Lessons to learn from successful online journalism businesses



Image: Flickr/Peter Gerdes

It might not feel like it, but the future of journalism is being fixed right now. It is being figured out babystep-by-babystep, one small development at a time. Each new idea and business brings something new to the table. Each failed business model is a lesson learned. The important thing is we keep watching these small individual successes and failures, figuring out why they work and, if possible, applying it elsewhere.

With more than half of 2010 under our belt already it feels like a much more optimistic year than 2009 was. There’s less head scratching, and more doing. So what lessons can we learn from those who are already making it work?

I’ve been looking at some notable successful online news businesses and through blogged and printed interviews and reports tried to dissect what is going well. Here then, are six things we can learn from those who are already making it work.


1. Have a niche

The niche thing get’s bounded around a lot, but it really does matter. Being a publisher online is less about reaching millions and more about really connecting with just thousands, or tens of thousands.

The growing number of hyperlocal websites are showing the most obvious niche (a geographical one) has potential; the other big niche – finance – is proving a fine market for businesses like thebusinessdesk.com who told journalists in London in May, they hope to turnover more than £1million in 2010.

But here’s another you probably didn’t think of: medical industry news – inside a small geographical area. Believe it or not, this very specialised niche has become a home for a successful new startup called MedCity News. It covers medical industry news in Ohio and Minnesota – but according to the blog Lost Remote it’s growing fast, with plans to have eight offices by the end of 2011.


2. Start small, stay small


Image: Flickr/digitaljournal.com

The big advantage startups have in journalism, over their well established rivals, is size. Yes, it’s possible for something to be too big, and as I wrote earlier this year, the size of some newspapers and broadcasters is what’s causing them pain.

So stay small. A great example of this is the world famous tech news website TechCrunch. Started by Michael Arrington in his home Silicon Valley,  the website was run from his small flat until, I’m told, very recently. Techcrunch’s big rival, Mashable, was founded by Pete Cashmore under similar circumstances.

If you’ve got plans to launch a web business, don’t strangle yourself at birth by renting expensive offices. In the digital age we can all work from home – so do it.


3. Have multiple revenue streams

One thing that connects a lot of the most successful news startups is their cunning use of multiple revenue streams. We’ve all learned the hard way a total reliance on advertising revenue is risky at best, and devastating when a recession comes along.

The most clever and successful news startups are seeking new revenue models all the time. Multimedia photoagency VII are living proof of this. They’re already carving themselves an enviable name for their powerful photojournalism work with non-profits and other organisations.

In an article for the British Journal of Photography, the head of VII, Stephen Mayes writes about the importance of having many strings to your bow.

“Certainly the magazines are still in the mix, but now more as print distribution partners rather than as exclusive clients (with additional distribution through TV and online partners), often co-funded by another party and supported separately by technology partners with access to story-knowledge being supplied by yet other people” he says. “The line-up shifts for each project, and as each new partner comes on board the opportunities to do interesting work and to generate income multiply.”

It’s true too for MedCity News who are looking at the many different ways to monetise their content. Co-founder Chris Seper tells Mark Briggs of Lost Remote they make money from specific ‘made-to-order’ content, the syndication of that content (almost as a mini news agency) and online ad revenue.


4. Be passionate

Passion is another attribute some of our most successful news businesses seem to share. Of course, you must be passionate to strike out on your own, and you must be passionate about making it on your own.

But often it is a passion for the content itself which brings in the most readers. A case in point is the magazine Slate, with a website growing in popularity. Slate’s editor David Plotz has given his writers the opportunity to pursue passion projects, and produce long-form articles from it. Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University report that Slate have published mammoth articles on everything from signage to dentistry in the last few months.

Now we’re told long-form journalism doesn’t survive on the web; but Slate are proving that wrong. Their passion pieces are getting more than 3 million page views each.


5. Be innovative


Image: Flickr/Doing Media Studies

Back to Stephen Mayes at photo agency VII who, in his piece for the BJP talks about the importance of rewriting the rules.

“It’s not about finding new ways to do old things” he says, “but time to radically rethink our business models by redefining our products, our partners and our clients.”

Don’t be in this to be mediocre, or average, or do old things in a slightly new way. Now is the time to completely redefine how journalism is done – and it’s not an opportunity which will last forever.


6. Experiment

And finally, the other element that connects the most successful online business so far is a willingness to experiment. Now it’s easy to bandy that word around without realising its implications.

Experimentation means taking a risk. It means, more often than not, failing. Getting something wrong. None of these successful startups, from thebusinessdesk.com to MedCityNews to TechCrunch have gotten where they are by being risk averse.

Just read how Stephen Mayes describes how VII do things:

“...some [business] models have already been tested in 2009 and there are more to explore in 2010. About half of the ideas are right, but we won’t know which half will fully fruit until we’ve tested them.”

They’re testing a large number of ideas and models – and not all are working.

But that is how you innovate.