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#newsrw: Ten tips for would-be online journalism entrepreneurs

Submitted by on December 7, 2009 – 6:04 pm 8 Comments | 28,039 views
  1. Decide what your ultimate goal for your business is. Is it a) to make you rich or is it b) a lifestyle choice, ie a business that will give you a reasonable income and the lifestyle you want, where you want it? If a) is your sole aim, think seriously about basing your business on something else other than journalism.
  2. Don’t assume anything you do will be unique. No matter how clever the idea or the underlying technology, someone else can easily set up in competition to you. The internet makes it much easier to self-publish, but it makes it easier for everyone not just you! Being the first to do something is not necessarily good. You will do all the work creating a marketplace that others will then exploit. But if you are in a niche and fairly innovative space, competition is a good thing. It spreads the burden of building consumer confidence in your business model and should prevent you becoming complacent.
  3. Don’t risk any of your own money in the business unless you can afford to lose it. Launching any new business is risky, journalistic enterprises are likely to be riskier than most. And if you want to maintain some control over your business, also avoid risking other people’s money, at least until you have got yourself off the ground. Instead you could take a minimal salary from the company and supplement it by freelancing or other part-time work. And structure sales targets so that your sales staff are effectively self-funding.
  4. Avoid investing too much money in online technology, at least at the outset. You might be re-inventing the wheel; you will be rebuilding everything again from scratch within three years, probably sooner as web technology and design rapidly evolves. Unless you are planning to launch something revolutionary, chances are there are existing solutions out there that will do the job for you, either very cheaply or for free.
  5. Do some or all of your own accounting. It’s a lot easier than you might think if you use the right software packages and it will help you to keep on top of your company’s finances.
  6. In the current climate, you are unlikely to be able to charge for your journalistic content and, unless you expect very high volumes of traffic (millions of unique page views a month), you won’t make much money from display advertising. One answer is to sell related products or services to the community you create around that content. Be prepared to have to make high volumes of sales on low-profit-yield services or goods. Don’t expect the money to flood in overnight; you will have to build your community first.
  7. Get good sales people on board as soon as you can. Selling might be an alien culture to you, but you won’t get anywhere without it.
  8. Never give up on your main idea (even bad ideas can be made to succeed with stubborn determination), but be prepared for many of your supporting ideas to fail. Get used to failure (all entrepreneurs experience it) and make sure you have plenty of ideas surrounding your main idea at the outset and keep having them as your business evolves. You cannot afford to stand still online.
  9. KISS – keep it simple, stupid. Start with a simple, low-cost business framework that is deliverable using your current skills and build on that as you gain experience. Attention spans online are limited, so simple ideas will be the easiest to get across.
  10. Beware of false prophets. As an online business, you may find yourself deluged with offers of win:win contra deals where no money changes hands or offers to sell products or services on your site on a commission basis – don’t waste your time with them. The benefits are almost always a one-way street in favour of the other party; stay focused on the deals that put money on your table, up front.

These are just some of my own thoughts based on my personal experiences as founder, owner and publisher of Journalism.co.uk and should not be taken as gospel. I am sure many will disagree with some or all of my points or have better advice of their own to offer. But please feel free to ask me questions in the comments or to share your own advice if you are already an online journalism entrepreneur.

Meet and learn from other entrepreneurial¬† journalists at Journalism.co.uk’s news:rewired digital journalism event, City University London 14 January 2010 – book your tickets now

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  • Mike Taylor

    Starting up alone is a sobering experience and this is realistic stuff except that (point 3) if I don’t invest my money or risk other people’s, then how is this business to be financed?

  • Thank you for your comment Mike. That point does need some clarification and I will edit it accordingly.

    I have assumed that most journalists contemplating going it alone will not be all that wealthy. In that situation, I don’t think it wise to burn up nest eggs, re-mortgage the family home or otherwise get into debt. You can still run a startup business by continuing to work part-time alongside it, freelancing and the like. And you can structure sales targets so that your sales staff are effectively self-funding.

    Of course, if you do have cash to spare then by all means invest it in your business, but only if you can afford to lose it. It’s a question of balancing the high risk of business failure against the potential rewards. As for financing by borrowing, I somehow doubt in the current economic climate that there will be too many lenders prepared to risk investment in startup journalistic enterprises. If you can convince someone to lend on that basis (and they are not loan sharks) then perhaps you really are on to something!

  • Some good points here that I recognise from my own experience. Wish my accounting skills were better !

    I think the other thing to remember is that the Net evolves so quickly that you can get up to scratch with one skills base only to discover you’ve been left behind. It’s important to put some time into keeping up with emerging channels and tools but not too much as you can also waste a lot of time.

    Finding a work / life balance is difficult as the Net never sleeps.

    Personally, although I still do a fair amount of freelance journalism I find myself training and consulting for others more and more these days as that’s where I’ve found my niche.

  • Thanks for an excellent summary of the realities of trying to run an online operation.

    I wonder if my experience might be of some interest. I started an online arts and entertainments magazine for Tunbridge Wells a few months ago (not a listings site, though it does have a what’s-on page) with the aim of earning income from local display advertising. I thought, and still think, this is a sound business idea – there are several monthly print mags in and around TW packed with ads from local businesses. It’s reasonable to suppose some of those businesses would switch part of their ad budget to an online magazine, especially if that magazine provided useful content rather than the usual ‘lifestyle’ froth.

    However, the problems in getting this idea to work include time – when you go it alone, you really are alone, doing all the editorial work yourself because if you’re not earning from the magazine you can’t pay others; that doesn’t leave any time to sell ad space (even if you have the skill) yet you can’t afford to hire an ad salesperson and those who’re prepared to work on a commission-only basis tend not to be very good; and finally, small local businesses are a conservative bunch, more comfortable paying hundreds to appear in a print magazine regardless of its quality and without any evidence that their ads are being seen.

    Any further thoughts or comments would be appreciated, but well done again for spelling out the truth.

  • @Ali

    Very interesting to hear your experiences. James Fryer from SoGlos, whose speaking at news:rewired, would be a good person to speak to (come along on 14 January to meet him in person; as would Rick Waghorn, the guy behind MyFootballWriter and ad system Addiply.

    Some useful links:

    Will try to get them to respond to your comment too.

  • Maybe its my football roots, but I always return to Iain Dowie’s words of wisdom.

    Or one word.


    Which actually also sums up neatly as to what your website needs, above all.

    Make it sticky. Give people a reason to stay.

    Thereafter, its the slog of sales; and it is a slog – particularly in the current climate.

    Which is what, in part, underpins http://www.addiply.com – take out as much of the labour as possible.

    ie/eg no invoice chasing.

    Simple, simple, simple.

    And first rung on the ladder is to get yourself to ‘not for loss’; then build from there.

    best etc

  • I love the tips but it’s a bit solo!

    I’d add a #11 – find a buddy! Successful companies didn’t just start off out on their own – they had a partner and someone to bounce off. Think Gates & Allen and Page & Brin.

    Having a co-founder can also plug a gap in your own skill set, whether that’s technical or sales.

  • @Jonathan I can certainly see the point about complementary skills in a business partner and many successful companies have been built that way, as you say. I suppose a journalist would ideally partner with either a geek or someone with good sales/marketing skills.

    But remember it will halve your income and partnerships can get very messy if you fall out. Make sure you legislate for that possibility and carefully delineate your individual responsibilities from the outset to avoid treading on each other’s toes.