Debunking 5 Myths of Entrepreneurial Journalism

Entrepreneurial journalists spot the seeds of start-ups where others see remnants of the news industry’s retreat. Earlier this month, I worked with 19 forward-looking journos who convened at Poynter to get a jumpstart on their new micro-businesses.

One narrowed the focus of her niche news site for Filipino Americans, while another refined his plan for RootedAustin.com, a local portal for Austin, Texas. The early-stage ideas — like many of the new notions flowing across the journalism landscape — spanned from micro-local sites to services aimed at bolstering journalism’s infrastructure. In prepping to launch their businesses, the journos are moving past some common myths.

Myth No. 1: Journalists lack entrepreneurial skills and spark

Reporters can’t do numbers. Creative types and money don’t mix. So go the stale myths. Stepping beyond that bunk, the reality is that top journalists actually have a range of relevant skills. Many have strong analytical skills, a reportorial mindset and a knack for storytelling, all of which are invaluable in helping a start-up thrive.

Newsroom vets are pros at figuring out what to ask. Gathering information on a market has a lot in common with researching a story. Understanding customer characteristics for a prospective business is not rocket science for a news person adept at managing coverage of a local community.

Journalists often don’t see themselves as business-minded, but those who have moved on to the corporate world say their reporting skills are valuable in laying the foundation for business deals.

Veteran reporter Hernán Rozemberg hopes his skills and expertise will help in launching BridgingBorders, which he describes as an “online news nerve center for San Antonio and South Texas for information, analysis and commentary on immigration and border issues.”

Start-up specialists say that being able to succinctly summarize a planned product/service is crucial to getting going. The storytelling expertise that comes with being a successful journalist is a terrific resource for sharpening a pitch and communicating effectively with potential funders and customers.

Journalists have started hundreds of small and large news operations over the past three years. A flourishing ecosystem of news start-ups has yielded a wide range of new solutions for generating stable revenue streams. It’s true that some journos who have spent careers steeped in a curmudgeonly newsroom atmosphere may approach the start-up world with a healthy dose of skepticism. If anything, that helps reduce the likelihood and frequency of costly flame-outs.

It also means that journo entrepreneurs are likely to rewrite their business plans as many times as they would rewrite a story lead, so that the final version has a good shot at being cleaner, sharper and more realistic than plans crafted by those with starrier eyes and a less skeptical outlook.

The Banyan Project, launched by longtime editor Tom Stites, will benefit from his critical eye and decades of experience overseeing enterprise projects. The venture, which Stites worked to refine at Poynter’s gathering, is aimed at less-than-affluent everyday citizens, whom Stites describes as being “ill-served by mainstream journalism.”  

Myth No. 2: Start-up revenue is all about subscribers and ads

Ads and subscriptions are just the start. The explosion of interest in new journalism business models has sparked creative new thinking about non-traditional revenue sources. Plenty of successful news upstarts have thrived on ads — New York’s Gothamist.com and New Jersey’s Baristanet.com, for example — but in the years to come many others will sustain their operations with a creative combination of new revenue sources.

Some will sell products and services to readers — from photos and posters to obituaries and framed birth and wedding announcements. Others will provide services to partners, from ad creation and newsletter design to market analysis and customized reports.

Following the lead of news outlets already profiting from events, start-ups will also increasingly host conferences, wine tastings, lunch talks, etc., to serve communities’ need for non-digital gathering points. Beyond these, Jay Rosen has outlined a list of 20 revenue sources already in use, and inventive approaches continue to surface.

Myth No. 3: Young upstarts dominate the field

The majority of the entrepreneurial participants at Poynter’s mid-July Ford Foundation-sponsored gathering were starting on their second or third careers. While tech innovators are often fresh out of school, many promising new journalism projects are the product of decades of newsroom experience.

That experience is crucial. “It’s a huge leap to go from from journalist to Web publisher,” says B.J. Roche, a mid-career journalist and educator who is building fiftyshift.com, a site for women over 40.  

“You’re essentially becoming a small business, and there are not a lot of sources for the information you need,” Roche says. “The tech people don’t know much about journalism, and the journalism people don’t know much about business.” Roche is counting on her fellow journo entrepreneurs for input as she refurbishes her site.

“Journalists (as a rule) never give up,” says Susan Older, founder of DisplacedJournalists.com and a start-up she just began developing called FacePitch. “If something doesn’t work, we find another way,” Older says. “That’s what we’ve been doing all our lives.”

Myth No. 4: It’s us against them, David vs. Goliath

Those starting niche sites sometimes adopt a ‘kill or be killed’ mindset in approaching other news organizations. But given that audience attention flows to such a broad array of news and entertainment outlets, finding partners can prove fruitful in competing against obscurity. Partnerships raise awareness and drive traffic to an upstart, while providing high-quality, low-cost content to a more established organization.

Sacramento Connect is one of several burgeoning partnership programs. The best such arrangements have spillover benefits. For start-ups, partnerships can help with infrastructure like ad sales and distribution, multimedia and design. For established organizations, collaboration can inject new personality and creativity.

Barbara Gref, director of the Community Reporting Alliance, devoted her Poynter time to the development of plans for a new nonprofit organization. Here’s how she describes it: “The NewsNurture project will help communities where news sources have disappeared to establish grassroots news sites through a revolving loan fund that’s coupled with a business and journalism training progam, all aimed at sustainability.”

Gref says she has come to value the existence of competing organizations. “One myth that stuck with me is that competition is a bad thing, when in fact it’s a positive,” Gref says. “It both validates the idea and sometimes the market.”

Myth No. 5: To succeed, journalism start-ups have to go big or go home

Start-ups often aim to solve large problems with big, bold solutions. There’s nothing wrong with giant dreams, and some do yield IPO-worthy home runs. Most, though, end up scaling back their ambitions toward more manageable objectives.

Successful startups tend to address specific, narrow, pain points, like missing coverage in clearly-defined areas (WestSeattleBlog.com, MedCityNews.com). Some broad-based start-ups may succeed (e.g. Huffington Post, Daily Beast), but those tend to be the exception rather than the rule.

What other myths have you encountered in the entrepreneurial journalism sphere?

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