Clintonville Cup o' Joe — Adam Schweigert works at the intersection of nonprofits, journalism, and technology as the Senior Director of Product & Technology at Investigative News Network. He’s also the founder of Media Toybox, a digital consultancy that helps news and media companies win the internet. When he’s not developing for Project Largo, he can otherwise be found cycling, running, or gardening.
What’s the mission of the Investigative News Network and the benefit to members to join?
So the Investigative News Network (INN) was founded in 2009 as an organization to support the growing ecosystem of nonprofit news in the US. The goal was to form a sort of trade association that would provide things like back office support (things like getting better deals on health insurance) and to help support editorial projects and enable members to collaborate better.
At the time there were around twenty members, but now it’s up to around one hundred. In addition to the back office services, we now provide technology services and also do a lot of training, mostly focused on basic business skills. A lot of people who start nonprofits often come from a journalism background and may not have as much of a background in business, technology, and all of the associated skills you need to run an effective news organization.
So we try to fill in those gaps, and especially technology-wise, which is my role, to look at the things that we can do to support the entire network. Things that make sense at that larger scale, such as building our Largo WordPress platform, finding deals on software, and developing tools that will be widely applicable. It would cost a fortune for each member to build their own tools and start from scratch to develop a website, but we can build once and then help everyone to use and adapt the tools we build.
So that’s why building Project Largo, our WordPress framework, makes a lot of sense. Rather than having every single member start from scratch with a different CMS, a unique theme, and separate hosting, we bundle those things to save our members time and money. Especially for things like hosting, it’s much more effective for us to pay for high end hosting for the entire network than for everyone to purchase that on their own.
The members can instead spend the money they save on that last ten percent of stuff that’s unique to their organization. It allows them more flexibility to actually innovate, rather than on simply getting to the starting line. We always tell members that,“We’ll host your site, give you a framework to customize, and provide training and support, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t invest the money you save by spending it on other things.”
The Investigative News Network helps nonprofit news organizations produce and distribute stories with impact, achieve cost efficiencies by pooling resources and develop new revenue streams to become sustainable businesses.About INN
Even though there’s a cost savings, I would rather see our members reinvest their savings to experiment, to learn more about what’s most effective for their audience, because INN’s members are not monolithic. There’s a good diversity of sizes and focuses, so we can’t make a framework that would be the ideal solution for every member. I’d rather they spend the money they save on custom add-ons, design, and experimenting with different content approaches to see what’s most effective for them.
How many staff members make up INN? How many on the technology side?
The staff is up to eight or nine employees and then we have various consultants, contractors, interns, and other vendors. The tech team as of May was only me and a number of outside contractors, but we’re now building a team inside INN because it makes more sense with the projects we have.
We were having a hard time finding contractors who had the same long term vision that we do. There’s also a lot of ongoing support requests from our members to customize or build additional functionality for our Largo framework. As an in-house product team, we’re just going to know the members and the framework so much better, so we’ll be able to do the work faster and cheaper.
As long as we have the demand and funding, I’m pretty keen on bringing more of that work back in-house. We’re now two people and will be adding a third soon, probably in the next couple of weeks. We still have some outside contractors and usually an intern or two.
We’re focused on growing the team by building upon a co-op model, where if members need support or custom work, we’ll do it for them, much like a small agency would. The members will pay us a very reasonable, subsidized rate to do the work, and we’ll use that money to offset some of our costs. This will then allow us to scale in an organic way to best address member needs as they change and evolve.
What’s the size and composition of your ideal team?
There’s only so big a size that would make sense for us. I think a team of five or six, at least as the core team may be ideal for building something like Largo. A team of five or six is fine and is probably as large as you would actually want to avoid becoming too big and having all the associated problems that come along with that.
I don’t think we’ll ever be a giant team, but we’ll probably continue to grow as INN’s membership grows. But there are only going to be so many nonprofit news organizations in the U.S., so there’s a ceiling to our growth. There’s also only so much money coming into the sector, even as our members become more financially stable, so that’s another potential limiting factor.
