the whole experience will be like for the user.

All we really know is that rather than directing users to the publishers’ own websites, as is the current practice, the news will be brought to them in Facebook. It will necessitate a fundamental shift in strategy for most publishers, although for many that shift began last year when Facebook prioritized the display of videos hosted directly on its platform.

It’s the latest step in Facebook’s seeming attempt to become the Walmart of the internet: a place where you can catch up with friends, record personal milestones, shop, do your banking, and stay across the day’s news.

At the Innovation Lab, Yurow, along with Mashable Founder and CEO Pete Cashmore, Yahoo! Head of Audience Development Alex Leo, and The Intercept’s Digital Engagement Editor Rubina Madan Fillion, shared a number of useful insights into how each of their four distinct organizations negotiates the murky-yet-essential waters of social media and algorithms.

1. Decide what value you put on engagement

If the aim of your social media activity to drive users to your website, what do you want them to do once they get there? How are you facilitating that? Over-promising and under-delivering on content posted to social media will lead to disillusionment and a loss of trust.

“If you don’t give [people] what they expect when they get to the page, that’s not adding value,” says Leo.

Fillion says small news organizations are best-placed to get high value out of social media engagement “because the fans are so much more engaged.

“It creates this feeling of community that really isn’t there for big global brands.”

In contrast, Cashmore says Mashable’s strategy is focused less on getting people to their website and more on meeting their audience where they are. “We’re agnostic about where that happens,” he says, adding that Mashable aims for its voice to sound like that of a trusted Facebook friend.

“Engagement is king…it’s not about us, it’s about the reader.

2. Value quality

These days, it feels like a social media algorithm change can generate waves bigger than when Zayn quit One Direction. But trying to game these algorithms by giving users substandard content won’t work forever, Cashmore says.

“If you’re a human and you look at it and it’s not good, the algorithm is eventually going to figure that out.”

It pays to keep your real audience in mind: “It’s people you’re ultimately creating for.”

Yurow views algorithms as “the best thing that’s happened to niche content in a long time,” due to their ability to personalize what a user sees and deliver them things they may not otherwise have discovered if that decision remained purely in the hands of an editor.

“They’re serving you the content that’s going to make you want to click, even if no-one else is.”

3. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket

“We need Facebook a lot more than they need us,” warns Fillion. Everyone on the panel supported experimenting across a number of social media platforms, because of the imperative to be wherever their audience is.

Mashable ensures a single platform is not responsible for more than one-third of its traffic. “It’s very important not to over-optimize for any network,” says Cashmore.

I think it’s important to stay across trends and changes as much as possible, but there does come a point when you have to stop second-guessing where the platforms will swing next and just trust that you know what your audience wants. Better still, let them tell you. Ask them questions, look at the data.

Right now I’m experimenting with my own brand, Kitchen Chapters, to try and develop a distinctive social media voice and following. It’s a challenging and time-consuming thing for one person to do from scratch, especially because there’s so much noise out there already.

How can I do my bit to help, I hear you say? Easy! Follow along: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest. We are not yet Meerkatting (yes, it’s a verb already), but I’m sure it’s only a matter of time.


Conducting a user survey: trials and tribulations

Does time move faster in New York City?

It certainly feels that way. February vanished in a blur of classes, guest speakers and site visits, and in just two weeks we’ll be halfway through the Tow-Knight program at CUNY.

I only wish the weather would catch up…

New York Public Library Lion

“All this lion around is getting tiresome.”

For me, February was about seeking out my potential users and finding out more about their behaviours: what media they consume, where they go to look for it, why they like some things and not others. In short, developing empathy that would help me identify opportunities in the market and problems I could solve.

Jeff Jarvis is a great proponent of treating anyone and everyone as a user ripe for surveying. In this city of more than 8 million people, I wasn’t short of potential interview candidates. The problem, of course, is that New Yorkers are perpetually in a hurry. When they do find rare moments of peace, they certainly don’t feel like talking to a stranger with a funny accent who wants to ask probing questions about their reading habits.

I abandoned that strategy after dismal failures on the A train and then at Penn Station. Ok, so perhaps places of transit weren’t the wisest choice. But Mother Nature made sure there was nary a soul in any public place of leisure.

Success came with the friendly Kiwis I met at an event, and when I distributed an online survey through my personal networks. I have a clearer idea of how I can create something meaningful, and am now in the process of creating what is referred to in the startup world as a ‘minimum viable product’.

More on that in another post, but for now I’d like to present you a tantalizing look at what’s to come: the Kitchen Chapters launch page!

