News Entrepreneurs

Business models for new digital media.

Restless? Frustrated? Start your own digital publication

This interview was originally published in the magazine Periodistas (Journalists), a publication of the Federation of Journalist Associations of Spain (FAPE), and is translated here. La versión en español se encuentra aquí.

By Marta Molina, Editor, Periodistas

James Breiner is, along with guru Jeff Jarvis, one of the most consulted U.S. experts on new digital media. A tireless promoter of entrepreneurial journalism and new business models, he maintains that the days of the big media monopolies have come to an end.

Q. Why should someone launch a new media project just when the industry is falling apart?

A. Journalists complain that they have lost control of their work to the business interests of the publishers. They would like to make decisions more and take orders less. This is actually the best time to act. The weakness of big media creates opportunities for upstarts. Big media are abandoning entire categories of coverage that readers appreciate, and new media can take advantage of that to fill the gaps. It’s possible now to launch a digital publication with a small investment. Generating revenue is tricky, but the opportunities are there. There are some who get started in their free time while they have a steady income. If you should find yourself unemployed, take advantage of the time to develop the project you always dreamed about.


Q. The Spanish media industry has done away with more than 5,000 jobs in recent years, however we are light years behind the U.S. in entrepreneurial culture.

A. When confronted with these scary numbers one could conclude that there is no hope for the profession in Spain. I don’t want to minimize the current crisis, but a recession also creates opportunities. There is less competition, competitors are weak or nearing bankruptcy. True, the print industry is near the point of economic collapse, but some will discover the basis of a new order in digital media. It could be you. Go for it!

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Q. Some advice for a journalist who wants to be his or her own boss.

A. Every boss needs advisers and helpers. You have to take advantage of your personal, professional and family contacts. Being the boss does not mean having all the answers. It’s a bad idea to begin alone. A journalist represents only one leg of the tripod in a media organization. The other skills needed are in technology and sales. Every journalistic enterprise needs to combine these three dimensions.

Q. How do you design and execute a business plan for a media project?

A. There are some who maintain that true entrepreneurs don’t need a business plan. Success stories abound of entrepreneurs who had no plan at all. For the rest of us, the mere mortals, we need a plan.

To begin with, you have to have something unique. You have to offer something nobody else has. Look for a niche not exploited by the big media. There are many possibilities: education, environment, human rights, culture, the arts, sports, women’s issues, agriculture, small business…the list is endless.

A good example is Mi Voz (My Voice) of Chile, a chain of 18 digital publications with user-generated local content. A staff of professional journalists supervises and edits each publication. These digital-only publications provide news and information that would never attract the attention of the media concentrated in the capital. The Mi Voz publications avoid celebrity gossip and sensational crime. Instead they focus on local news, technology, indigenous groups, the local economy and social movements. Mi Voz receives 2 million visits a month and generates $2 million annually.

Q. And then?

A. Diversify the revenue sources. You can’t count on advertising alone. New media are experimenting with other ways of generating revenue: events (Texas Tribune and MinnPost in the U.S.), media consulting (El Respetable in Mexico and La Silla Vacia in Colombia), memberships (Texas Tribune offers nine levels), emerging entrepreneurs (Etiqueta Negra in Peru and El Faro in El Salvador), NGO support (El Faro and La Silla Vacia), direct sale of products (The Telegraph in Britain), sales of data (Capitales in Costa Rica and American City Business Journals in the U.S.), subscriptions to text headlines (El Periodico of Guatemala) and more. Advertising should not be the only source, however, FayerWayer of Chile, which focuses on technology products, generated $2.5 million in 2011 by the old-fashioned method of selling ad space.

Q. Anything else?

A. Don’t forget the target audience of the publication or the plan for how to reach them. Measure their interest with digital tools. Without a community, you don’t have a business. You must measure the traffic and be ready to adjust the product to suit the needs of the audience. Spread the responsibilities. Not everyone can be a journalist in a digital publication. Someone has to look after the technical side and the business side. A baseball team can’t have nine shortstops.

Q. What is the most common mistake of digital entrepreurs?

A. Neglecting the sales and marketing side. Who will pay the journalists if the product isn’t generating any revenue? Many journalists cringe at the mere sound of the words “money” and “marketing.” A message for all of them is that it is possible to sell advertising and sponsorships without selling your soul.

Q. Are entrepreneurs made or born?

A. Can you learn to be an artist or a ballerina? Up to a point, but then you have to have talent and courage. Those who are less gifted can always acquire some of the skills.

Q. Is this a time of more media rather than mass media?

A. Never have there been more opportunities to create new media and less certainty about how to make them sustainable. Many new Spanish media have not yet achieved profitability. The majority of new media will fail, and so what? When a project fails, the entrepreneur loses a certain investment but gains invaluable experience for the next initiative. The success of Silicon Valley lies in its rapid cycle of trial and error. No one feels ashamed of failing because no one starts out knowing the right way to go. Everyone is experimenting. New media talk about sustainability rather than profits. Many are adopting the nonprofit model. There is no single formula except to create value, survive and pay decent salaries to the professionals.

Q. Is the future of news only in digital?

A. Print will survive in one form or another, but tablets and other devices not yet invented will replace print to a greater or lesser degree. Already a fifth of the adult population in the U.S. has a tablet, and the audience is migrating more and more to mobile devices. 

Reprinted with permission.

  • 22 October 2012
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