My would-be adventure from old media hack to new media journopreneur (saw that term today for 1st time…gotta be something better out there, folks?) began late last spring with the sense of wonder in front of a startling “new” piece of technology: Powerpoint. Set to start on my business plan, I was experimenting with something other than basic text software for the first time. Ever. It would be an early clue that the technological hurdles, though always imposing at first sight to a luddite 40-year-old lifelong reporter, are manageable. Tougher, of course, would be trying to figure out what to actually say, and how to shape the business model inside those ever malleable slides.
I used a few images and tight text to zero in on the moving target of arriving rapidly at profitability in an industry that is fundamentally broken. My idea was different, I told myself, it was high-profile AND cost-efficient. But I needed to crunch the numbers. I would, of course, do some estimating and, on the first round, toss out some blatant Hail Mary’s. I got some good help from a sales/publicity chief at one of the top Italian dailies, with loads of online experience, to put some more meat on the bones. Despite all the scenarios we could allude to, it was clear that we had one basic goal: Build Traffic. There is no other word. No other way. If you take away all the talk, the income side of the equation is right now, and for the foreseeable future, centered on hits/page views/unique visitors. Eyeballs. The fact that the interactivity/activity/clickability of the internet means you can now, more or less, quantify those eyeballs in a way that you never could in print (or even TV) is both the great curse, and great opportunity of the Great Transformation in terms of the three-way Audience-NewsSource-Advertiser menage.With the goal of providing general-news journalism (NOT generic/commodity!), my business model can contain scenarios and forecasts for building a subscriber component, but it must be fundamentally ad-based. For now.
Still, for a startup, aiming to build a premium offering, I am approaching the question convinced that both free and paid content actually have all the potential to make each other stronger . They need each other. Even if you want to go quickly to pay, you must start out giving the stuff away in order to create a readership that you might someday charge for it. Conversely, too often the mistake is made to only refer to pay models for their direct subscription/micropayment income, while they can actually produce better…stickier…eyeballs for advertisers. Not only is brand loyalty/relationship that comes with being a subscriber mean more time spent surfing on the site once you get or go there, it also means a greater likelihood of clicking through from an RSS or Twitter feed or Facebook recommendation if YOUR website-of-choice (or one of them) pops up before your eyeballs.
With the many changes that have occurred in the past few months, both inside and outside the ongoing laboratory of my mind’s project, mean that I too must make changes. The NYTimes pay meter and I-Slate are just two bits of news, with little clarity on either. It is also even clearer (at least for me) that Twitter and Facebook are going to be a mass delivery system for the future. But overall, it still feels to often like chasing phantoms, herding cats, pick your metaphor. Hard as hell. This is what a Salon veteran has to say about it from his first-hand experience.
Ultimately, I think I must keep an ad-driven open site model for at least the first 6 to 12 months. But I am ever more convinced that I should present my project as being ideally situated –in the medium and long term – to have a significant pay/subscriber component. Even with the patchy data available, the folks at mondaynote have crunched the numbers on the NYTimes pay proposal. It’s time to (re)crunch my own.