Articles about "Entrepreneurial Journalism"


From left, Doug Jackson of Shared Vision Marketing, Jeremy Caplan from the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism, and Harry Lin with IMDb, give advice on startups,

Media entrepreneurs: Five myths can stop you before you start up

Let’s begin with this sobering statistic: nine out of 10 startups that get funded will fail.

Reliable and comparable numbers for news-related startups aren’t available, but it’s a good guess that any journalist thinking of venturing out on his or her own faces huge odds.

Three experts urged attendees at an Online News Association session Thursday to avoid five myths that can derail any news enterprise before it gains traction.

Myth #1: I’ll make money through advertising!

Harry Lin, head of business development for the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), an Amazon subsidiary, said the amount of traffic required for a website to pay the bills through advertising is “ridiculous.” More often than not, he said, startup sites end up running network ads, and after the network and ad agencies take their cuts, the sites are left with 25 cents per 1,000 page views.

“Which is why major media are in big, big trouble,” Lin said.

But some sponsorship models work, said Jeremy Caplan, Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism director of education. One example, the New Haven Independent, draws sponsors for its hometown news because people believe in what the website is doing, he said.

News entrepreneurs can also barter or sell services to small businesses that may need better content, video or photos for their own sites. Another approach is native advertising, which Lin noted is actually a form of advertorial. (This method has been used successfully by BuzzFeed.)

Myth #2: People want what I’m selling!

Doug Jackson, principal at Shared Vision Marketing, said what entrepreneurs believe is irrelevant and they owe it to themselves to test whether a demand exists for their business.

“Do your research on the front end and it will save you a lot of pain on the back end,” Jackson said.

Myth #3: People will work for free!

Your supporters may start out working without pay, only to turn out to be unreliable and fail to meet deadlines.

“What are you going to do — fire them?” Lin asked.

There are sites that offer free content, but the quality is sketchy, Lin warned. Sites such as Crowdspring offer another approach, Caplan said: An entrepreneur can name his or her price for design or writing services, get back completed work and then choose the professional to work with.

Myth #4: No one has ever done this before!

Lin said it’s been his experience that someone — and sometimes many someones — has thought of your idea first.

But competitors can also serve as potential partners, said Caplan. And, he added, it’s useful to know that competitors have validated a concept’s viability.

Quora, a community site for sharing knowledge, offers examples of startup founders recounting how they approached their businesses and discussing their successes and failures, Caplan said, adding that media entrepreneurs can learn which pitfalls to avoid by checking out Quora’s many discussion topics.

Myth #5: This’ll be fun! I’ll balance work and life!

The reality is entrepreneurs can expect to work all day and all week, Lin said, and the financial rewards may be long in coming.

“If you are going to do your own startup, be prepared to be very poor for seven years,” he said, suggesting that journalists uncomfortable with that “go work for the man.”

Jackson agreed. “I think the reality is you work all the time,” he said, but added that while that may be the worst of times, it can also be the best of times as entrepreneurs pursue their passion.

Caplan said starting a new enterprise needn’t be an all-or-nothing pursuit. Some journalists work at a job and build their enterprise on the side. “Yes, it is hard,” he said, but building a successful startup is a credential no one can take away from you.

The ONA session is a part of the NewsU Startup Loft, a series of workshops aimed at journalists planning the jump into entrepreneurship.

Related: 13 ways to get your journalism project crowdfunded | Six business lessons from TMD’s early demise | Debunking 5 Myths of Entrepreneurial Journalism Read more

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How journalism educators can ‘train students for jobs that may not yet exist’

When I began my current job in the journalism school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, my director told me I had a particularly daunting mission: “train students for jobs that may not yet exist.”

I’ve tried to keep her voice in my head over the years and keep my courses on pace accordingly. But as the business models of journalism have grown ever more strained, I realized I wasn’t doing enough to give my students assignments and inspiration to stoke their entrepreneurial fire, to drive them to envision the apps, sites, platforms and functions we’ll all use 10 years from now.

After all, if journalism is to thrive, this generation of students will have to create things that do not yet exist.

At other schools, entire courses and programs are dedicated to entrepreneurship in media and business plan creation. We don’t have that luxury. Also, I’m a believer in spreading valuable lessons throughout as many courses as possible.

In advance of adding new entrepreneurial elements to my introductory and magazine courses this fall, I test-drove some ideas with students taking internship credit this summer. The students enroll for credit while working at internships across the country. Faculty generate different assignments for the students who enroll with them, often involving readings and research papers related to the experience.

