Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

myNewsBiz 2011: what does it tell us about entrepreneurship?

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on June 24, 2011

So the winners of myNewsBiz have been announced and that wraps up the pilot of our entrepreneurial journalism competition for this year.

The two winning ideas reflected the breadth of entries we received. The winner, Visualist, an idea by City University students Nick Petrie and Ben Whitelaw (of Wannabe Hacks fame) aims to provide journalists in smaller newsrooms with the skills and tools to do data journalism. The judges felt it brought something new to journalism, and targeted a very popular area in journalism today.

The runner up idea was a great idea for a magazine, called Relish, submitted by four students at Kingston University, London. The judges loved the name, but also the fact that it targeted a clear, new and gadget hungry audience – men who like cooking.

Read more about the entries and the judges’ comments here. And there’s more coverage on journalism.co.uk.

What did we learn?

All that’s left to do is give the two winners their £1000 and £500 respectively to spend getting their business ideas off the ground. We announced the competition last November and we wanted to achieve two things (as well as give out cash to good business ideas):

  • we wanted to get more journalism students actively thinking about how business/enterprise works
  • and I personally wanted a snapshot of how the next generation of journalists perceive entrepreneurship, after lots of talk on both sides of the Atlantic.

We achieved the first measure, and then some. As well as a series of online training videos, I visited lots of universities to talk about entrepreneurial journalism and promote the competition. Even those who did not win benefitted from the process of idea generation and asking themselves important business questions, like what is their USP and what are their revenue streams.

And there were some excellent ideas submitted, with a variety of products and services. Among those that the judges highly commended were:

  • a magazine aimed at students
  • Plastik magazine, already doing well in South Wales
  • a magazine for young lesbians
  • an online CV service for journalists

Many of the entries though (understandably!) showed little or no knowledge of what makes a good business idea. Those that scored badly did not have a clear target market identified, or any concept of how or where revenue would be made. Only a small handful of entries had really considered the figures, and were able to say “we’d need to sell 5,000 copies to break even.”

Interestingly (from my perspective, anyway) none of the entries really investigated the potential of launching an intentionally small company with low overheads and exploiting lots of free tools; the majority of entries pitched mainstream-style products (printed magazines) despite the high costs and risks associated with that. Similarly, all but two ideas were for products (even though the idea the judges liked best is a service business).

Five big mistakes lots of first-time entrepreneurs made:

.01 no clear market: lots of entries did not really know who they were trying to target with their idea; great businesses (including publishers) work when they help a specific – easily identifiable – group of people with a specific problem.

.02 choosing a market with little money: those that did know who their audience were had chosen markets where not much money flows – so there was limited chance to sell products, events or services to your audience. By contrast, the judge’s second-favourite entry has a gadget hungry market who are interested in buying.

.03 pitching a product with little value: another common problem was to pitch something that the world doesn’t need. This included blogs, podcasts or magazines that talked about general areas like music, film or sport but didn’t offer anything useful. You have to make peoples’ lives better if they (or advertisers) will part with their cash.

.04 spending money badly: most people did not have a good idea of how they would spend the £1,000 if they won it, often wanting to spend large chunks on posters, clothing or stationary. This can happen to experienced entrepreneurs too though!

.05 their idea doesn’t replicate or scale: finally, the judges were most keen on business ideas that had the potential to grow, or be replicated elsewhere. Too many of the pitches were reliant on the passion/work of one person.

Some interesting early reflections then, which I will delve into in more detail as part of research I am carrying out for Kingston University this year. Clearly, interest in entrepreneurship is yet to grow beyond a small number; the vast majority of student journalists & graduates would rather pursue the traditional path to work.

I believe though that competitions like this are vital if more students are to equip themselves with entrepreneurial skills. I’m undecided about running it again next year, although if we did, we would look for sponsors to get involved. If that sounds like something you’re interested in, then please do get in touch. 

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Five things that make a great news business idea

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on January 31, 2011

Entries for myNewsBiz, the student journalism enterprise competition are open and we are starting to get early entries through.

If you haven’t heard of it, myNewsBiz is open to any undergraduate or postgraduate journalism student at a UK university. There’s a prize of £1000 for the best new idea for a journalism business, be it a product, like a magazine, or a service. A runner up gets £500.

But what makes a good business idea?

That’s a difficult question, if you’ve never thought about starting a business until now. If you don’t know where to begin, here are five different starting places for your search for that winning business idea.

