Entrepreneurialism. It’s not just a word reserved for go-getting restaurateurs and tech-minded Silicon Valley whiz kids. Increasingly, it’s a skill that journalists are learning is nearly as valuable as their favorite style guide. In an age of news experimentation – and some might argue, re-invention – having entrepreneurial skills and being business-minded aren’t just a necessity for publishers, station owners and ethereal “white collars” above the newsroom (the ones in offices “with a view”). Journalism-training programs are catching on, and many have added or are planning to add varying degrees of entrepreneurial training to their curricula.
Quill published a special section on journalism entrepreneurship in the January/February 2011 issue with contributions from several writers. Here, we follow up on that section with an excerpt from Mark Briggs’ new book, “Entrepreneurial Journalism: How to Build What’s Next for News,” released in October.
Thanks to Mark Briggs and CQ Press for granting permission to publish this excerpt. See book ordering information here.
By Mark Briggs
The news startups that you meet in this chapter would all be considered successful by most outside measurements. From the inside, though, each founder could tell you about missed opportunities, scarce resources and all the other hurdles that face every young business. Yet even amid those challenges, these startups stand out—and in this crowded online era, that’s no small accomplishment.
“There are so many startup ideas, it’s difficult to sort through them to get to the one that will work for a particular entrepreneur,” says Lisa Williams, whose Placeblogger site has become the largest searchable index of local blogs. In her view, a news startup can define success in several different ways, not all of which relate to money. “It can produce good work, it can be financially successful; [or] it can produce knowledge and career advancement for the people engaged in it, even if the actual startup doesn’t end up taking off.”
The ability to attract and serve a valuable audience with quality content is the first characteristic generally used in evaluating the success of a news startup. The next trick—which some would say is more difficult—is to make enough money to sustain the operation so that the audience continues to have access to that great content.
Set Your Own Goals
Audience and revenue are the primary measurements of success for online media. But how much audience and revenue is sufficient? The answer varies with the size and scope of the operation. In other words, the formula for success depends greatly on the goals and expectations set by a founding team.
Setting those goals for your business is a crucial first step. Obviously you can’t know what the future will bring, but it’s important to envision how big or small you’d like your company to be, if everything goes well, and then set benchmarks for how you’ll measure success. These benchmarks will likely change as the project progresses. As you’re getting started, the experiences of others can help you decide where you’re aiming.
How you learn from other entrepreneurs depends on what you’re aiming for. Maybe it’s an idea that will convert good journalism into a solid business and consistent revenue. And just what is your particular definition of “solid business”? To CNN or the startup news site Global Post, it’s worldwide penetration. To USA Today or the Daily Beast, it’s national. To the West Seattle Blog or the New Haven Independent, it’s local. You’ve got plenty of options; but what matters is finding your focus.
As an average member of the online audience, you can jump from site to site just enjoying what each has to offer. As an aspiring entrepreneur, your mission is to ask whyand how. When a site makes you stick around and explore, what’s the reason? What grabbed you, and how can you apply that to your own startup idea? Practice thinking analytically. For example, here’s how paidContent founder (Rafat) Ali evaluated the online media landscape in 2010:
“One of the sites I like is Mashable, which is the biggest tech blog out there. It is trying to bridge the B2B (business-to-business) versus consumer gap, and make its service mainstream, which it has to a large extent. It has taken that zeitgeist interest in social media, and turned it into a how-to on the consumer side, and added classifieds and events to it. I think it could also easily expand into business services as well. Or even how-to educational classes. I think that is a very smart way to build a company, and they are a good template for future of online publishing.”
Like many of the companies discussed in this chapter, Mashable started as a blog with a handful of writers working around the clock, seven days a week, with no promise of “making it big.” Timing was on the company’s side, as it began covering social media just as Facebook and Twitter really took off. Now it is a formidable media company with dozens of journalists, strict editorial standards and innovative technology on its website.
Marshall Kirkpatrick, senior writer for ReadWriteWeb and one of the original writers for TechCrunch, has been analyzing startups for almost a decade. He says a startup’s ability to differentiate itself the way Mashable did is the key to success. “My favorite news startups add substantial value to an already crowded news ecosystem. They offer compelling user experiences that I’m drawn to, that I don’t have to struggle to train myself to return to,” Kirkpatrick says.
Audience loyalty is a critical component of success in a news startup. Simply having audience “eyeballs” on your content, however, is rarely enough to guarantee success. The audience must be loyal and fully engaged if you want to produce dynamic, vibrant content and help your news site grow. “The really successful ones are the ones that have focused on building a loyal community,” says Techdirt founder Mike Masnick. “Once you have that community in place, it enables so much more.”
For the rest of this chapter we address who or what defines success in online news, including elements that you haven’t even thought of. We’ll look at what successful journalism startups have in common, so you can start thinking how you might incorporate those common themes into your own startup idea.
The Influence Model: Quality Content Pays
For decades, this rule of the journalism business—influence makes markets—helped newspapers grow into hugely profitable enterprises. From the 1970s to the 1990s, newspapers’ revenues steadily grew based on the audience they could attract with their journalism—and the relative lack of competition for that audience. Advertisers paid top dollar to have their messages appear alongside quality content. They didn’t have much choice.
