Monthly Archives: May 2010

TIME Casualties, Newsweek Funerals & New Startup Biz Models. Revenue Before Branding

The dire straits of Newsweek is a grim, though hardly surprising, development. Neither as a longtime Time magazine guy nor current New Media wannabe dude does the prospect that this historic brand might vanish offer me any satisfaction whatsoever. Those dancing on graves reveal more about themselves than they do about either the deceased or the reasons for the demise. That a chunk of the old stuff is bound to fail/disappear is by now a given, and all the victory shouts and schadenfreude is just the shit talking of middle school playgrounds. Indeed as Clay Shirky has pointed out, failure is one basic fact that unites the MSM with the would-be new stuff.

So what do the current predicaments of Time and Newsweek tell me — downsized Time foreign staffer, current Time (and Time.com) contributor — about getting my startup up and started? It is clear that both these weekly print/digital brands and potential real-time vessels still carry weight with the general public. It is also clear that the management no longer sees the value in staffing the world like they once did. On good days, you can see that the Brand + the DNA of the institution + the network of collaborators can still turn out some pretty great and sellable stuff ….on bad days, they’re running on fumes.

There is a fine line where a quick dot.com piece  can start to look like a mediocre blog post, where a decent dot.com piece is “repackaged” for print, and doesn’t quite cut it. And then, with a mix of insight, pavement-pounding and a nose for the zeitgeist, a colleague can tell us who we are as a society — and it both sparkles as the print cover and finds weeks-long legs on the web.

But we are still left wondering what the future will ultimately be of a “respected global news brand” that is not committed to investing in the production of first-hand, on-the-ground reporting. These are innately national/international publications that don’t have the option like the LA Times or Chicago Tribune to retrench geographically and focus on local news for its local reader base.

Still, as always, we’re talkin’ about a revolution, and I have (by choice/necessity) thrown myself into it, unburdening my brain matter with trying to hold on to the past. It helps to imagine old brands in new ways. And in turn, imagine my own project in new ways, with new models, almost every day. Both Time and Newsweek could potentially evolve into content-distribution vessels, portals, brands that acquire their content from others. And I’m not talking just single freelancers, but companies in the business of offering a consistent, tailored stream of content to those who have the brand/audience that can sustain it.

Maybe there’s terrain to be exploited on the continuum between the Ny Times and Yahoo news? And without staffs, but WITH coming paywalls/iPads, etc, there will be a need for quality content. And that’s where lately I’ve begun to see the business model for the launch of my own project. That may be what globalpost may be pivoting toward, with a series of partnerships at least as impressive as its unique viewers growth.

The urgency to discover business models in itself will help drive the evolution of the way news is produced. That of course goes for Demand News consciously downgraded quantity-over-quality, but should also be the case for those of us who want to offer something better to readers. Frédéric Filloux, as always, boils it down nicely in his most recent Monday Note. A believer in new technology, an incisive (and entertaining) critic of the serial mistakes of legacy news, the former editor of the French daily Liberation still believes that “professionalism” matters…and has value.

Two conversations I have had in the past two weeks: one with another MSM dude breaking off and doing his own thing, the other with a European internet executive (hopefully I will have more to tell about her in coming weeks…) have convinced me that the business model must begin with what is generically called ‘B2B’, that is, selling our product directly to other businesses, in our case, other major brands or web portals. In France, they call it an agence, which is an all-encompassing term that includes the wires (AFP), but also smaller content providers. In the new digital world, it can mean many things.

If we do pursue this course, it would mean a shift of focus from mass branding to targeted selling. I have no preconception of what the business must look like: I just want it to work, survive, thrive…If content is King, selling it is the crown (the power), and brand is the castle. Nice to have all the elements, but maybe it is no longer necessary? And here in Europe, we know that some castles without kings are nice to look at, others simply disappear into history…

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Pre-Recruiting: Building a Team Before the Fact, Channeling Vince Lombardi

I have promised more about Jed Micka, as of last month, my full-fledged (though not yet full-time..see below) partner in this enterprise. Most of the basics on Mr. Micka are in my last Nieman Lab post, but I wanted to add a quick update here on where we are, which will lead into the subject of this piece.

Jed is not thinking about the news business, or even our project, in this very moment. He’s all about the Arctic. That’s the topic of the Master’s thesis he  must complete by June in international political strategy at Sciences Po University here in Paris. That leaves me to do the heavy lifting (for now) on the project while Jed works around the clock on his 100-page paper (“four pages a day,” he says, giving away his programmer/engineering tendencies). Still, we do meet every Friday for a couple of hours so I can update him on the week’s progress (or lack thereof) and get his feedback, and we can brainstorm and map out the weeks and months to come. Perhaps even more than his computing/programmer skills, that which feels most valuable is his business mind: questions of costs, incorporation, copyright, spreadsheets, strategy are both on his resume and in his DNA.

Still, in the more short-term, the good news is that Jed has the programming skills to build the live site, and even as we hope to raise some funds in the coming few months, we are moving ahead with a pure bootstraps approach, financing-free if necessary, with the aim to launch a limited beta version in September.

Still, just the two of us won’t quite cut it. We will need some additional peoplepower. This is something I have known since the get-go. My would-be digital brand is NOT a blog or some other kind of one-man show. Indeed in my pre-bootstrapping ignorance, I envisioned raising the million or two needed to launch the thing at full capacity, with a well-fed staff of 10-15 folk. That ain’t gonna happen–even if the millions were to suddenly fall into our laps. Jed has helped crystallize the importance of making sure that there is a constant and direct correlation from Day One between costs and revenues: we are a lean startup, both in financial and existential terms, and will be for a long time to come.

This all means that we need to find low-cost, high-quality help from Day One. Or even before. The good (and yet sad) news on the editorial side is that it is a buyer’s market. Highly qualified professional reporters are out of work. Journalism schools are still churning out smart and eager j-bunnies. Still, buyer’s market doesnt mean slavery–which is not the business I wanted to get into anyway. What I have to offer is OPPORTUNITY, to get in on the ground level of something that, if it works, will be part of the future. The alternatives can both be grim for different reasons: either staying/getting shackled to a sinking ship or shilling for something so damn cheap and chincy that is depressing precisely because it is the future.

Still, Jed’s whole cost/revenue approach means that we simply cannot compete with the older and bigger and richer outlets in paying for services.  None of this, however, is either easy or predictable. I have had a smart, hyper linked and ambitious J-school grad in need of experience suddenly jump ship, saying she needed some income immediately; while a well-established colleague said (unprompted) that she would consider leaving her solid job with a major news organization even if my project couldn’t guarantee her a salary. We’ll see.

Much of it is a question of stars aligning. Right now, the stars have aligned enough to have a potential early contributor already working (for free, so far!) on the project. Amar Toor is contributing on my relatively new morning “overnight news bundle” whileUslept. He has income coming in from other writing/blogging work, and a flexible schedule. And Amar too is smart, hyper-linked and ambitious. He got a master’s in economics rather than journalism, but writes with the ease and attitude of a seasoned hack. To round out the storyline: he is actually the person who introduced me to Jed.

But even though he seems genuinely excited by the larger project, it’s hard to feel like you can count on someone if you can’t pay them. Again, we’ll see. All I can do is to be as honest and open as possible, sharing what I know and asking help for what I don’t. Hopefully, all of that can can help the others around me believe in the project as much as I do. And though I’m no Vince Lombardi, on good days, I like to think some of that is in my DNA.

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