Where does funding come from for INN?
Today, INN is almost entirely funded by foundations, so we get grants, and some of those are for general operating expenses that aren’t restricted to any project, so we have some leeway in how we spend that. But some grants are focused on a particular project.
We’re now looking to diversify our revenue streams with things like our paid consulting program so that we’re less reliant on the foundation money. Fortunately, INN has really identified a need that a lot of foundations buy into, but at the same time foundations can change their priorities. Our funding has actually been pretty good and we’re funded by some of the larger, more stable foundations, which is great, but it still never hurts to have diversity in our revenue streams.
Have you officially started the co-op model? What’s been the reaction from the members. Is this a hard sell?
No, it’s actually been a really easy sell. We just announced it a month ago and this was after talking to a number of members. I make my decisions by listening to our membership and understanding what their unmet needs are. A lot of members are small enough that they don’t have a full time technology person on their staff, so they often hire contractors to fill in the gaps.
They fall into the same problem we’ve fallen into from time to time, where contractors aren’t necessarily well-aligned with their mission. The organizations lurch from project to project and don’t have that continuity in vision between their projects. The members also pay market rates for freelance technology help, which is often pretty expensive for a non-profit.
I approached them and asked, “What if we had a team that you could hire to do that development or support work, at a reduced rate, at least until you’re able to hire a full-time person?” There were enough members who thought that was a great idea that would be super helpful for them. So we’re figuring out how to make that happen.
There are also a lot of nonprofits that still don’t understand why it’s unreasonable to expect to pay a developer $30,000 a year. They might be able to find a really nice person right out of school, someone who would be willing to spend a couple of years working for them, or it’s someone who’s already made their money, right? [laughing]
But if you’re looking to pay a competitive salary and recruit top talent then that’s a lot harder to do. That’s something that INN is lucky to be able to do. If I can subsidize that cost with a little bit of foundation money, that’s why we can charge members around $50 an hour, which is very affordable for the quality of work you’ll get.
One of the tools that you provide to your members is the Project Largo, which is what?
It’s a WordPress framework, which is composed of an open source parent theme with associated plugins, that you can further customize. We’re aiming to give members basically a website in a box.
We build on all of the great things that WordPress is known for, particularly ease of use, so you can activate the theme, do the initial configuration, and in an hour you have a running website. The theme itself is built on a solid codebase that follows best practices. There’s metadata that’s associated with the content, which handles a lot of SEO and social media issues without adding additional plugins. For members we also host many of the sites, so we cover the cost of high end hosting, which includes all the security, performance optimization, and software updates. It’s a platform for members and an open source project too, so you can take it and modify it however you choose.
Do you have any member organizations that use the framework to its full potential?
[laughing] This is always a tough question. I think we’re getting there. There’s a lot we have a lot to do in regards to training and support to help organizations understand everything that’s available because there’s a lot of stuff that’s still not as obvious as I’d like it to be.
For instance, we encourage authors to fill in their profiles. If they link to their Twitter account or to a Google+ profile, it automatically inserts all the authorship markup and associated metadata. We don’t make that a requirement, so we need to do a better job of explaining why it’s important to do so.
WordPress has a lot of optional stuff, like descriptions for categories, which can provide a lot of context on a category landing page. No one ever uses that, though. There’s also the proper use of metadata, so having categories, tags, and using them effectively. It’s so obvious to us, what should be a category versus a tag, but it’s not always clear to our authors. “I’ll just make a bunch of categories,” which is very common.
We need to do more training, like “Here’s the best way to…” There’s a lot of special styling available for elements within a story, but too often an author needs to know the exact markup for it to display correctly. We need to document that stuff, which will be one of the first tasks for the designer that we’re now hiring.
