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…