In his 2004 book “The Vanishing Newspaper,” Philip Meyer argued that newspapers were not in the news or information business but rather in the influence business, an idea proposed even earlier by former Knight Ridder vice president Hal Jurgensmeyer. “A newspaper, in the Jurgensmeyer model, produces two kinds of influence: societal influence, which is not for sale, and commercial influence, or influence on the consumer’s decision to buy, which is for sale,” Meyer wrote. “The beauty of this model is that it provides economic justification for excellence in journalism.”
Before the late 1990s, Meyer said, newspapers were able to leverage their influence and credibility through consistently publishing quality content. But then newspapers fell behind the digital competition. Still, the model that commercially supported newspapers for decades is essentially the same model that technology and political bloggers have used to build their “empires”: When a publication builds a loyal audience based on the quality of its news coverage, advertisers pay to be seen in the same space. Digital innovations have created new ways to implement this model, but the essence remains the same.
“There are some fascinating sprouts popping up all over,” says Ken Doctor, author of “Newsonomics.” “Reporting is timeless: People find out what’s going on and tell other people about it. Storytelling is obviously hugely expanded and is no longer constrained by job duty. The blogger voice really added something to journalism: a direct connection to the audience. I’m very optimistic about what we should be able to create with (the) tools of (the) digital age.”
The user community is eventually what attracts advertisers, too. For example, TechDirt founder Mike Masnick built a highly engaged community around his technology news site, and then found innovative ways to leverage it for new revenue.
“I think quality content is always important in both creating influence and driving audience,” Masnick says. “There is some correlation with revenue, but it’s a mistake to think that quality content alone results in revenue (unless you’re damn lucky). There are also successful business models without quality content, but I have trouble believing those are sustainable long term.”
Most news entrepreneurs agree that publishing (or aggregating) great content is the best way to build an audience and then turn that audience into a community that adds value through sharing and engagement. Entrepreneurs, investors, foundations, pundits and even the end users define success differently. But the one thread that runs through all of the examples is the importance of great content.
Defining quality content means figuring out what will inspire your audience to join in. In some cases that might be as simple—and as complex—as delivering more local news than the established media are providing.
The New Haven Independent, a non-profit local news site started by Paul Bass in 2005, features good work produced by “surviving reporters” from other local media, but the site has built its audience around original reporting beats—government, crime, business, arts and culture. “What’s proving viable is creating value through reporting,” Paul Bass says. “You gotta do good reporting. It’s an old-fashioned idea, but you have to go out and interview people, look at records, and present it in a good way. Good reporting and analysis is the key to success.”
Back when newspapers were the only publishers in town, it was relatively easy for a journalist to become an influential voice. Today, it’s much more challenging to be heard amid the burgeoning online din.
Using the influence model now, Kirkpatrick suggests, requires complex relationships and calibrations. When you don’t have a distribution monopoly as newspapers once did, there are more factors involved in establishing your influence. It works best if your content is “produced regularly, placed strongly in the news cycle, strategically linked to off-site resources and published in conjunction with an effective social media strategy,” which according to Kirkpatrick means using social media “to add value to the lives of others in order to re-enforce that influence.” In its most basic form, re-enforcing means getting your content seen and making sure it’s shared.
Venture capitalists understand the influence model and have increasingly placed their bets on content they believe is strong enough to create financial success. Investors love disruption. As traditional media have struggled to adapt to the digital age, opportunities for new business models have multiplied. While foundations and other philanthropists financially support news startups because they believe it’s important to preserve quality journalism, venture capitalists and angel investors see quality journalism as a way to make money. With more and more funders valuing journalistic quality, why not try using the influence model to build your business? Other companies are already doing it.
For example, Xconomy is an online news startup covering the high tech and biotech industries in a handful of U.S. cities. The site launched in 2007 in Boston with several million dollars in funding and the goal of targeting a valuable demographic — the leaders of cutting-edge companies in “the exponential economy”— that were interested in one another’s dealings and a group highly desirable to sponsors. Xconomy hired top-shelf writers and paid them handsome salaries to keep a traditional journalistic objectivity from these hot companies as the writers explore trends and personalities. Simultaneously, the site forged a unique news identity by recruiting a group of “Xconomists” — high-tech economy insiders for each city it covers, who share their views and insights in specially labeled posts. The audience weighs in with their own opinions, and this creates an engaged community that sponsors want to reach.
The influence model, which comes in many sizes and forms, can work for big companies or neighborhood blogs. Quality content combined with authentic community engagement make the model work in the digital age, just as it did before bits and bytes overtook ink and paper.
Mark Briggs’ book, “Entrepreneurial Journalism,” is currently available from CQ Press. He is also the author of “Journalism Next” and “Journalism 2.0.” In addition to nine years running newspaper websites in Tacoma and Everett, Wash., he co-founded the technology start-up Serra Media. He is currently director of digital media for KING-5 TV in Seattle and a Ford Fellow in Entrepreneurial Journalism at The Poynter Institute. Quill named him one of “20 journalists to follow” in 2010.