How journalism startups are making money around the world

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 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 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

These are just a few notes from our complete report, which you can read or download here. The website has all the case studies.

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.

How a youth Reporter Corps could help reinvigorate local journalism

Emma asked if I would write her a recommendation for AmeriCorps. Usually, I would have said yes without hesitation, but this request struck a nerve. The recent college graduate was among a dozen or so young adults who wrote about their predominantly immigrant community for the news site I edit, Alhambra Source. She told me that she wanted to join AmeriCorps to serve a city across the country that the federal government determined was in need. My instinct was that this was not the best use of her skills: She could probably make a more meaningful contribution reporting on her own Los Angeles community.

That conversation started me thinking about the need for a program in the style of AmeriCorps — or Teach for America or Peace Corps — for journalism in under-reported and diverse communities. Call it Reporter Corps. The service-learning model would train young adults in journalism and teach them how their government works, pair them with a local publication in need of reporters, get them some quality mentors, provide a stipend, and set them loose for six months or a year reporting on their own community.

Just about a year after my conversation with Emma, I am very pleased that the first class of six Reporter Corps members started this month at Alhambra Source, with support from USC Annenberg and the McCormick Foundation.

Broadly speaking, the Reporter Corps goals are not that different from AmeriCorps, the national service-learning umbrella program that supports 80,000 people annually:

  • Get things done
  • Strengthen communities
  • Encourage responsibility
  • Expand opportunity

But unlike AmeriCorps, which addresses education, environment, health, and public-safety needs, Reporter Corps focuses on news and information needs. If journalism is a public service crucial to democracy, the demand for such a program is clear: Local news coverage — despite a recent flourishing of online community sites — has been in decline for years.

Reporter Corps members tour the Alhambra Police Department. From left, Captain Cliff Mar, Albert Lu, Esmee Xavier, Alfred Dicioco, Irma Uc, Jane Fernandez, Javier Cabral.

In many immigrant communities and less affluent areas, the result has been that mainstream reporting has all but disappeared or been reduced to sensationalism. Alhambra, an independent city of about 85,000, lost its local newspaper decades ago. More recently, the Los Angeles Times and other regional papers have slashed their coverage of the area. Local television rolls into town when there is a murder or the mayor’s massage-parlor-owning girlfriend flings dumplings at him in a late-night squabble (yes, that happened). The Chinese-language press is active, but very few decision-makers can read it. All of this, in turn, has contributed to a population with low levels of civic engagement.

Despite, or perhaps due to, the lack of quality news coverage, I found a ready supply of young Alhambra residents interested in reporting opportunities. Students navigating a depleted community college system or recent college grads un- or underemployed and facing the lowest employment rate for 18- to 24-year-olds in 60 years came to the Alhambra Source eager to contribute. Although they had limited journalism experience, in many ways they have proven to be natural reporters for a multiethnic community. They are all immigrants or children of immigrants, speaking Arabic, Cantonese, Spanish, Tagalog and more. As a result, they can cross ethnic and linguistic lines better than many reporters. They also often have a deeper understanding of what stories matter to fellow residents, from the challenges of not being able to communicate with your parents because you’re not fluent in the same language to the need for a local dog park.

For the first class of Reporter Corps, we selected six high school graduates — four in local community colleges, and two recent college graduates — based on their connection to the area, growth potential, and passion to improve their community. In the spring we plan on expanding the project to work with another USC community news site, Intersections South LA.

The approach appears to fall into a larger trend in youth media initiatives to work increasingly with high school graduates rather than solely younger students.

“Within the youth media groups we’re hearing more and more a thirst that involves the grads. The job market in many of the neighborhoods these groups are active in is really abysmal. Some go to community college, some don’t,” said Mark Hallett, the senior program officer for the journalism program at the McCormick Foundation. “Neighborhoods aren’t finding coverage.”