The students responded with a creative vigor I’ve never seen in previous outings with interns, making it a good case study for other journalism educators trying to help students gain entrepreneurial skills.

The idea was simple: develop a five-page pitch for an entrepreneurial idea somehow related to each student’s internship. They could propose a new service, business, website, mobile app, device, platform … whatever.

I asked for a connection to their internships, but it could be fairly loose. For instance, a student interning at a PR firm might have a hotel chain as a client. She could propose an “American Road Trip” app that maps people across cool places in the U.S. and lets them rate hotels along the way.

I didn’t want them getting too tripped up on style vs. substance, so I gave them pretty basic pitch requirements:

  • Create a specific idea, including basic branding, such as a name for the app or service.
  • Determine the audience and what needs the new idea fulfills for that audience, or what problem it solves.
  • Brainstorm potential revenue streams. (They didn’t need a specific budget, but I asked them to discuss what streams they’d rely on: ad-support, subscriptions, paid downloads, etc.)
  • Gather primary research on at least three sources connected to the idea. This could be in the form of focus group with potential customers, interviews with coworkers at the internship, surveys of other entrepreneurs in the same sector, etc.
  • Gather secondary research from at least three sources. This could include articles on entrepreneurship, blog posts related to the idea, etc.

The group began by selecting videos from Stanford’s entrepreneurship program for inspiration and picked specific points to remember as they worked through their ideas.

We then did a series of Google+ hangouts to discuss their ideas, brainstorm and find holes in their plans. G+ hangouts are an ideal tool when you need to connect students in far-flung places, offering free videoconferencing for up to 10 people at once. The tool allows students in internships from the midwest to the coasts to benefit from hearing one another’s thoughts.

The students came up with excellent, fresh ideas and are polishing their pitches right now. We’ll hangout again to go through the outcomes. For those who are back on campus in fall, we’ll meet with an alumnus working in venture capital to hear how funders might respond to their pitches.

I’m not an expert in building a bottom line, but a few of the ideas appear to have long-term potential. Even without projecting into the future, the students say the experience has been positive. They appreciated the chance to take their internship experience and hone an idea all their own. They began walking on entrepreneurial legs they hadn’t yet realized were under them.

I hope someday they’ll run. Read more

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How startup sites can take advantage of emerging revenue streams

As journalism entities move beyond ads in pursuit of new revenue streams, events have proven a popular target. People who won’t pay $15 for a digital subscription, the theory goes, may pay $20 instead for wine, cheese and a panel of journalists.

Staging events isn’t a simple endeavor for small organizations structured around news. But for many up-and-coming media organizations like GeekWire, an independent tech news site and online community in Seattle, events are an important part of increasingly diverse streams of revenue.

Rebecca Lovell

During a live chat this week, we’ll discuss events and other emerging revenue streams with Rebecca Lovell, Geekwire’s chief business officer.

Lovell, who oversees the site’s advertising, events, sponsorship and other business initiatives, answered chat participants’ questions and shared thoughts on a variety of topics, including:

  • What separates successful events from those that flop
  • Lessons learned about new revenue streams
  • How to overcome challenges that growing news startups face

You can replay the chat below.

Interested in learning more about generating revenue for startups? Consider applying for Poynter’s Revenue Camp for Entrepreneurial Journalists.

<a href=”http://www.coveritlive.com/mobile.php/option=com_mobile/task=viewaltcast/altcast_code=0d0b551b23″ mce_href=”http://www.coveritlive.com/mobile.php/option=com_mobile/task=viewaltcast/altcast_code=0d0b551b23″ >How startup sites can take advantage of emerging revenue streams</a> Read more

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3 ways entrepreneurial journalists can successfully pitch their projects

Ever tried telling your life’s story in a minute? Melting years down into seconds is tough. Summing up a long-simmering passion project can be equally hard.

Whether you’re pitching a new journalism project to a friend or to a financier, you often have to pack your message into a few fleeting moments. To persuade people to invest, collaborate, or even just try out a site requires a special kind of compact communication.

Journalists have ample opportunity to present new ideas. Some 2012 journalism conferences, like the Unity 2012 Convention, feature sessions expressly for startups. Beyond online competitions, like the Knight News Challenge, journopreneurs are increasingly finding alternative outlets for presentations ranging from library talks to Hacks/Hackers Demo Nights.

