Professional journalists are launching scores of news startups around the country. Some cover community news, others hone in on special topics; some cover state government, and others aim to generate, and often share, investigative stories.
But it takes more than an award-winning track record in journalism, a willingness to embrace risk and an ability to dip into your retirement accounts to make a go of a good news site.
You’ll need to develop some new skill sets — and probably some new mindsets. You’ll need to understand that you will be serving customers, not just readers.
J-Lab has funded 65 community and women-led news startups since 2005 (thanks to the Knight and McCormick Foundations). We have observed some sharp entrepreneurs in action. Here are 10 tasks that we’d advise any wannabe entrepreneur to undertake:
First, assess the landscape. Don’t duplicate. Define the unique value you’ll deliver to your audience. As Mike Orren, founder and publisher of PegasusNews.com, advised at the 2010 Online News Association convention: “Figure out whose problem you are solving.”
Test-drive your idea. This is just good old-fashioned reporting. Once you’ve firmed up your idea, seek feedback from your network on whether it resonates: Would readers visit your site? Would advertisers buy an ad on it? Would investors see a business model? Will anyone offer to help you?
Develop your project “wireframe.” Sketch out just how you think your project would work. Who would build a website? Who would do the reporting? The editing? How often will you update? Will you have staff or interns?
Decide on the best business structure for you — and file your paperwork. Will you be a for-profit business or a non-profit? Will you affiliate with a university? Will you look for a fiscal agent until you spin into your own 501(c)(3)? Check out the step-by-step guide for Launching a Nonprofit News Site on the Knight Citizen News Network for some pros and cons at tinyurl.com/NewsSiteLaunch. Bottom line: do you want to sell ads, seek grants or woo members? Or do all three?
Develop a business plan.Start to answer these questions: How will your enterprise be funded to start? What’s your initial budget? How will it grow in a year and beyond? How will people find out about your project? Who are your consumers? Who are your customers? Gather demographic data on your target community: household income, education, broadband connectivity. Pick a name, but do research to avoid latching onto a moniker someone else has trademarked.
Refine your elevator pitch. Distill your plan into a one-minute wrap-up that nails what you’re doing and for whom, and why people want it. Then start making your pitch — to donors, funders, advertisers, volunteers. Make sure to tell them what you’re looking for: Do you want them to meet with you? Look at your business plan? Make an introduction? Develop a PowerPoint to hit your highlights.
Build a website. Start with a simple site that you can easily tweak yourself. WordPress is one easy option that will give you something to show quickly. Here’s a J-Lab how-to on launching a WordPress site.
Gather content. Write stories. Commission stories. Recruit guest columnists. Solicit photos. Assemble lists, data and resources. Firm up partners, links and content swaps. Sell, barter or give away your first ads or sponsorships.
Launch with fanfare. Will you have a launch party? Develop a Facebook page? Take out ads? Have a social media campaign? Sponsor a table at a community event? Plan how to get noticed.
Start to tell your tale. In addition to the stories you want to tell in your community, you must begin to flesh out your own story. Start collecting metrics. How many stories have you published? How many contributors have you recruited? Have your stories had any impact? Have your ads worked for your advertisers? Have you grown a network of members, subscribers or donors? How many unique visitors are coming to your site? How long do they stay? How is that growing? Check out this explainer ad kit from Baristanet.com.
Remember that you are not just a journalist any longer. You’re a marketer, publisher and business leader. Above all, stay focused, but be ready to change on a dime. As a local news entrepreneur, you will need to evolve and evolve. Make the surprises work for you.
Jan Schaffer is executive director of J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism at American University’s School of Communication. She is a former business editor and Pulitzer Prize winner for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.