Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

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

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10 trends in journalism in 2010

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on December 15, 2009

It’s that time of year again…

After a turbulent year in the industry, I’ve had a good think and put together my top 10 trends for journalism for 2010, wrapped in a big shiny positive outlook. But rather than roll out another list, I thought I’d be a bit different and crack out some video. Enjoy!

And is there anything I’ve missed? Add it in the comments box!

6×6: business

Posted in 6x6 series, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on August 24, 2009

6x6 advice for multimedia journalists

The fourth in a series of 6 blogs, each with 6 tips for the next generation of freelance multimedia journalists.

business

While the news industry is still in an uncertain and uncomfortable state of flux, one certainty has already emerged: journalists can no-longer just be journalists – they must be entrepreneurs too. It’s the difference between the ‘passive’ freelancer who writes to a few editors and waits for the work to come to them, and the ‘active’ freelancer who run themselves as a mini-business.

Until J-schools start adding business skills to the curriculum this will be something we’re all going to have to teach ourselves.

01. diversify

If you went into journalism to become a TV news reporter, and just a TV news reporter, the sad news is those days are over. As are the days of being paid to stay in nice hotels in foreign lands drinking cocktails.

In order to maximise your income, you will need to diversify your skills base. That means selling a range of skills and service, and not just journalism related ones. I know radio journalists who have a nice sideline designing websites, video journalists who run training courses, and photojournalists who work for non-profits.

Training can often be the most lucrative of these – but only consider this if you really know what you’re doing!

Diversify too in your client base. Pity the news-snob who just pitches to the New York Times and The Guardian! The digital revolution means there are more online-only news outfits, but they can be easier to pitch to.

Freelance science journalist Angela Saini offered me this advice recently: “I think it’s almost impossible to survive right now unless you freelance in more than one medium – so as well as doing VJ work, you may have to do radio and print too.”

If you’re a radio journalist you won’t survive as a just a radio journalist. Pitch for video, online, print…everything! Profiling multimedia journalist Jason Motlagh, David Westphal notes:

Motlagh doesn’t just write stories. He shoots still photos. He shoots and edits video. He does audio. He blogs. He narrates slide shows. And because he does all of those things, he says, he has a huge advantage over free-lance foreign correspondents working in a single medium.

Having multiple media skills is “still unusual,” he said. “There aren’t a whole lot of people yet who have gotten up to speed. If you are, you can make clients an offer they can’t refuse.”

02. find new markets

The entrepreneur, although a business profession, requires a lot of creativity. Just ask Richard Branson. From what I’ve gauged you have to be constantly brainstorming new markets and potential clients. And thinking outside the box reaps rewards.

Career evangelist and author of the popular new book Career Renegade: How to Make a Great Living Doing What You Love Jonathan Fields explores how to sidestep traditional career paths to forge your own unique way. He talks about “moving beyond the mainstream” and finding new markets in 6 different places:

  1. finding a hungrier market
  2. finding the most lucrative micro-markets
  3. exploiting gaps in information
  4. exploiting gaps in education
  5. exploiting gaps in gear or merchandise
  6. exploiting gaps in community

The first two are about digging deeper into the industry and possibly connecting two unrelated ones. A great example comes from a friend of mine, film maker Oliver Harrison. He loves cooking, and loves making films but couldn’t find a way to make any money out of either. After a lot of searching, he and business partner Simon Horniblow started talking to universities – and combined the two. They now run studentcooking.tv a very successful online cookery website for students. Would you think to do that? Think outside the box!

To Jonathan Fields:

“In thinking about potential alternative markets, or trying to find smaller, more lucrative submarkets, think about fields, careers, jobs, or paths where the elements of what you love to do are valued, but in short supply. You are looking for a market where your passion leads to: differentiation, hunger [and] price availability.”

Be practical and realistic though: is there really a demand for your new idea?

