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The Last Word With Becky Pallack

Becky Pallack (M.S. 2021) is cofounder of Arizona Luminaria, a nonprofit news startup. She began working on it as a class project when she was a graduate fellow in the NewStart program, a local news ownership initiative that is part of the Reed College of Media’s Media Solutions and Innovation (MESO) master’s degree. Becky graduated from the program in July 2021.  Previously she was an award -winning beat reporter and a product manager at newspapers in Arizona. Although her MESO experience was 100% online, she hopes to visit the campus and go hiking in West Virginia someday soon.

 Becky Pallack

You recently launched a nonprofit news organization in Arizona. Can you share a little about that?

Arizona Luminaria is a nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism organization. Our goal is to fill information gaps with new online sources of civic news as a public service for Arizona cities. And we want to publish in English and Spanish.

It’s an ambitious project! We’re moving from vetting an idea to launching the first online publication in just one year. Right now we’re in fundraising mode, building the seed fund needed to help our project have enough runway to take off.

The founding team includes me, audience development expert Irene McKisson, and newsroom leader Dianna Náñez. Learn more and support our launch at AZLuminaria.org.


You use the “lean innovation framework” to help news teams build digital products. What does that mean?

Before I left my newspaper job to start a new company, I was a product manager at the Arizona Daily Star newspaper. I worked at the intersection of the newsroom, the tech group and the sales teams and helped them build and monetize new products like newsletters, guides, and apps.

Using innovation frameworks just means applying proven methods to make products that audiences will love — and that make money — without wasting a bunch of time and resources.

I bumped into the concepts of Lean Startup and Design Thinking about eight years ago and it really changed my work life. I realized innovation could be done systematically. I thought about how these frameworks have been used by tech companies and can be used in journalism. It led me to connect with my local startup community, and I started dreaming about sustainable journalism business models, and that eventually led me to WVU’s NewStart program.


How we consume news is rapidly changing. In a digital-first world, what should local newsrooms be considering when it comes to publishing innovations?

My first step is always to ask consumers in your market, “How do you get your news?” Then really listen and accept surprises. We need to be willing to meet audiences where they live online. It’s still like bringing local news to their doorstep! Except that doorstep is the lock screen on their phone.

We need to be willing to meet audiences where they live online. It’s still like bringing local news to their doorstep! Except that doorstep is the lock screen on their phone.

Basically the lean innovation framework starts with deeply understanding your audience and their news and information needs, then coming up with an idea that will meet their needs, testing it with actual audience members, iterating based on what you learned from the test — and then building, testing and learning some more. Anyone can do this!

 

There are still many “traditional” news consumers. How do newsrooms balance the need for traditional journalism and digital innovations?

A lot of innovation can happen with small experiments that don’t take a lot of time and resources.

I believe print publishers should be thinking about their profits today as a runway toward a digital future. They need to invest in disrupting their own business models before other forces do it for them or they run out of time.


What does the future of community publishing look like? What can local journalism offer that national outlets can’t?

I think the future of local publishing is local ownership. A healthy and engaged community needs a local news organization dedicated to covering local news — and no one cares more about that mission than a local owner. The NewStart fellowship gave me the space to learn about local news ownership opportunities.

 

What do you say to newsroom leaders who need convincing about the benefits of innovation projects?

Storytelling helps! I gather data and collect anecdotes from their readers about how people are currently using their news products and what the unmet needs are. I also talk about the opportunities for community service, audience growth, and revenue growth.


To learn more about the one-year online Media Solutions and Innovation graduate degree program, visit mediacollege.wvu.edu/meso. For more on NewStart, visit newstart.media.


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