The project is still a long, long way from becoming a business but the prospect of combining two of my greatest passions – food and writing – into something new is very exciting indeed. (Incidentally, there are two things I am more passionate about: my husband and my dog. But I don’t need to do a user survey to tell me that only our mums would be interested in a content-rich business about them.)

Next steps for Kitchen Chapters:

  • Publish an initial couple of stories to test the concept;
  • Seek feedback from users surveyed and from others in the food media industry;
  • Continue to develop monetization model.

Also this month…

We’ve also been fortunate to have learned from some of the best in the business. We visited giants like The Huffington Post and Twitter, who are devoting huge resources to the increasingly complex process of reaching their users wherever they happen to be hanging out in the digital space at any given moment.

Mother Jones publisher Steve Katz and Global Voices executive director Ivan Sigal talked about the challenges – and rewards – of running a nonprofit news organization, and Atlas Obscura’s CEO (and former Slate editor-in-chief) David Plotz gave the content-focused entrepreneurs among us some hope by proving such concepts do not make all investors run a kilometre*.

Here are two of my favourite pieces of advice from other guest speakers:

We also took a look at the Guardian’s current positioning and strategy, using the editor-in-chief candidate essays published for the National Union of Journalists’ indicative ballot as a springboard for writing our own. They drew attention from some unexpected places:

Big Apple bites:

Discovered: Jewish food, specifically babka and rugelach. I attended a fascinating panel discussion at the City Museum of New York this week on the changing face of Jewish food in the city – keep an eye on Kitchen Chapters for more. 

Watched: House of Cards. I came late to the brilliance, but am steadily working my way through season two. There is nothing I enjoy more at the end of the day than unwinding with the marauding Underwoods.

Baked: Yes! For the first time since leaving New Zealand. New York may produce the world’s greatest cookies, but nothing can compare to a batch of freshly baked Anzacs. More on the challenges of baking these in the US in a future post.

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*Inelegant metaphor chosen in defiance of this country’s dogged use of imperial measurements.

Frozen – a true story

Last week had started so promisingly: on Tuesday I wandered past the Richard Rogers Theatre on my way home and popped my name into the If/Then lottery. Ninety minutes later, I was in the second row watching Idina Menzel belting her lungs out. It was exhilarating, dream-come-true, only-in-New-York kind of stuff.

But I arrived home to find things were less Broadway, more Frozen. My bathroom had no water and the apartment had lost central heating. I used my roommate’s shower and huddled a little deeper under the duvet that night, hoping things would be fixed the next day.

Unfortunately, the heating and plumbing issues were being caused by a frozen pipe, courtesy of New York’s unseasonably cold weather. A temporary fix had been applied to the shower, which required leaving it running at all times to stop it freezing again, but we were told nothing more could be done until the pipes unfroze. One glance at the long-range forecast told me that wouldn’t be any time soon.

I was beginning to understand how Anna felt when Elsa told her she couldn’t defrost Arendelle. I set about trying to figure out how to run two small fan heaters in my room at once without tripping the extremely sensitive fuse.

But no sooner had I managed that, than there was an ominous whoosh of running water from the corner of my bedroom. The previously frozen pipe had now given up completely and was rapidly leaking out of the wall heater.

And so it transpired that I spent Thursday night being spooned by my classmate’s cat, and Friday evening dragging my belongings across Harlem in the -19degC windchill to a new apartment. It had gotten so cold in my original place that the water in the toilet bowl had frozen, so the move was but a temporarily chilly means to a much warmer end.

Big Apple bites:

Listened to: the If/Then soundtrack. It’s musically complex, modern and emotional. Theatre critics were decidedly lukewarm about the show and its dual narratives when it opened here nearly a year ago. But I suspect I am the exact personification of the target audience, and indeed I enjoyed it enough to see it twice. Of course, the Idina factor plays a huge part and I don’t think the show would be half a strong without her.

Read: an old Fortune article I came across yesterday during a class on business strategy, which finally explained to me the quandary that is Trader Joe’s. People keep telling me I should shop there (“It’s cheap!” “Everything’s so fresh!”), but I have found it the complete antithesis of every other supermarket experience I’ve ever had: random aisle organization, only one type of cream cheese and no facial tissues anywhere! The rationale for their approach seems sound, but I’m both indecisive and a sucker for punishment, so I’ll continue to shop where I can spend five minutes debating which yoghurt to buy, thank you very much.

Ate: a delicious selection of Malaysian food at a Chinese New Year event at the Malaysian Consulate. It was really special to celebrate the occasion with new friends in a new city, whilst eating black rice pudding that reminded me of the one my dad makes at home.