.01 Fill a gap

Any concept (entrepreneurial or otherwise) has to service a need that a large enough group of people have, in order to survive and thrive. So a good place to start is to ask ‘is there a product or service which is not being provided right now?

Murdoch’s much anticipated iPad only newspaper The Daily can be viewed in these terms. The iPad’s been around for just over a year, and yes, there are plenty of magazines and publishers with their own iPad apps…but there is no single dedicated iPad news product. It’s a gap. And News International appear to be trying to fill it.

.02 Scratch an itch

Image credit: corrieb on Flickr

Great business ideas ‘scratch an itch’, by which we mean solving a problem that a group of people have. The best place to identify an itch is on your own body. What’s bugging you right now? What do you see which can be done faster? Cheaper? More accurately? More locally or more beautifully?

TheBusinessDesk, a successful online news startup in the UK, clearly scratched an itch its founders had: there was no good source for regional business & finance news. They scratched their own itch, and in doing so created a thriving business.

Scratching your own itch has a big advantage: because it’s your itch, you are best placed to tell whether your solution is scratching it properly.

.03 Improve something

If that doesn’t work, why not try improving on someone else’s idea?

There are plenty of magazines, websites, services we all use which get us grumbling. “This coverage stinks!” “Their infographics are rubbish” “They could have done that website so much better!”

If there’s something out there which is not up to scratch – make your own, improved, version.

That’s part of the thinking behind studio .fu, my online video production company. There are lots of independent video producers out there, but I could see lots of things they were doing wrong.

I improved their offering by just focusing on online video, and by steering clear of an office or (any) staff, I can offer the same thing at a much more affordable rate.

.04 Begin with you

Instead of looking for a business idea straight away, start with you and your strengths and passions.

What do you love doing? If you could wake up tomorrow morning and commit one act of journalism, what would it be? Designing? Writing? Data interrogation?

Once you’ve identified that, you want to wrap a business around it. Look for markets for your passion, and build a business from there. This philosophy sums up the approach taken in my book Next Generation Journalist, which starts with a look at your real interests.

After all, there’s no point in pursuing a business idea you’re not interested in, just because it looks like a workable idea. I have a brilliant idea for an environmentally friendly kettle. But am I going to make it? No. Because manufacturing, retail and, err, kettles, don’t do it for me right now.

.05 Start making something – right now

Image credit: David Haygarth on Flickr

Finally, once you’ve got an idea – or maybe if you still don’t – start creating, right away.

Ideas are one-a-penny, but they don’t count for anything until you’ve turned it into something tangible. So if you’ve got an idea for an online magazine, get the webspace and domain, upload a WordPress theme and get creating.

Why? Because you’ll only know if your idea is any good once it’s real.

If you don’t have an idea yet, then start creating anyway. Whatever it is you feel like. If you think you’d like to start a business making infographics but aren’t sure what gap it would fill or itch it would scratch, keep going. Start designing infographics and put them online. See what the feedback is. Are people biting? This way you can develop your business idea organically.

Only once you’re making something can you know whether it’s got legs.

Remember the deadline for entries for myNewsBiz is the 1st of April 2011 – so you’ve still got plenty of time to put something together.

And in February we’re publishing awesome interviews with some of the top journalist-entrepreneurs out there, packed with advice on how to get your news business off the ground!

Idea 007: breathing new life into old content

Posted in Ideas for the future of news, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on March 19, 2010

In Ideas for the Future of News I’m collecting positive, tangible, practical examples of business models, products and content which could pave the future.

To catch up on previous ideas, head to the Ideas for the Future of News page.

Idea 007: The Independent’s News Wall

By: UltraKnowledge, The Independent

Headlining today’s Digital Storytelling Conference in London is Andrew Lyons from UK company UltraKnowledge. He’s introducing the company to more than a hundred journalists and showing them the work they’ve been doing with the Independent newspaper.

I met up with Andrew earlier this month, and it seems while many journalists have been worrying about the future, Andrew and his team of coders have been coming up with solutions. They’ve got a very forward thinking mindset, and what they’re doing could breathe new life into old content.

So, introducing the Independent’s new “News Wall.”

It’s accessible by going to http://search.independent.co.uk and is essentially a visual representation of the Independent’s big news stories on a given day.

Rolling your mouse over any of the thumbnails, puts it into the larger window on the right hand side and gives you a preview. It is, in its most simple terms, a visual way of searching the days top stories, and gives the user a much more interactive experience.