Across the country, local news sites are working in diverse ways to put this population to work. Many have small internship programs. In an example similar in spirit to Reporter Corps, New American Media has teamed up with the California Endowment to work with 16- to 24-year-olds in California communities such as Fresno, Coachella, and Long Beach for youth-led media efforts.

The Endowment also funds some successful high school journalism programs, such as Boyle Heights Beat in East L.A. (which is also affiliated with USC Annenberg), but Senior Program Manager Mary Lou Fulton notes, “it requires a greater investment in teaching, mentoring and support.”

Unlike high school students, who tend to be busy and sometimes lack maturity or real-life experience, grads often have an excess of time and more advanced critical-thinking skills. “For these youth, this work is a part or full-time job, meaning they are able to spend more sustained time on reporting and develop deeper community relationships to inform their reporting,” Fulton told me via e-mail, noting that all of the students in their programs also receive either an hourly wage or stipend. “All of this increases the chances that the content they create will be more timely and have greater depth.”

What if we united efforts like this on an even larger scale — with the vision that Teach for America applied to failing schools in the 1990s — and adapt it to local journalism? Would the nation see a boost in engaged citizens, more young people at work, new jobs, and — we can dream — even new models for how local news outlets can make money? We see Reporter Corps as a step in that direction, with a focus less on taking smart, highly achieving young people and placing them in at-need communities, and more on training young people to report on their own communities. Whether or not participants go on to become professionals, they will be exposed to new opportunities in the government, legal, education, and social service sectors. In the process, local news, often considered a dying art form, might just be reinvented and reinvigorated by their energy.

Alhambra Source and Intersections South LA are cornerstone projects of the new Civic Engagement and Journalism Initiative at USC Annenberg, which aims to link communication research and journalism to engage diverse, under-served Los Angeles communities. USC Annenberg professors Sandra Ball-Rokeach and Michael Parks spearhead the Alhambra Project, and Professor Willa Seidenberg directs Intersections South LA. Daniela Gerson heads the initiative and edits Alhambra Source.

5 lessons learned: Improving civic engagement through a local news site

Four years ago a team of communication scholars, researchers and journalists set out to create a community news website that would increase civic engagement and cross ethnic barriers in a predominantly Asian and Latino immigrant city. Since Alhambra Source launched in 2010, it has grown to more than 60 community contributors who speak 10 languages and range in age from high school students to retirees. Their stories have helped shape local policy and contributed to a more engaged citizenry within a diverse community. Below are five lessons we’ve learned about creating a community news website that fosters civic engagement.

1. Investigate your community’s news and information needs before you launch.
While few news organizations are likely to have a dedicated team of researchers and scholars at their disposal, they can — and should — identify community information needs to guide the development of their site. On the simplest level, that means a reporter should know his or her beat well and do some investigating before launch.

As a journalist in Alhambra, for example, I witnessed firsthand the civic participation gaps and the barriers between ethnic and linguistic groups that our researchers had identified. The lack of civic participation was made evident in 2010 when five incumbents ran unchallenged, prompting officials to cancel the elections.

The need to cross language lines became clear when school and government officials, police officers and other community leaders all told me that they could not understand the most active press coverage of Alhambra: the Chinese-language newspapers. These newspapers target about a third of the city’s population, and yet city leaders had no idea what was being reported. Identifying basic communication needs such as these can help define the goals of a local news source and also establish a baseline that can later be used to demonstrate the site’s impact to funders or other supporters.

2. To effectively build a community contributor team, hold regular meetings, play to contributor strengths, and remember they are volunteers.
We work with community contributors — in our case that means Alhambra residents who volunteer and tend not to have professional journalism experience. Initially, I set about recruiting Alhambrans to report stories that might interest them or their neighbors. I searched for people already producing content online, talked to leaders of community organizations, and spread the word about our new site. Once we launched the site, we featured our contributors prominently with a call for others to get involved.

