Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Thinking of a journalism start-up? Here’s a checklist

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on November 5, 2009

If the future of journalism is indeed entrepreneurial, we have to start thinking with a business hat on.

It’s a big change in mentality for some journalists. I’ve been to several events and meetings recently where hacks have insisted people will have to pay for news “because journalists have to eat”.

This is upside-down thinking. People don’t buy iPhones because Steve Jobs needs to eat. They buy them because they are an innovative product which satisfies a demand people are willing to pay for.

And so it must be if journalists are to be entrepreneurs. I’ve put together a list of criteria a new business idea might need to satisfy to see it become successful. I don’t think a successful business will need to satisfy all of them, or maybe even 50%. But ignoring these questions means another financial failure…

News start-up checklist

  1. Is it a new idea?

  2. Does it have a defined target audience?

  3. Does it provide niche (i.e. hyperlocal) content?

  4. Does it satisfy a desire that is not being fulfilled by someone else?

  5. Or does it do something better (faster, cheaper, more effectively) than someone else?

  6. Does it actually have income potential, or will it rely on funding?

  7. Does it use the power of crowd-sourcing/community?

  8. Would it be fulfilling for journalists to work for?

  9. Does it publish/exist on more than one platform?

  10. If it has content, is it sharable?

  11. Does it require a lot of money to run?

  12. Does it have boot-strapping potential?

  13. Does it scale?

  14. Does it fulfill a public service?

  15. Is it a legally sound idea? What about copyright?

  16. Would it appeal to venture capitalists, angel investors?

  17. And…does it have a cool name?

That’s what I’ve come up with so far. I think if you answer these questions at the early stages, you’ll have a greater chance of your start up succeeding. What it says is a sustainable business – journalism or otherwise – begins with a solid well-defined customer base.

You need to know who these customers are, and be really clear about why you are providing something they can’t get elsewhere. Innocent Smoothies was begun by three British students in 1999 who realised there was a demand for healthy fruit smoothies, which wasn’t being satisfied by anyone else. It now has a revenue of £128m.

US start-up “incubator” Y-Combinator is looking for new media business ideas which embrace this form of thinking:

What would a content site look like if you started from how to make money—as print media once did—instead of taking a particular form of journalism as a given and treating how to make money from it as an afterthought?

Add more to the list in the comments below if you have any. And while you’re here, read the comments of one reader on an earlier blog entry. Some interesting criticism of the notion journalism is entrepreneurial at all…


18 Responses

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  1. […] 5, 2009 …from Adam Westbrook’s blog today concerning journalism new ventures – an essential checklist to […]

  2. Benjamin Teicher said, on November 6, 2009 at 3:16 pm

    I’m about to set up a blog which is more targeted and professional than my previous offering. Although the same commercial imperatives do not necessarily apply. This checklist has been invaluable as I scrutinise my concept before launch. Thanks!

  3. Lauri said, on November 9, 2009 at 3:02 am

    Thank you for this. You just solidified things in my head.

  4. Pamela Andersson said, on November 14, 2009 at 10:29 pm

    Lot’s of stuff to read here.

  5. Stilgherrian said, on November 17, 2009 at 12:54 am

    On point 3, I’d say that should be an “e.g.” rather than an “i.e.” Hyperlocal is just one way of defining a niche. Another could be by industry or some other business interest (“electric cars” or “insurance” perhaps), or a certain sport or lifestyle that’s got a global presence (“windsurfing” or “reggae music”).

    I’m guessing you mean “start-up” in that specific high-growth Silicon Valley sense, as opposed to just starting a new business? If not, if someone’s just wanting to establish a comfortable life for themselves and a few employees, then maybe points 12 and 16 don’t matter?

    Minor comments. This is a great list to frame one’s thinking.

  6. Jason Langenauer said, on November 17, 2009 at 1:08 am

    Though you almost touched on it in points 11 & 6, I think you missed the most important criteria:

    Will it generate more revenue (eventually) than it costs to run?

    That’s the most basic premise of any business, and no sane person, investor or venture capital fund would touch an idea that doesn’t have some potential of meeting this criteria.

  7. adamwestbrook said, on November 22, 2009 at 10:22 am

    @Jason: agreed, although I think that is what the aim of the checklist is – if your business satisfies the majority of the points then it has a better chance of making more money than it costs.

    @Stilgherrian thanks for the clarification; i guess most people starting a news biz won’t do it with the aim of having a high-growth company to sell off at the first chance, but I may be wrong!

  8. Hannah Suarez said, on November 25, 2009 at 2:14 pm

    this is an excellent checklist. I run a site, and have found myself to be in a situation similar to what you have outline in your list despite the project starting up as an events list..

  9. links for 2009-12-18 « Glenna DeRoy said, on December 19, 2009 at 3:05 am

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  11. […] to my Journalism Startup checklist it fails on the first four questions: it is not a new idea, and most importantly it does not have a […]

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