A real boon for subs, reporters and editors everywhere, this software does not require any manual SEO or tagging work. It’s all done automatically.

It goes beyond this though.

Firstly, you are able to search for words, people, events using the box at the top. And when you do, you are presented with a visual representation of your search results, which is nice too. What makes this approach clever is the search results page generated automatically becomes a permanent static page on the Independent’s website.

The result? Without any extra work by journalists, the Independent’s website has grown exponentially – this search I did this week pulls up more than 100,000 new pages since News Wall’s launch a month ago. These pages have been created by visitors to the site using the News Wall.

Thirdly, the News Wall is also searchable by date. You’ll eventually be able to type in any date since the Independent launched and get a graphical search result. And what does that mean? Thousands of articles, currently consigned to history, will have new life breathed into them. New sponsorship, new ad revenue.

Imagine if this was done with historical archives.

The people at UltraKnowledge are busy doing some other awesome work which I’m able to mention yet. But keep an eye on them: they’re a great example of how anyone can play a role in the future of news, and unless journalists change their mindset, it won’t be them.

Three ideas for news businesses which will never work (and why)

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on February 10, 2010

Journalism students and even older journalists struggling for work are being encouraged to get entrepreneurial and launch their own startups.

And damn straight too – let’s hope more of them take the leap and start launching products. I’m sure the most popular ideas for news businesses in someway mimic the mainstream media – for example an online magazine, hyperlocal website or production company.

All businesses with potential, but there are traps to fall into too. Here are some ideas (I came up with) which will never even get off the ground…and why.

1. Twat!: The risque new music magazine for young people in London

Twat! Magazine is a montly print magazine and website for young people in London that “really gets under the skin of culture” and “isn’t afraid to offend”. It features interviews “with upcoming artists the other magazines haven’t even heard of” and crazy mental features.

It won’t work. Why?

Referring 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 defined target audience. Who are “young people in London?”. As it happens they’re incredibly diverse from postcode gang members to city bankers. None of them can identify with the ‘lifestyle’ the magazine is trying to sell and therefore have no reason to pick it up.

It’s not a new idea, because pubs, bars and student unions are flooded with “edgy, cool, underground” magazines all the time, usually made by Magazine Publishing students. Going for print alongside web brings in large overheads – and bootstrapping becomes harder.

2. WorldTV: a video website that showcases the best films about “the issues which matter.”

This website pays to licence video journalism pieces from around the world and put them into one place. They’re after films about “under-reported” issues for example Darfur, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.  It will also allow users to upload their own video which gets voted on by other users. The site will have an “international feel” and be for people who “really care about politics”.

It won’t work. Why?

It’s a noble idea – but why would you want to visit this site? Again, WorldTV suffers from a poor grasp of a well-defined target audience. It is probably aiming for young people around the world, but again they are incredibly diverse. No-one will feel a need to register and therefore hopes of building an active community will fall through. The films themselves are likely to be long, worthy affairs and bore most people after two minutes.

The site wants to pay for video commissions, and so will need to cough up cash to video journalists. It may get some venture capital at first, but the rates will steadily slip from $800 to $500 to $200, to nothing.  Viewing figures will be low: creating something worthwhile and expecting the masses to come is a poor business model.

3. DoleItOut: a multimedia magazine for unemployed people in Birmingham

DoleItOut is a regularly updated multimedia website for people out of work in the Birmingham area of the UK. As well as feature interviews and interactives about life on the dole, it also has plenty of video advice guides on how to find work, video diaries and an active forum. Plans are underway to develop an iPhone app.

It won’t work. Why?

Hurrah! Finally an idea with a well defined target audience! Problem is they’re a bad target audience for running a business. Why? Because they got no money. If the editors of DoleItOut were hoping their readers would pay a minimal subscription they’d be wrong. Advertising is possible, but you’ll be left selling ads for evil loan sharks and 1000% loans. And what unemployed person can afford an iPhone app?

The idea also struggles with question 13 of the startup checklist – it doesn’t really scale. Although it’s good to be geo-specific, are there really enough unemployed people in Birmingham?

Too many news startup ideas fail because they take an upside down approach. Journalists think of a product and then decide who to make it for.  Instead you need to define your audience first – and then ask “what do they need?”.

Have you checked out the News Startup Checklist yet?

Photo Credit: Curious_Zed on Flickr