Whereas slides were once expected, a backlash against traditional PowerPoint presentations among journalists and funders alike has opened the door to more inventive approaches. Here are tips on three approaches for anyone preparing to pitch a project.

Illustrate the impact of your project with evergreen multimedia

Video is a powerful pitch tool. When investigative journalism project Matter raised more than $140,000 in March on Kickstarter, its primary tool was a great video about the need for better science coverage. Similarly, Honolulu’s Civil Beat has used a sleek video to convey the value and impact of its news site.

Honolulu's Civil Beat Introduction Video

The mini-vid has become a new persuasive craft form. Most of the best such videos, like great presentations, answer the following key questions: What’s the problem you’re solving and why is it important? How does the proposed solution work and what’s distinct about it? Who’s leading this and how can others get involved?

Creative pitch videos can take on myriad forms, from animated explainers of the sort popularized by Common Craft and GoAnimate, to simple Webcam recordings and fancy micro-documentaries. Excellent pitch videos are often more informative than slick. One example is this video by Blank on Blank, which publishes otherwise-lost interviews. Here’s another from Colorado’s I-News Network, which received a Poynter entrepreneurial journalism prize in 2010.

Those that are less successful, like this one for MyNetworkOne, often try to stuff too much in, or misfire at humor. When you’re prepping your own video, start by picking a few pitch videos that inspire you. Make a list of their key attributes. To get you started, here is a sampling of 20+ demo videos I gathered into a channel on Vimeo as well as a separate playlist on YouTube. Both include non-journalism projects to illustrate a range of styles.

Make the most of spontaneous pitch opportunities

Sometimes visuals are impractical. When you bump into someone at a conference, you often have to pitch quickly with words alone. No slides. No videos. In these personal pitch situations, it’s crucial to have persuasive snippets ready to go. Here are four components to help get your idea across quickly and effectively.

  • The first ingredient is a brief value proposition that sums up your projecThe Value Propositiont in one to two sentences. “For parents with school-age children, K12Update is a subscription news and photo service that provides a daily stream of photos and news shared by their children’s classroom teachers.” Trim unnecessary details. Don’t get into mechanics until asked. Just clarify the basic value — what it’s useful for.
  • The second key ingredient is a brief founding story or other anecdote that illustrates both the need for the service and its utility. “At the PTA meetings, parents kept saying they wished they saw more of what their kids did in school, like the art projects they were producing. Now they say they feel more connected to what’s going on in the classroom.”
  • The third step is where it’s easy to stumble. Don’t spend time on further details until you stop and listen for clarifying questions. If there’s an empty pause, probe for questions. “What’s your first impression?” or “Does that make sense?” or “How does that relate to your own experience?” Those kinds of questions let the person you’re pitching to signal what s/he is most interested in. That, in turn, increases the chances you’ll find a point of mutual interest.
  • The last part of the personal pitch process is the follow-up. Given that we’re exposed to hundreds of ads each day, we grow accustomed to blocking out messages or quickly forgetting them. That’s why advertisers insist on ensuring recall by running the same ads seven times. When it comes to personal pitches, follow-up with a brief email. Keep it to five sentences or fewer. Refer to something specific you discussed and remind the recipient of your idea, its name and its value. Include a relevant URL and a single phone number and email address. (Don’t give people multiple contact numbers and addresses because that burdens them with figuring out which one to use.) Close with a specific question if you have one (i.e. Would you be interested in serving as a pilot tester?) to simplify their response.

Stretch beyond PowerPoint

When you’re in front of an audience, demoing your product or service is often the best way to illustrate how it works. Getting an audience member up front to participate — or just having all those present try it out live — can be engaging. Number-crunching spreadsheets don’t always have to make an appearance, though mastering key facts and figures around your business helps bolster your credibility.

For elements that are difficult to demo live, check out tools like Projeqt, Jux, Hype and Prezi, which can help you create a free, immersive presentation. Or try other resources I’ve gathered into this Delicious.com stack of new storytelling tools.

If you must use slides, leave behind default PowerPoint templates by working with more design-friendly slide tools like Apple’s Keynote or Web-based tools like SlideRocket. Google Presentations, part of the Google Docs suite, offers a new range of clean designs after a recent upgrade. Include a single prominent image or a few key words per slide.

Guy Kawasaki suggests a 10-20-30 rule: 10 slides, 20 minutes, 30-point font. When you see slides like this one, this one, or these, you’re reminded that visuals can be confusing, distracting, or superfluous. Keeping each slide simple means the audience can focus on you and your message.

