Aiming to change the way news is delivered in 10 months, but hoping to work slowly

For most things, 10 months is plenty of time. Even extremely hard and amazing things can happen in 10 months, like gestating a human baby for example. Or, if you’re Donald Trump you can torpedo an entire American presidential race largely through a powerful frenemy alliance/suicide pact with mainstream media.

But getting a new media project up onto training wheels in 10 months (especially one that wants nothing to do with the Trump echo chamber) has been a challenge.

And I’ve had it easy. I’ve been on a JSK Fellowship for nine months with one to go. I have no other professional responsibilities, a stipend to cover the astronomical rent and preschool costs in Silicon Valley, and access to all the human and academic resources Stanford University has to offer. I know how good I have it. Even with this amazing fellowship, I estimate my low-income news consumers platform, Outlier Media, won’t be up and running full force for another quarter. Last month I got the wonderful news the W.K. Kellogg Foundation will fund a pilot phase of this project. They’ve bought me a little more time, and I’m incredibly grateful.

The truth is that I’ve found building a journalism startup a naturally slow process. I have many supporters, collaborators and advisers but so far it’s just me doing the work reporting, researching and data work. I decided early on it made more sense to rely on collaborators I already knew for ideas and support. I just wouldn’t have time for Silicon Valley networking.

I’m not completely sure this has been a good move.

It’s hard not to buy into the mythology that opportunity is like fog here. Most of the time it looks just like clouds, beautiful but stubbornly overhead. But at any moment, we think, it just might redistribute. It could roll slowly downward and outward until it embraces and envelops everything down on the ground. Even the regular folks.  

I want this to be true! I have a fantasy that I’ll just run into the perfect answer or funder. That’s how it is here in the heart of Silicon Valley, right? Maybe I’ll be picking up my kids from school and one of the other moms is a VC (The kids at this elementary school may, in fact, have Dads, but I never see them). Or, maybe I’ll be standing in the insanely long line for coffee at Philz one day and just make a little bit of small talk with the woman standing behind me. “This line is always so long!” I’ll say with a cheery roll of my eyes. We’ll bond over first-world problems and soon my new friend will ask me what I do. “I’m developing an SMS service to deliver valuable reporting to low-income news consumers,” I’ll say. She’ll open her eyes wide. “That sounds so innovative! And important!” she’ll say. “Are you looking for investors?”

My fantasy is hard to shake, even though living in the real Silicon Valley makes it abundantly clear these networks aren’t easy to break into. School is out soon and I still don’t talk to anyone at my daughter’s elementary school except the other kids and one really nice nanny. I actually live right door next to a Philz, but nobody even makes eye contact in line. It is true that most people here do have a ton of money, but they don’t seem particularly eager to part with any of it. Why would they be? In my heart of hearts, I’ve always known even tech bros who seemingly delight in parading their privilege also hustle hard for their investments. I’m sure they want to keep them.

It is not just the time and effort it would take to break into the tech networks that make me hesitate to dive in. I’ve enjoyed it here this year, but I feel like an outsider. I’m still not sure if even prolonged and close contact with this ecosystem could ever translate into a value beyond the anthropological for someone like me, a Midwestern Latina obsessed with increasing accountability to low-income communities. Or, am I just doing a “I’ll reject you before you can reject me,” kind of thing? I don’t really know.

What I do know is how much I can get done in a day if I work hard. I just default to that since I don’t know if I’ll end up getting anything out of the lunch/happy hour/whatever that are requirements of networking. I would need to hype my project again and again at these events. I’m proud of the work I’m doing, but it is far from complete. I worry that constant hustle can lead you to believing your own hype before you’ve built something deserving of it. “Fail fast” they like to say out here ­— like it’s a good thing.

Opting-out of these startup truisms like “fail fast” or “rapid prototyping” makes me feel crusty and old. But I also know it’s right for me. I like to work fast and I’m good at it. But, what I’ve finally realized this year is that my work is actually better when I do it more slowly and more carefully. I’ve finally gotten to concentrate on fewer things. What a luxury for a reporter in an era of constantly shrinking newsrooms! I think moving slow and steady is my best chance at having my work really make a difference. Maybe this realization is what makes me feel so alien here.

This spring, I went to a pitch session at the Stanford design school. The d.school functions as tech culture provocateur but also turns startup culture into pedagogy. I had to talk about my project and pushed back against the “the faster to market the better” ethos. I was literally scolded by a professor who said I was not a true entrepreneur if I wasn’t willing to put out a product I was embarrassed by.

I’m not willing to do that anymore. I had to do that when I was a new reporter pushed to publish on deadline for a nonexistent online audience. I put out a ton of work product I was embarrassed by at the time and continue to be embarrassed by. Thank God nobody read that stuff. I’ve gotten better, but in my case, it is in spite of this forced “rapid prototyping” and not because of it.

Will I be able to make something truly valuable to the low-income news consumers I’m dedicated to serving in this 10 months, or even two years? I’m close but I’m not sure yet. I’m going slow, anyway, and I’m opting out of the selling game until I’m sure of my product.

But, if you’re interested in investing, let me know.