New ramblings on entrepreneurial journalists

What I’ve found most daunting as I tackle the basics of building my own news site is the business side of the project, in general terms. And how to go about attracting advertisers, specifically. I know I am not alone.

Mark Potts, aka the Recovering Journalist, has developed a new ad business model for entrepreneurial journalists who are running local news sites. It’s called GrowthSpur, and among the advisors are Web media luminaries such as Jeff Jarvis. And it’s up and running:

“Our revenue model is a service fee on the advertising revenue we help you with. In other words, we make money if you make money.”

“How much money? We believe, based on our research and experience, that a well-run, sophisticated local site can bring in more than $100,000 a year in revenue from advertising, e-commerce and other sources. GrowthSpur exists to help local entrepreneurs achieve that level of success—and more.”

I think it’s going to be efforts like these geared toward solo journos, and those working in small news startups, that have the potential to pull us together in new ways. The feeling of being cast out alone, as traditional news institutions are dying or transforming, is one of the most difficult to grapple with in this new environment.

So I’m glad to see this new venture coming along. And I’ve gotten good ideas and resources from the RJI News Collaboratory, which is dedicated to helping independent journalists develop niche news sites. Bit by bit, venture by venture, new clusters of like-minded individuals are being created and I hope will flourish to help achieve some sense of community. Solidarity, even?

• Some former Los Angeles Times staffers have organized themselves into a sizable freelancing outfit. The Journalism Shop includes quite an array of reporters and editors who in addition to traditional news stories are making consulting, public relations, project management and research services available. I think this is a very smart strategy that reflects the versatile skill set and range of experiences that traditional journalists have cultivated and demonstrated. Even if some question their value.

• Check out this roster of well-known bylines that have decamped from newspapers and into the growing universe of AOL Newsroom. Most of these journalists are freelancers, and not all of them are big names. It’s another example that the value of this work is still highly prized. There’s so much institutional knowledge to be tapped into and needed for the journalism that new media sages say the public wants, but think increasingly can be done without journalists who regard their work as more than a hobby.

• But I’m not sure I can buy Michael Arrington’s claim that the 50 best reporters from The New York Times, should they pull off the unlikely stunt of leaving the Old Gray Lady all at once, could round up $100 million in hedge fund capital and start blogging on a diaspora-type site. Arrington cites the Politico as an example of mainstream reporters creating a dynamic, groundbreaking news site, but it is one that serves a very lucrative niche. (I doubt the recently maligned Alessandra Stanley would be among Arrington’s Dream 50; and now she’s getting an overheaping dish of revenge, served ice cold, from Katie Couric!)

• In Portland, Ore. a digital journalism camp took place last weekend that had University of Oregon journalism dean Tim Gleason excited, and for good reason. But his well-worn paean to the upcoming new “Golden Age of Journalism” is typical empty tripe that too often comes from visionaries who don’t seriously ponder how this will come about:

“In the midst of all this exciting innovation, there’s one certainty: The future of journalism, whatever it looks like, is bright — we just have to figure out how to pay for it.”

Piece of cake!

I wish cheerleaders like this would offer some tangible possibilities, rather than mindlessly shake pom-poms while displaced mid-career journalists try to stay alive in the profession. The bright future of journalism he predicts won’t be possible without the contributions of seasoned reporters, editors and photographers during this dramatic transition away from print.

Viable funding sources and business models have not yet been fully developed, and it may take years, even decades, before online journalism is on sounder financial ground. I’m bullish on what might transpire, but there’s too much at stake right now to get misty-eyed about what may be on the horizon. We’re not there yet. Not even close.

So Dean, let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves, shall we?

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2 thoughts on “New ramblings on entrepreneurial journalists

  1. Wendy – Well said. While I am a congenital optimist, we need to move beyond starry eyed pronouncements to being very practical. I have sweated bullets many times about making payroll with my local site and starry eyed visions didn’t do much for me in those instances. Certainly the GrowthSpur founding team (I’m one of them) have significant backgrounds in hyperlocal web businesses but I believe the real power will be tapping the collective experiences of a network of people who have bravely started new ventures.

    Our unofficial motto at SunValleyOnline has been “we make mistakes faster than anyone else…but we strive not to repeat them.” We’ve been our own crash-test dummies. By joining with a network of sites, I hope we can avoid making mistakes others have already made. Better yet, others will hit on things that work and I’d love to pick them up. We’ve learned a few things along the way ourselves I’m happy to share. E.g., we’ve deployed VideoAds that wow local small businesses and have allowed us to charge a significant premium over static ads and differentiate our offering from our competition. It is things like that that have contributed to us significantly overshooting the revenue target mentioned above and support a small team. I don’t see any reason why that can’t happen 1000’s of times over though I’d be the first to tell you it didn’t happen overnight.

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  2. Thanks for sharing your ideas and experiences. I’m just glad to see people so actively involved in niche news sites, whether they’re local or by topic or whatever. I’m trying to soak up as much as I can from people who’ve already taken the plunge.

    I’m thrilled to learn about more examples of skilled, passionate people, experienced journalists and entrepreneurs, who are persisting and I believe will create a variety of new business models for news that will work. I hope to be one of them.

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