There aren’t any sites that I would point to as being great examples, but that’s totally my fault, it’s not their fault. There are a lot of sites that do the fundamentals pretty well, but there’s no one really maximizing that and that’s just something that we have to focus a little more on. Although there are sites that are doing some awesome stuff too.
Do you take feature requests from organizations?
We do, but we try to apply a filter to their requests. Even if it’s a good idea, not everything can be a priority, just because we may have more pressing responsibilities. If there’s something that someone identifies that a lot of members would find of value and we can ship it in a couple of hours, we’ll often just build it. But if it’s a feature that might take a little more time, thought, and care, we’ll add it to the backlog and the next version of the framework might include it.
For more one-off requests, when members say, “I want to be able to do this one very specific thing,” that in my estimation other members are unlikely to want, and it’s very narrow, then those are the types of things we’re now helping to implement with our paid consulting program.
We’ve thought about having a place where a member could submit these requests and filter them up and down to help us gauge interest and I expect that’s something we’ll do soon. For future versions of the framework, now that we’ve gotten most of the fundamental stuff out of the way, we’ll prioritize more based on feedback from our members.
So I was reading your Twitter feed…
Hey I feel like you make the most of the format!
In a recent tweet you wrote that people will need to pay for their news. What does the future of journalism look like, both for your average reader and for news organizations?
So that’s a big question. As far as revenue goes, the model in the 20th century was essentially, “We’ll sell ads in this newspaper, it will show up on your doorstep every morning, and you’re guaranteed delivery of those ads.” An advertiser would pay a premium to reach that audience, although whether or not the audience actually looked at the ads is questionable, even though the ads appeared intermingled with the content.
Folks, I hate to break this to you. But to fix the media you're all just going to have to pay for news. Sorry, just how it has to be.Adam Schweigert (@aschweig)
There would usually be multiple newspapers in a town and they would have different perspectives, so you could, for example, buy ads to display to a particular, partisan audience. That was basically all there was, so the newspapers would charge a premium to deliver those ads in an effective and reliable way. The ads were expensive and composed a majority of the income for the newspaper, which used the money to hire lots of staff and things were great. Subscription fees were only a fraction of the total revenue, which no longer works for a variety of reasons.
Today there’s much more diversity in media, especially online. Unfortunately for advertisers, banner ads are not effective. Everyone who’s ever seen one knows that you only click on them by accident. There’s a certain branding value to them, which is why luxury goods companies still pay for them, but otherwise they’re not effective. As a result, ad rates have dropped and are now approaching zero. It’s great for companies buying advertising, but terrible for the publishers, who are now trying to figure out how to make money. This is why advertising has becoming increasingly desperate, online and in print. It’s a race to the bottom to find the next advertising technique that’s even more disruptive to the reader, in order to charge more, all the while rates continue to slide off a cliff.
Instead, we need to diversify our revenue streams. There are a lot of organizations that are now looking at ads as a piece of the pie, but they also organize events or sell premium content, for example. A revenue model for a nonprofit would also include foundation grants and individual donations. With this new model it’s much less likely that any one source of revenue will ever pay for the entire cost of producing serious news. If you want serious accountability journalism, in my opinion, there’s just no way out of consumers having to pay for it.
If you just expect to get your news for free as a result of advertisements, then you’re going to get what advertisers are going to pay for, which is editorially bankrupt journalism.
If you just expect to get your news for free as a result of advertisements, then you’re going to get what advertisers are going to pay for, which is editorially bankrupt journalism. Some publications sell branded content, which is a slightly different story, but it’s still predicated on deception. It’s making the ads look enough like content in order to fool someone into accidentally reading it.
It’s an especially dangerous proposition for prestige brands, like The New York Times, because they risk diluting their brand by confusing consumers. The long term cost is an erosion of trust and that’s just not worth the money. At the moment you can get pretty good money for native advertising, but like other advertising, those rates are going to eventually continue to erode. I would rather see more organizations bite the bullet and just start charging for content than see them going down this slippery slope of blurring the lines between editorial and branded content.