In live settings, refer to a Twitter hashtag to spread the responses beyond the live audience. Alternatively, use a tool like Todaysmeet.com or backchan.nl to set up a private backchannel that those present can use to ask live questions or comment on your presentation. That ensures people don’t have to sit on their hands or wait passively for you to finish talking to engage with you. To further draw out those present, try using Socrative.com or PollEverywhere.com to offer up live polls or trivia questions, or to probe for live feedback.

After public demos, gather the most noteworthy comments, Tweets and images into a Storify summary, like this one, to further distribute the impact of your presentation and to serve as a digital scrapbook. Keep a private list of takeaways from each presentation you make. Note that a particular joke got no laughs, or that your first example generated lots of nods of agreement.

Try to keep a record of every question you’re asked after pitching. Questions provide a valuable window into what people are most interested in, and can highlight elements of your pitch that might be unclear.

The late, great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich said that he kept careful track of each performance early in his career so he could consistently improve his stage presentation. Whatever pitch you’re giving, chances are it’s not your last. Keeping a presentation journal can help you consistently refine your message.

Jeremy Caplan, director of education at CUNY’s Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism, will be teaching in Poynter’s Revenue Camp for Entrepreneurial Journalists. You can apply for the camp here.
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Tips for journalists preparing to launch a startup site

When you’re getting a journalism startup off the ground, you face a number of decision points. Who do you partner with? How do you bring in revenue? How do you get the word out about your project? We’ll discuss these and other key questions facing entrepreneurial journalists in a live chat with paidContent founder Rafat Ali, who is now working on his new startup, Skift.

In a live chat, Ali answered questions on specific decisions, including:

  • Fundraising strategies
  • Whether to provide original content on your site, vs. curating and aggregating
  • Hiring staff

You can replay the chat below for tips and insights.

Interested in learning more about generating revenue for startups? Consider applying for Poynter’s Revenue Camp for Entrepreneurial Journalists.

<a href=”http://www.coveritlive.com/mobile.php/option=com_mobile/task=viewaltcast/altcast_code=843bc60032″ mce_href=”http://www.coveritlive.com/mobile.php/option=com_mobile/task=viewaltcast/altcast_code=843bc60032″ >Tips for journalists on preparing to launch a startup site</a>

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Howard Owens: Newspaper paywalls create opportunities for startup news sites

“In every market where a newspaper puts up a paywall, an opportunity is created for an entrepreneur to start a local online news business. … A key rule of disruption is to target the customers undervalued by incumbents. Clearly, any news site that puts up a paywall is telling the community, ‘there’s a lot of people in this town we don’t value.’ That creates pure opportunity for the disruptive entrepreneur.”

Howard Owens

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Practical tips, resources for entrepreneurial journalists with legal questions

Entrepreneurs leading new journalism ventures confront numerous legal questions. How and when should I determine the appropriate legal structure for my business? What contracts should I use with partners, employees and investors? What legal issues should I be prepared for and, as a journopreneur, who can I turn to for low-cost or pro bono guidance?

I’m not a lawyer, and this post isn’t intended to offer specific legal advice or replace the professional insight of a lawyer. The resources below are offered simply as a starting point for anyone launching a project who anticipates having to grapple with legal questions as the project develops.

Seeking pro bono help

One of the best places to begin, if you’re starting up a media-related project, is the Online Media Legal Network at Harvard’s Berkman Center. The center describes itself as “a network of law firms, law school clinics, in-house counsel, and individual lawyers throughout the United States willing to provide pro bono (free) and reduced fee legal assistance to qualifying online journalism ventures and other digital media creators.”

Not every journalism or media startup will qualify for OMLN’s free legal assistance, but you can quickly assess your eligibility with this FAQ. OMLN considers a number of factors, including your available resources. If paying legal fees would significantly deplete your organization’s resources, you could still be eligible for pro bono help if you’re a for-profit with under $75,000 in annual gross revenue or a nonprofit with an annual budget of $250,000 or less. (More details here.)

Law for journopreneurs 101

If you’re looking for information first, rather than professional legal guidance, the Citizen Media Law Project, also sponsored by the Berkman Center, has outstanding resources. The online legal guide has clear, well-written sections on everything from forming a business to dealing with online legal risks and securing your intellectual property.