Monthly meetings in our office space have been crucial to the strength and expansion of our team. They are part newsroom story meeting, part community advocacy, and part social gathering (we always include a potluck dinner). After the first few meetings and the site launch, I no longer had to actively recruit contributors — at least one new candidate would contact me each month. As our reputation grows, so has our team. That doesn’t mean everyone sticks around: like any volunteer community, we have to work to keep people engaged and interested in giving their time. But enough new people come to keep up the site’s content and energy, while a regular base of contributors provide a core continuum.

3. When it comes to community contributions, a personal perspective is often crucial to a story.
Community contributors often want to report because they have an agenda they want heard. Obscuring that under a veil of objectivity just does not work on a community level. I’ve found community contributors are great for insight stories and features, sometimes providing our most creative articles, ranging from a critique of the local food rating system (“A=American, B=Better, C=Chinese”) to a call for new bike laws to a visit to the local psychic “Mrs. Lin.”

One story type that I have found community contributors can consistently produce better than outside reporters is a first-person piece incorporating a wider perspective. The stories that have received some of the highest traffic on our site and met our research metrics of increased civic engagement have tended to be of this type. Some examples include a story on the challenges of inter-generational communication for a child of immigrants, one about growing up Arab or Muslim in a mostly Asian and Latino community, and one about why a church community organizer takes issue with a city ordinance.

Finally—and this is important—keep in mind that these are not professional reporters. Everyone needs an editor, and working with community contributors often means multiple drafts and intensive fact checking. Many times it would have been easier for me to have done the story myself, so it is important to match volunteer reporters with pieces to which they can add value.

4. Crossing language and ethnic divides cannot be achieved through multilingual content alone.
Before we launched, we intended to be a site in the three languages most spoken by our readers — English, Chinese, and Spanish. We quickly discovered that we lacked the resources. And as it turns out, such a plan might not have been worth the effort.

About a quarter of Alhambra residents live in households where no adults speak fluent English. There is a clear need for foreign language media, particularly in the ethnic Chinese community. But that does not mean that the community would be interested if we created a multilingual website. From anecdotal interviewing, we found that these residents are satisfied getting their news from ethnic publications and are less likely to go to a website.

Instead, we found many other important ways to bridge the language divide. Here are four:

  • Building a multilingual team, which helps expand the range of stories we can cover and the types of people we can interview
  • Translating local foreign-language coverage into English
  • Translating selections of our own original content into Spanish and Chinese (through two means: high-quality human translations for select articles and Google Translate function across the entire site)
  • Establishing relationships with ethnic press so they print versions of our articles in their newspapers.

5. Use feedback loops as engagement and learning tools.
We use polls and surveys extensively on the site to engage residents, create a link between them and city officials, and improve our coverage. Some of our most successful surveys have ranged from where to find the best local burger or boba to whether the city should ban fireworks sales to which supermarket should come to Main Street.

We often incorporate the findings from these informal polls into stories. It enables more residents to participate on the site in a simpler way than writing a story, and in public policy issues, it offers a means for us to share community feedback with the government. For example, when the city council recently acted to limit pay-for-recycling, less than a handful of people from the public came to the meeting (like most days). But on our site more than 100 people voted to express their opinions, the vast majority against the ban. The city council then decided to grant a reprieve to one market.

We also use the polls to gauge our impact and to see on which topics residents would like more coverage. We have surveyed residents about what stories they would like to see, research questions they would like answered, and even improvements we could make to our website. Engaging the community this way enables us to better respond to their needs. After all, a community news site, like a city itself, is a work in progress.

Alhambra Source is the pilot project of a new Civic Engagement and Journalism Initiative at USC Annenberg. The project aims to link Communication research and Journalism to engage diverse, under-served Los Angeles communities. The Metamorphosis Project is the primary researcher, and Intersections South LA is another project site. This is the first in a series of articles on the topic of creating and evaluating local news websites that strive to increase civic engagement.