Where do you get your news from?
All over the place. I get a lot of news from my Twitter feed and I always try to diversify the people I follow, so that I get perspectives outside of the media bubble. I’m actually pretty old, in internet terms anyway, so I have an RSS feed reader and still get news from that. I also subscribe to the Sunday New York Times, just because I enjoy drinking coffee and reading it, even though I’ve already read most of it by the time I get it! [laughs] I still enjoy that experience of reading it even though it’s probably, I don’t know what it is now, eight dollars an issue.
Well, you get what you pay for.
It’s more for the experience than the content that’s contained within it. I also listen to a lot of podcasts, a lot of public radio, and then obviously read content from INN member organizations. I can’t read it all, but I do try to share articles from there to give them a boost.
Have you interacted with any of your favorite brands lately?
[Laughing] My favorite brands? I just had an interaction with Charmin on Twitter. They were running a sponsored tweet, which didn’t make any sense, so I made a poop joke because that’s what Charmin does. That was my interaction with them. The way brands are using Twitter has gotten to be a little bit…
Is there value in it? To them? Or for you?
If it’s done well it can be very funny, but I don’t know that it’s effective, except in terms of awareness. The effectiveness of social media is a very similar question to the effectiveness of advertising in general, right? What are the goals? It’s become a requirement for customer service, but does it drive sales? I’m not convinced. We’re still in the early days of sponsored tweets, but the stuff I see tends to be from big national brands that I don’t buy anyway, so it hasn’t changed my behavior.
Right now it’s mostly jokes and the social media managers that run these accounts are so hardened, just because they need to be, I’m sure. Joking around with them is fun, knowing that there’s a person behind it who probably has a pretty good sense of humor. Certainly, it’s still a great way to get a brand’s attention if you have a bad experience. In my previous consulting life, a sort of gospel that I preached was that social media is more of a listening platform than a way to push a message, which just isn’t that effective in my opinion.
So speaking of your previous life as a consultant, how’d you get into this line of work, what brought you to where you are now?
It’s a long story. I double majored in music and biochemistry because I thought I was going to be a doctor, but I was paying for it with a music scholarship as an oboe player. After two years I ended up dropping biochem because juggling both majors was crazy without having any overlap between them.
So I spent five years and majored in oboe performance, music theory and music composition. But a music degree by itself is pretty much worthless, so of course I went to grad school. I went to Indiana University, which is a fantastic music school, to study composition, and added more of a computer music focus.
In grad school I got a part time job at a public radio station, where I started as a writer and producer. They eventually brought me on full time as the music director. I was probably the youngest classical music director in the history of public radio. It’s unusual because classical music is difficult to program. It’s not like pop songs, where you just play those same 40 songs. There is a thousand years of music and you need to assemble it in a way that flows well, yet is varied enough to still be interesting for both a more discerning audience and as background music for a typical dentist’s office.
After doing that for a couple years I was the person in the office who discovered podcasting. I told my co-workers that, “We should be doing this, this is the future.” We should be producing audio for the internet, not just putting our live stream online, so I started working more on the web at that point.
When I got that first full-time job I also decided to drop out of grad school, so I don’t have an actual master’s degree, which is kind of sad because I was pretty close and, particularly, because I had taken out a lot of student loans. I realized that I was not really into what I was doing. I was writing a lot of music that was esoteric enough that it was not really listenable, but was written more for winning awards.
But I realized the skills that I had were translatable into doing other stuff. So in my role at the public radio station, I transitioned into being responsible for the website, as well as doing online content development. What was interesting to me, is that the radio station roughly covers the southern half of Indiana. On air, they reach about 40,000 people, but I don’t recall if that’s a week or month, it’s fairly small and Bloomington is a pretty small town. They have a geographically limited audience, but being in a college town that has a very rich cultural life and associations with the university, there is a lot of strength and possibility for building content partnerships.