The section on choosing a business form for your new organization is particularly helpful if you’re not clear on the relative benefits of, say, a sole proprietorship versus an LLC or some other legal structure. Download the Citizen Media Law Project’s one-page overview summarizing the characteristics, tax implications and various pros and cons for legal structures journalism entities might consider.

To keep up with new resources, tools and information, follow this Quora discussion about legal resources for startup companies.

Free contracts and templates

If you’re more focused on contracts than on sorting out your legal structure, check out Paperlex — a new startup that helps you manage common contracts. Though the full service is still in beta, micro.paperlex.com offers free freelancer contracts, talent releases and non-disclosure agreements.

Founder and CEO Alison Anthoine says she plans to add additional contracts for photographers, videographers, designers and developers. She describes Paperlex as a Web-based contract management platform for news organizations.

“My goal is to empower small businesses and entrepreneurial journalists not to have to rely on lawyers to do all of their legal work,” Anthoine said by phone. “There will always be things you need lawyers for, but a routine agreement isn’t something you should have to call your lawyer about.” Contractual.ly is an alternative platform aiming to take the pain out of managing contracts.

The incubator YCombinator has an excellent startup library of documents and tip sheets. For those considering early-stage Angel funding, YCombinator also provides free equity financing documents, so you know what you’re signing away when you bring in investors.

The term sheets were developed in partnership with Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, a firm specializing in startup law, among other things. The firm teaches a live legal issues course at General Assembly, a New York coworking and education hub, and has a term sheet generator that will assemble a venture financing term sheet based on questions you answer online.

Additional resources:

  • Docracy.com provides a range of other free legal documents, including consulting contracts. If you want to make sure a name you’re considering is not already in wide use, try Markify.com, which searches existing trademarks and domains.

  • If you’re wondering about the kinds of contracts you’ll face if you seek out venture capital funding, check out the National Venture Capital Association’s free model legal agreements. The NVCA.org site also includes a good overview of venture capital, as well as stats and research.
  • Chris Cameron’s ReadWriteWeb collection of useful legal resources for startups includes some relevant blogs, articles and tip sheets.

Join Jeremy Caplan, Mark Briggs, Bill Mitchell and Wendy Wallace for Poynter’s Revenue Camp for Journalism Entrepreneurs, May 18-19. You can join by webcast or in person for the workshop in St. Petersburg, Fla., with additional coaching available. Read more

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Cheap & useful tools that can help entrepreneurial journalists be more efficient

When it comes to tools, entrepreneurial journalists have the advantage of being free. Free of the obligation to use a news organization’s clunky software packages. Free from layers of tech bureaucracy. And free from having to get approval to try new tools. That freedom, of course, comes at a price. No longer is someone else footing the bill for your digital toolkit. That makes a different kind of free all the more attractive. Free tools.

Fortunately, software developers have turned the world of tools upside down in recent years. Gone are the days when you had to fork out several hundred dollars — or more — for a suite of communication/productivity/office software. If you’re running a small, straightforward project, you can get by with easy-to-use software tools that are free or just a few bucks a month, and most work seamlessly across platforms and devices.

Here’s a quick guide to some of the most useful, easy-to-use tools for any journalist developing a project without a big budget or a lot of time to invest in learning new tech.

Tools for storing & organizing information

Once we’ve wrestled down mounting piles of email, most of us start our day with ideas, notes and lots of random stuff to take care of. That’s why the most crucial information tools are those that let you store information, organize it and act on it. The most flexible, powerful resource I’ve come across for all that is Evernote.

Here are some examples of how journalism startups can use it:

  • In addition to organizing Web research, reporting notes, source info and other raw material, Evernote helps for recording ideas in audio, picture and text form. It also lets you arrange major projects or clients in discrete notebooks. You can share those notebooks with your team so everyone can add notes and access information whenever they need it, from any device.
  • Every account comes with an email ingest address, which means you can just CC Evernote on important contracts or other emails that you’d like to organize in a project notebook. I regularly CC Evernote on contracts I sign and send by email, and documents I know I’ll refer to later (travel details, receipts, etc.).
  • Gathering quick snapshots with Evernote’s mobile apps enables you to remember people, places, notes scrawled on scraps of paper and other loose tidbits that might otherwise fall through the cracks. You can access Evernote from any Web browser or through free software and mobile apps.

Here’s an example of an Evernote notebook with about 50 recent Web clippings I’ve made of tips for startups.

