Category Archives: business model

So…What IS It!? The Answer on the Niemanlab

The good folk at Niemanlab have been kind enough to offer a much wider platform for my musings…starting way back when I sometimes felt like all I had was musings. Now that we’re set to rollout what we’ve got and what we’ll be, it made all kinds of sense for all kinds of reasons to begin the rollout last week ovah ther at haavaad yaad…

here it is.

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Latest Nieman Lab post…Launch approaching!?

We are getting close to launch….And can’t wait to start describing just exactly what our site will be/do. Until then, this hopefully gives a flavor of what it’s like to try to make everything happen…AT ONCE!? Niemanlab

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Meet, Greet, Talk and Tinker: 10 Tips For Your Ever Evolving Pitch…and Project

“You like that new triangle thing?,” I asked Irene with a little chuckle. We were standing on a corner in the 2nd arrondissement in the heart of Paris, having just finished one in a continuing series of sit-downs, skypes and phone calls with potential partners, funders and anyone else who wants to know more about (and maybe help) our fledgling baby. That same morning, at another pow-wow across town, I had ad-libbed a little riff about the three elements at the core of our product, which I described on the fly as the aforementioned “triangle.” And so when I repeated my new favorite metaphor in the later meeting, Irene Toporkoff, my ever patient business partner, gave it a nod of sort-of-approval. It may, or may not, make an appearance in the next meeting tomorrow evening.

As we plough on toward launch, and focus in on fundraising, the pace of meetings has picked up. I count at least 15 face-to-face meetings we’ve had since September 1, which means we are basically introducing our project once a day to someone who knows nothing or next-to-nothing about what we aim to build — and may be key in getting it built. It’s high stakes, and never boring.  If anything, we are perhaps a bit loose in the way we approach it, typically with little time to prepare, tinkering with the presentation. What we lack in polish, we make up for in both passion and agility. And ears. The questions that are posed by people who may actually end up having a stake in the thing tend are bound to be among the best (read: hardest) you’ll get…and will require you to adjust not only the pitch, but the project itself.

As I’ve mentioned before, the experience of being a professional reporter offers some good tools for us would-be startupers. Whatever skills and experience we have in conducting interviews and unpacking information can be helpful in these meetings that are the building block for your would-be news enterprise. But of course, there are also some fundamental differences.

With our recent flurry of meetings, I’ve put together a quick list (with journo types in mind) of what to know about pitching your project. One that I’ll keep off the list, though it applies very well to me: Accept That Sometimes You’ll Suck.

Work in Progress: As emphasized above, the pitch is never a fixed object. Let what you learned from the last meeting inform this one, and be willing to test and refine your product and business rationales. And again, often the best thing that comes out of a meeting is neither funding nor a partnership…but an idea.

Be Yourself: As a reporter, I would rarely prepare specific questions before an interview, usually just jotting down the six or seven topics I wanted to cover just before going in. Other colleagues work better with a more structured approach. In either case, the objective is to both get the most substance out of the encounter and to be as comfortable as possible. Indeed, those two usually go together.

Follow Their Lead: Some will just want to hear you go on and on, others will interrupt you with questions before you even sit down. Ultimately it’s your pitch, but their show. Indeed, it’s more like the interview you had for your first newspaper job than the big interview you landed with some VIP.

Adjust the Dial: No two meetings and pitches are alike, but there are certain categories of people you’ll be meeting: funder, networker, partner, expert. Think before going in what you would ideally like to get from the person, and what are the essentials they need to know about what you’re doing. It’s not disingenuous, but a question of emphasis, especially because time will always be limited.

Getting In Isn’t Good Enough: Sometimes for a reporter, just getting in is 80 percent of the battle. It doesn’t have to be a brilliant Q&A, as long as you were there to get subject X to answer some of your questions. You may have had it no easier getting to the person you’re pitching to, but here you gain no points just for face time.

Start Strong: This is one I’ve always needed help on. On big interviews I was always slow out of the box, and would often try to think of something specific to say for an intro….though that sometimes made it even worse!? There are no second takes when you’re pitching, but at least if you can wow them later in the meeting, they may forgot that your opening line was…Uummm.

