Journalists running start-ups face tall odds
While I applaud these brave and commendable efforts, I fear a good many journalistic entrepreneurs are doomed to fail because they are not objectively confronting the steep odds they face – or putting nearly enough thought and effort into giving themselves a fighting chance to succeed.
After talking to one enterprising journalist after another, I have found almost uniformly that they are making the mistake that has proven to be the downfall of many an entrepreneur: Instead of trying to build a business, they are trying to give themselves the job they always wanted.
The passion for the product they are creating causes entrepreneurs to work so hard on their journalism that it distracts them from the real job of building an enterprise that not only sustains itself for the good of the community but also provides a sustainable lifestyle for the journalist himself.
In an effort to calibrate the daunting, come-from-behind challenge faced by virtually every journalism start-up, I decided to compare the traffic of three recently launched news sites with the online audience of the incumbent newspaper in each of the markets they serve.
I looked at one site apiece from a rural, metro and statewide market, but I am not identifying the sites because I don’t want to single out the idealistic and hard-working entrepreneurs who generously described their efforts. Here is what I found:
The newbie journalism sites generate such low traffic that they fall below the radar of many rating services. But Alexa.Com ranks websites through a proprietary formula that takes into account unique visitors and page views. This system, though not 100% transparent, makes it possible to gauge the relative size of one website to another.
In the Alexa system, where Google ranks No. 1 for having the most traffic, the rural journalism start-up, which has been in business for more than a year, ranks at about 17,000,000 vs. 350,000 for the site of the dominant newspaper in the market.
The metro start-up, which is about half a year old, ranks about 174,000 vs. 640 for the incumbent local daily. The statewide start-up is 1,300,000 vs. 2,100 for the primary paper in the market.
With all the brand power, market presence and resources at their command, many newspapers struggle to extract full value from the investment they have made in their websites. So, you can imagine the challenge faced by a small, essentially unknown start-up with limited staff and financial wherewithal – especially when their focus is on journalism, instead of business.
While journalists at news start-ups think nothing of routinely devoting more than a dozen hours a day to running down stories and tweaking their websites, the pace typically leaves them with neither the time nor the energy to think about such key success factors as building audience and developing a healthy financial basis for their endeavors.
These issues ought to be Job One for any start-up, regardless of whether it intends to operate as a for-profit or non-profit venture. But they usually take second place, if they are seriously in the running at all.
To be sure, the operators of start-up news sites have the sound bites down. Stop me if you have heard them before:
:: “We are better than the local paper.”
:: “We are counting on site contributors and visitors to spread the word about us.”
:: “We have (or are seeking) foundation support.”
:: “We intend to sell advertising or sponsorships.”
:: “We are hoping for reader contributions.”
:: “We might publish a subscription newsletter.”
Although the sound bites fairly cover the possibilities for achieving ongoing viability, conversations with most operators quickly reveal that they actually have no concrete plans for pursuing them.
The journalists are so busy being journalists – and, frankly, too confident that the quality of their coverage will be sufficiently compelling to attract an ever-growing audience – that they put scant effort into marketing, promoting and monetizing their sites.
Unless they invest as much deliberate effort in building audience and revenues as they do into chasing stories, the journalists run the very real risk of going broke and/or wearing themselves out before they achieve the critical mass necessary to ensure the long-term viability of their ventures.
Working without a proper business plan and hoping for best is a well known recipe for disaster. Unfortunately, that’s what most start-ups are doing.