Lessons From Risking It All For A Journalism Start-Up That Fails

Many a journalist wonders what it would be like to leave the beat for the blog, but few act on the curiosity. They prize traits in their employers like stability, history and health insurance.

During his four years as a reporter at The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa., Daniel Victor tasted online community collaboration in the news process through his beat blogs and tweets. He couldn’t shake the urge to be part of a deeper community conversation than allowed at a traditional beat reporting gig — even one where editors give room for innovation, as Victor’s did. So when he heard about a new D.C.-based online journalism start-up last year, he made the leap and landed the job of Community Host for local news site TBD.

Fast forward six months, and now Victor, who’s been quoted and noted in blogs from Poynter to Jezebel, learned in February that his job — along with most of his co-workers — is being eliminated as the website moves away from the vast blog network he helped assemble and toward a much smaller arts and entertainment niche. Bummer? Of course. But this 26-year-old doesn’t talk regrets. He’s too busy already thinking future and calculating how the failure will set him apart and set him up for great things. In fact, he’s already headed for them: Philly.com scooped Victor up to fill a similar community-building role there.

Here, he took some time to talk about the experience and what he learned.

MW: You left a stable job at a newspaper for an online start-up. What was your motivation at the time? What were you hoping to do?
As a reporter, I was always trying to involve my readers in my reporting process. I came to love the principle that my readers will always know more than I do, and that there’s a wealth of information in our readers that consistently remains untapped. I came to TBD hoping to push those concepts further, proving how valuable the community can be.

MW: What’s the most exciting thing you did while at TBD?

DV: Assembling the blog network, which topped out at about 220 members. We had to approach each blogger before most of them had even heard of TBD, explaining why partnering with a news organization really could be mutually beneficial. There was a natural skepticism at first, but we created a relationship that really did leave them full editorial independence while expanding their audience. When it worked it was wonderful to watch, and the bloggers were very appreciative.

MW: What did you learn that a traditional news job wouldn’t have taught, or didn’t teach, you?

DV: There was a culture of experimentation here that is uncommon in print jobs. That’s not to say you can’t experiment with a print job, and in fact my editors let me experiment a lot when I was a print reporter, but here it’s demanded. The tolerance for editorial failure here would be the envy of many newsrooms.

MW: In your post-TBD life, what skills do you think will serve you best? How is your career path different than you envisioned?

DV: Journalists need to find ways to create genuine, two-way relationships with readers, and learn how to best use the knowledge that they can offer. I’ve spent much of my career exploring those possibilities, so I have many case studies to learn from and to use as inspiration for my next ideas. Other than that, there’s an adaptability you learn at a place like TBD that can serve you well anywhere.

I originally thought I’d be a reporter for life, but these engagement concepts really grabbed me. I find this to be a more rewarding path, and I enjoy swimming in uncharted waters.

MW: Was it worth the risk? What advice would you give to other journalists thinking about taking a similar leap of faith?

DV: Absolutely. Without reservation. I’d do it again 10 times out of 10.

I’d tell other journalists considering a risky route to find a role that corresponds with your career ambitions, so even a total tanking can leave you well-positioned. I gained tremendous experience here, worked with brilliant people, and accomplished some great things that I couldn’t have accomplished in my previous job. It’s all worth the bit of uncertainty I have now.

MW: Is there anything else you think is important to mention?

DV: I talk a lot about the culture of TBD and how much great work it enabled, but that doesn’t mean anyone should assume that freedom doesn’t exist in their own newsrooms. Maybe your editors haven’t spent much time demanding new ideas, but they might be willing to let you try when you pitch your own. I succeeded in that several times at The Patriot-News … it just takes some personal initiative.