Google tools for creating content

Microsoft Office was once a must-have for any journalist, but Google Docs has basically made it obsolete.

For free, Google Docs provides far more functionality. Not only does the Web-based Google suite include excellent Word processing and spreadsheet tools, but the recently upgraded presentation service, Google Presentations, now rivals PowerPoint, though with fewer bells and whistles.

Here’s my overview of Google Docs, and here are a few Google Presentations that will help you see how they look when posted online:

The most under-appreciated tool in the Google Docs suite is Google Forms, which has allowed startup organizations of all sizes, including ProPublica, to create free embedded surveys that process results automatically into a spreadsheet for analysis, charting and publishing. (Here’s a free template I created as an example of a simple, free Google form for keeping track of invoices. You can freely duplicate it and adapt it for your purposes). Here’s how startups are using the Google Docs suite:

  • To collaborate internally on content-in-progress from disparate locations without worrying about e-mailing attachments back and forth.
  • To publish Web-based documents, spreadsheets and presentations to share through social media or to embed on sites/blogs. Instant easy publishing means new means to reach and impact readers, advertisers and potential investors or donors.
  • To distribute surveys to gather reporting information and client feedback.

Tools for handling invoices

You can create simple invoices with a word processor, but if you want to track your payments more professionally, you may want to try something different.

InvoiceBubble is a free and simple-to-use option I’ve tested and recommend. It’s a simple Web-based service that lets you create and send invoices and track client payments.

FreshBooks is a more fully-featured service that’s much more expensive ($20/month), but if you invoice a small number of clients, you can use the free version with much of the same functionality.

Tools for distributing files

Sending stuff across the Web has long been a nuisance. You can’t email files larger than 25mb, most of us can’t afford to spring for a private server, and it’s not always clear which sites are reliable for distributing your important files.

A few services have succeeded recently at streamlining the process of sharing big chunks of content, such as photo, audio and video files, and large design files. Ge.tt lets you upload material to a private storage page that you can then share access to through a short link.

WeTransfer is another useful service. It doesn’t require you to log in, and you can send any number of files that total up to 2gb to up to 20 email addresses at a time.

If you prefer a solution that is anchored to your computer, Cloud App (Mac only) puts a little cloud icon on your menu bar.

Any file you drag onto the icon is then uploaded automatically and the short-link to that file is posted directly to your clipboard.

And if you’re not yet using Dropbox, it’s become one of the most popular free file-sharing tools in addition to serving as a great way to back up your files.

Tools for backing up your work

When it comes time to protecting your work, a large local hard drive can provide a serviceable initial backup. Alternatively, Mozy, BackBlaze and Carbonite, among others, will back up all the stuff on a given computer to the cloud.

It’s also worth thinking carefully about how best to backup your Web-based social and blog content. Backupify will back up your WordPress files, your Tweets and even your Google Apps.

Here’s a list of some more of my favorite tools. What free or low-cost tools do you rely on for your projects? Share your favorites in the comments section.

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ICYMI: Brian Williams is an obsessive Gawker reader

Here are few Monday stories you may have missed:

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4 ways to start researching the market for your new journalism venture

Journalists love to dive in. Once we’ve got a topic in mind, we rush off to report, write/record, edit and publish. When launching a new venture, though, whether a local or niche site, an app, a network or something else entirely, it’s useful to add a fifth step early on: market research.

In addition to surfacing opportunities you may not have thought about, market research helps clarify the characteristics and interests of your community. It also arms you with business information that’s useful when you’re pitching your product or service to advertisers, sponsors, investors or potential partners.

Before ponying up for subscription services, spend some time with the free resources I’ve outlined below. They’ll help you get a preliminary handle on your intended market.

Size up your audience

Start by gathering basic qualitative and quantitative information about your community and your competitors. Get a quick overview of the businesses in your target ZIP codes. Find out what other sites your intended audience is already visiting, what they’re searching for and where they are. Get a rough picture of how those already out there are faring. There are some free tools that will give you a quick snapshot of the products and services already out there.

Start with Google Ad Planner, even if you’re not focused on ad research. Though developed for advertisers assessing audiences, Ad Planner is handy for quick market assessments for anyone launching a product or service. For example, if you’re contemplating starting a regional business news site for Hartford and New Haven, Conn., you could use Ad Planner to home in on that subject matter and location and then find out what sites are already popular.

If you used Google Ad Planner to look up information about a New Haven/Hartford business-interested audience, here’s what you’d find.