So my strategy was to look for projects that we could develop for a national audience, which was a great success. We launched probably a dozen different blogs and podcasts that were often very topically focused on a particular strength of a partner organization, whether it be an academic department or the Kinsey Institute, which was one of our biggest successes. Kinsey Confidential was a podcast about sexual health, where we had the opportunity to give, essentially, sex advice with a real solid research footing. It was probably the raciest thing public radio has ever touched, so I am very proud of that.
We also had a partnership with a local chef, Earth Eats, that was right around the beginning of the resurgence of the local food movement, the modern day farm-to-table kind of idea. We started a podcast and blog that was local food focused, which was one of the first in that space and it blew up too. By the time I left, this dinky station was among the top ten public radio websites nationally.
What brought you to Columbus?
I moved here to do similar work at WOSU, but it wound up not being a good fit, so I only stayed a year. I helped launch a web presence for their classical music station, which went pretty well. It was culturally hard because I wanted to move a little faster, build a team, be a little more aggressive. It just wasn’t where they were yet, but I do think they’re doing better now.
I then worked for just about year in consulting, mostly with companies in higher education, healthcare, and financial services. I did social strategy, analytics, and research. It was interesting, but I missed working in news and the nonprofit world, so I ended up starting my own firm.
INN was actually a client of mine and after a while it turned into a full time job, which is how I got to where I am now. I still do a little bit of freelance work, but not much. It trailed way off because my focus is now solely on building a team and products to support nonprofit news at INN.
So it’s been been kind of a weird path.
You are probably better for it, though.
I am super grateful to have had the diversity of experience, even for those really hard years during my undergrad where I was juggling all of the math, science, and music. If I had only been a music major, I would never have taken that amount of math and chemistry. Having that research experience was really beneficial for me because it made me apply the scientific method to my decision making process, which I use and am grateful for today.
Tell me about your hobbies. The ones I know about are gardening, cycling, and small Ohio towns.
Food is a big thing for me, which began when I started editing that food podcast. I always enjoyed cooking, but didn’t really get that much into it. It’s amazing what covering food policy will do for how you eat. It’s around that time that I became a vegetarian. I now grow, can, and cook a lot of my own food. At my house I ripped out the entire backyard and built raised beds, and am now a fairly serious gardener. In the summertime I spend a lot of time on that, which I enjoy because it’s an opportunity to be away from the screen. The more time I spend in front of a screen the more time I like to spend doing things that feel more tangible.
Photography has been a hobby of mine for a long time. I am also a pretty serious runner, but lately I’ve been doing more cycling. The cycling and photography are the two hobbies that go into my small towns project. I was born in Akron and have lived in Ohio most of my life, but I realized that I have seen almost none of it since I have just driven the highways instead of seeing the smaller towns.
So as a way of getting out more and doing more photography, I go on a bike trip almost every weekend. I usually ride 50 or 60 miles and I try to find at least a few small towns, which I take photos of. I would like to eventually turn these photos into a book. For me, it’s about experiencing the diversity of the state at a human scale and photographing the characteristic architecture of small town Ohio. A lot of small towns have deteriorated as people leave, so I want to capture some of that architecture before it disappears. It’s an ongoing project and there are something like 280 small towns in Ohio…
…Are you going to make it to them all?
[Laughing] I don’t know if I will make it to all of them. I have been to about 50 or 60, so we will see how far I will get. Maybe next summer I will do more of a focused project and do a Kickstarter to go and reshoot some of it. Right now I just pick a spot and then ride all of these back roads to hit the towns along the way. There isn’t much of a plan to it, but maybe I will be more methodical about it next summer.
Over the last year music has become a hobby again, which is my first time back to it since I got burned out on it during grad school. I have been learning banjo, which is completely different, but equally challenging and a lot of fun. I don’t play in a band or anything yet, it’s more of a personal hobby.
What else? I usually get on a weird kick where I become randomly interested in something and will then need to know everything that exists about it. That covers a lot of it.