For the last two years I have had an opportunity to participate in an ambitious global research project: how journalistic startups are making money in the United States, Japan, the United Kingdom, France and five other countries.
The project is called Sustainable Business Models for Journalism. What did we find? First, bad news: there’s no single, easy solution or amazing new business model that solves all the problems that traditional publishing models have.
But looking through some of the very grassroots operations around the globe, you find some similarities among the sites. Probably the most comforting lesson from these young and old entrepreneurs is the fact that there’s probably no need for an amazing new business model. Journalism is just going through a transformative period from a monopolistic, high-revenue and low competition model to a highly competitive global marketplace. And the ideas and advice we got from these entrepreneurs was not that much different from the advice you find in traditional business literature, startup manuals or even biographies of successful companies.
Here are some general conclusions from the 69 startups we interviewed.
Find your niche. Whatever you do, don’t do the same things as the others do. Or if you do, make sure you do it better in one way or another. Be faster. Or broader. Or more in-depth. Slower. Whatever you do, do it somehow differently than the others. As Ken Fisher from ArsTechnica.com says, don’t try to be 30 seconds faster with the same bloggy content that’s going to be on five other sites in 10 minutes.
Be passionate. Running a website is hard work and you can’t do it with a 9-to-5 attitude. If you truly love what you do, it makes the long hours more tolerable and gives you a competitive edge: you’re willing to work an extra hour. My personal guess is that the readers can smell the passion as well. Especially in France and, surprisingly, in Japan, the divide between “us” — the free journalists — and “them” — the established media — seems to be a strong driver.
Keep it small and agile. The old model of publishing was to design a publication and then hire people to do it. The new model is to have one or two people and see what kind of publication they are able to create.
You are the brain of your own business. Many of the journalists interviewed for our study said they hoped that someone else would do the business side of things for them: contacting possible advertisers, selling the ads and doing all the planning and calculation. David Boraks from DavidsonNews.net said it well: if you are starting a small business and you have a vision how to do it, you can’t turn it over to somebody else and expect it to happen the way you want it to.
Ask for support (aka money). If you know you’re doing a good thing, don’t be afraid to ask for support. Advertisers, especially local or niche ones, might actually like what you do. If they are passionate about candles and think your site about candles is worth reading, they are probably more willing to advertise on your site. If your readers can’t live another day without your passionate and unique candle reviews, they probably are willing to somehow give you money. “People are just looking for a way to support you,” says Doug McLennan from Artsjournal.com
Pekka Pekkala is a visiting scholar at USC Annenberg. He is working on a book titled “How to Keep Journalism Profitable” with a two-year grant from the Helsingin Sanomat Foundation. Folow him on Twitter at @pekkapekkala.