Ad Planner also provides a snapshot of audience characteristics for existing sites, including age, gender, education and income breakdowns. This is useful for getting a ballpark picture of your potential audience. Ad Planner relies on a gigantic mass of Google data to develop its estimates, which are approximations. Check Google’s fine print to learn more about how the data are gathered, and the limitations. Bottom line: the service provides a useful starting point as you’re learning about your audience.

Google AdWords is another tool that’s worth a quick spin as you’re performing a real-world check on your idea. You can run some of your key topic words and ideas through the tool, which helps provide a quick snapshot of what people are searching for. It can hint at what topics readers may consider to be closely related to the topics you have in mind.

If you’re planning on supporting your site with ads, Google AdWords can also give you a quick initial take on the degree to which advertisers value your subject matter as determined by the market price for related keywords.

To round out your starting information, use a free resource like Melissa Data to get local maps, a list of the number of various businesses in a given ZIP code, and any other information that will help refine your understanding of your community. For an exhaustive list of other online market research resources, visit ZenithOptimedia’s Marketer’s Directory, pointed out to me by my CUNY Journalism School colleague, Barbara Gray, a star research librarian.

Find out more about competitor sites

If you’re aware of existing competitors in a particular market, spend a few minutes running through their stats on Quarkbase, Alexa, Quantcast and Compete. Quarkbase provides basic background information on a site, as well as recent tweets about it. It also lists some of the pages within a site that are popular on social networks and that are blogged about. It will even tell you some of the tools that your potential partners or competitors are using.

Alexa gives you some useful information about a site’s audience trends over time, its most popular sub pages, and what people have searched for to end up on that site. Quantcast tells you what other sites a visitor to an existing site frequents, what percentage of visitors are “addicts” versus “passers-by,” and the demographic makeup of the site’s audience.

None of these services can guarantee the accuracy of their information, so think of them as a good starting point for your research, not an end point.

Conduct surveys to gain insight into your community

After gathering community and competitor information, you can gather some real-world insights about your community with qualitative surveys. It’s easy to craft, deliver and collate such surveys using Google Forms.

Create questions that help you understand the relevant media consumption, preferences and behavior of those in your intended audience. Google Forms (part of the free Google Docs suite of Microsoft Office-like Web applications) lets you include multiple-choice, checkbox and scale questions, as well as open-ended questions that give your respondents a chance to express their ideas, questions and suggestions.

As with most survey services, you can then email your survey, post it through social media or embed it on a site or blog. Responses automatically populate a spreadsheet that you can use not only to find and graph patterns of preference or behavior but also to collect and assess more open-ended qualitative suggestions.

Polldaddy, SurveyMonkey, Zoomerang and Poll Everywhere are good alternative survey tools. Poll Everywhere has a distinctively useful feature — respondents can respond to poll questions by texting. That’s handy if you’re reaching out to an audience that thrives on texting, or if you’re surveying an audience in a live session or event. For those with more money than time, services such as AYTM and Lab 42 will conduct quick market research for you.

Get answers to questions about your market

An increasingly useful stop in the initial phase of market research is Quora.com. You can pose an open-ended question about your market, audience or idea and let experts voluntarily reply with thoughts, facts, stats, suggestions or data.

Beyond its value as an outlet for seeking guidance, though, Quora is an increasingly useful living reference for market examples. (Here’s a new Quora board I created with questions and answers for entrepreneurial journalists.) Some Quora questions take awhile to generate responses, while others do not get answered at all. For quick searches of the broadening database of existing questions and answers, though, Quora can be quite handy.

The reason I’ve become such a fan of Quora, which I recently wrote about for the Daily, is that its community rating system has ensured that you can quickly search, retrieve and act on information you find on the site. That’s because the thousands of answers to all sorts of questions are filtered well enough that you can quickly find highly-ranked answers written by people with relevant expertise.

To simplify what can seem like an arduous task, start an afternoon of initial research with these simple Web tools. Depending on how much you already know about your community, you may end up spending additional hours, days or weeks digging into market and audience data. A little market research is useful even if you take the popular “lean startup” approach — launching a project and refining it as you go, rather than waiting until it’s a finished product.

At the very least, spend whatever time it takes to get a qualitative and quantitative initial overview of your community. Doing so will lay the groundwork for both strong community coverage and a solid business case for your project.

What market research resources have you found helpful? Share your thoughts in the comments section. Read more

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