Props, People Here too, there are different approaches. Irene has convinced me that the best way is to bring a printed copy of our biz plan along, but to try to go as long as possible without pulling it out. Indeed, we sometimes mention it only at the end of the meeting, and send afterwards via email. Others may prefer pitching — or being pitched — with slides from the get-go. In either case, you are there  to make an impression, a human one.

Get the Next Number: Irene always reminds me that every meeting should lead to another meeting. Or two or three. Ask for contacts, make connections, get the numbers/emails before you actually walk out the door.

Finish Strong: As things are winding down — after whatever detours into the details or the state of digital media — look for an opening to bring the discussion back to your core product, and the reason it is needed now.

Follow Up: Thank you, thank you, just one more thing I’d like to ask, thank you again…

…and good night.

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Nieman Lab post #5

HERE is the 5th installment of my monthly posts for the Nieman Lab on the future of journalism. More on partnerships…

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Pardon the Disruption: What My News Startup Does NOT Aim To Disrupt

The go-for-the-jugular ambition of the good folk at Publish2 is inspiring. It is also a bit scary to see a 10-person startup try to take on/take DOWN the Associated Press… for what it says about how broken the news business is, how hard it will be to fix it and…what happens in the meantime. As a former AP correspondent in Rome, who stills follows the Vatican beat, I have watched my wire service colleagues’ outstanding work on the current Catholic priest sex abuse saga, breaking stories (here, here, here) in the past couple of months that bloggers or freelancers simply don’t have the resources or wherewithal to pull off in the kind of ongoing way as a crucial, far-flung story like this requires.

But none of that means that the AP is not vulnerable to assault. And if it vanishes, no one knows if/how Publish2 or anyone else will be able to substitute the work it does, and cover the ground it covers. For the second time in this space I refer to Clay Shirky’s ominous dictum about the prevalence of failure on both sides of the disruption divide in remaking the world of information/communication in our digital age.

But if the prospect of potential (or even likely) failure were ever to clip our ambitions, there would be no success worth achieving. So upward/onward for us all: hungry beat reporters and upstart news entrepreneurs alike. No one at Publish2 should scale back their goals, or somehow soften their direct, name-your-prey approach. Aiming high, and aiming straight is good for rallying the troops, making some waves, and of course, er…WORLD DOMINATION!

My question is about the fixation with the conception of disruption that often drives the New Media discussion. Though my sights are set pretty damn high as well…what I hope to create does not aim to actually disrupt any fundamental component of the news business. Indeed, it is conceived of as a boost to those currently hanging for dear life on around the world. This doesn’t mean that it’s not new, or innovative, or might even change the way people think about and consume foreign news. Moreover, if it works, some people might lose their jobs, and others might find new ones. It’s also worth confirming that both in my old and new lives, I have run into resistance from established forces of the news business, and so I know that there is indeed much that needs disruption…and in some cases, outright destruction.

But perhaps part of the what the news business needs now are ideas, mechanisms, products that help what has long existed better do its work and spread its product….and repair the bottom line. I am well aware that I say this, because this it what my product would do. But I also believe it is true– even a full year after having sipped the New Media Kool-aid. (DISCLAIMER/APOLOGY: I am still a couple of months from taking the details of my project public, and my decision to hold off on saying just what it is has slowed down this blog a bit, as a result. Despite the urgings of my astronaut soon-to-be brother-in-law “Go live, man. Go live!” I’m still holding off, lining up those ducks.  Soon…I promise!)

As we move toward what is coming, there will be some essential disruptions. There will also be stalling the inevitable, crutches and life support pulled out, sucking up resources. But there is also room for bridges, new networks for old players. This may be a failure of imagination on my part to grasp how much will change, but I am convinced that filters, brands, organizations…and yes, reporters and editors…are as important as ever in helping consumers of news get what they need.

I have a friend who is a successful airline industry consultant whose business booms when his clients are struggling. Indeed he once told me that a true, sustainable business model for air travel may not really exist. But that doesn’t stand in the way of lots of people and companies all along the food chain getting paid. In the meantime, the people get transported in a more or less sufficient manner.

Might we carry that analogy over to the news business? At least for the next 20-50 years!? Be just disruptive enough to make a decent living by continuing to do what we love doing. Spend as little time/energy navigating those burdened by salvaging what ought to be abandoned. And maybe have a small seat at the big table where the world of information is changing forever. This is my ambition.

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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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