Lisa SkubeMichele McLellanIt felt odd to consider “exit strategy” at the recent Community Journalism Executive Training program (CJET), which brought nearly three dozen news organizations to Los Angeles for two days of intense, hands-on work developing specific business strategies and action plans.

After all, the vast majority of publishers attending only opened their doors a few years ago.

CJET built on earlier training for Block by Block publishers, a community identified by 2010 RJI fellow Michele McLellan. 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, CJET provided highly practical coaching with a sharp focus on the bottom line.

And that meant plotting exit strategy from the start.

“What, really, is your exit strategy?” asked Rusty Coats of Coats2Coats, at the first working session of CJET. “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. I later asked people if they had thought about their exit strategy before beginning the business training.

“Besides turning off the site?” asked 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.

“More of a disaster strategy. The cliff,” said Brent Gardner Smith of Aspen Journalism.

“No,” said 100 Reporters founder Diana Jean Schemo. “To me it means sort of like a DNR, do not resuscitate strategy. I came here seeking a survival strategy.”

But some CJET participants felt focusing on exit strategy was 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 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 it is a big negative, a really dangerous thing,” Knobel said. “Energies and concentration need to be on how do we get this to a really durable, sustainable state.”

Journalism AcceleratorRead more of this story on the Journalism Accelerator, an organization built by 2011 RJI Fellow Lisa Skube. How does planning an exit strategy compare to creating a legacy? What opportunities arise when you consider the end? How do personal and organizational exit strategies differ? Among publishers at CJET, there is a wide range of opinion about this! Jump in the conversation with your plans, experience and views.

Want to see more of what CJET participants did? The JA has complied useful resources from CJET for all publishers to access. Check out insights and tips, download presentations and templates.

The Journalism Accelerator is the outgrowth of Lisa Skube's 2010-2011 Reynolds Fellowship. Block by Block, an annual gathering of independent hyper-local publishers, was created and nurtured by Michele McClellan, a 2009-2010 Reynolds Fellow. Both initiatives have been supported by 2011-2012 Reynold Fellow Janet Coats.


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