Here’s 3 examples of journalists who digged a bit deeper to find new markets:

Weyo found a new market in non-profits looking for quality storytelling

Weyo found a new market in non-profits looking for quality storytelling

Journalist Martin Lewis exploited a gap in the market for impartial financial advice

Journalist Martin Lewis exploited a gap in the market for impartial financial advice

Duckrabbit ex[ploited a gap in education and produce training courses in photography and audio design

Duckrabbit exploited a gap in education and produce training courses in photography and audio design

03. bootstrapping

Bootstrapping means starting your freelance business with little or no cash. It means learning how to get things done for free – and most valuable of all – learning to be careful with money.

The great news is you don’t need any money to start out and market yourself. A website domain name will cost you a small amount. But social media means you can market your talents absolutely free (see the previous 6×6 on branding).

Josh Quittner, writing in Time Magazine uses the term LILO – to mean ‘a little in, a lot out’: “At no other time in recent history has it been easier or cheaper to start a new kind of company. Possibly a very profitable company” he says. “[bootstrapping] means your start-up is self-sustaining and can eke out enough profit to keep you alive on instant noodles while your business gains traction.”

If this recession has taught us anything, it’s that the best business is built from the bottom up, on the funds available (not borrowed).

04. dealing with inflexible income

The biggest fear of starting a freelance career is money. Oh, and failure. ‘What if I don’t get any business?’ ‘How will I be sure I’ll always pay the rent?’ Truth is you won’t ever be sure, but that’s part of the thrill, right?

Still there are some things you can do to make the ebb and flow of freelance income a little more stable.

A good tip is to open up a separate bank account for your business earnings. Get Rich Slowly offers this advice: “Every month as you earn income, receive it (and leave it) in your business account. This is where you accumulate your cash. Because it’s in a high-yield account, it earns interest as it waits for you to use it.”

They recommend paying yourself a monthly salary from that business accountand leaving the rest for tax and other investments. The worst thing is to use the profits from a bumper month to pay for a bumper holiday, only to return to slim pickings.

But the best advice for living on an irregular income? Learn to live lite. Cut back on unnecessary spending wherever you can. Back to David Westphal profiling Jason Motlagh: “He lives modestly and accepts that there may be periods in his work where he’ll have to do something besides journalism to pay the bills.”

05. find your creative time

Sure, for some freelancers the appeal of being your own boss is getting up at 10, watching some TV, doing some work, heading out on a night out without the guilt…and that might work for some. But the creative entrepreneur’s life is most likely to be a different one.

Just ask Mark McGuinness. He coaches creative freelancers and says for the successful ones, it ain’t no bohemian life:

After scanning my diary and surveying the tasks in hand, I was faced with a depressing conclusion. I was going to have to get up early.

He’s up at 6 in the morning, every morning, getting the crap out the way, like emails and the like.  He then says he has several hours free to work solidly on creative tasks, before the rest of the world gets up and the phone starts ringing. Know when you are at your creative best and ring fence it, so you can’t get disturbed. It might be 6am, it might be midnight. Whatever, just make sure it’s protected.

…when I look back over the last couple of years, the time when I’ve created most value, for myself and my clients, has been those first hours of the day I’ve spent writing blog posts, essays, seminars and poems. It’s the creative wellspring that feeds into all the coaching, training, presenting and consulting I do when I’m face-to-face with clients.

Treat it like a full time job too. If you can, work somewhere where you can commute to, or have some ringfenced office space at home. I recommend Mark’s excellent (and free) ebook “Time Management for Creative People“.

06. be lean, but don’t be mean

If you’re dreaming of going freelance, you might be thinking about holding off until after the recession. No need, says Leo Babauta 0f Zenhabits fame:

This is the best time to start. This is a time when job security is low, so risks are actually lower. This is a time to be lean, which is the best idea for starting a business. This is the time when others are quitting — so you’ll have more room to succeed.

And with social media and networking taking off, this is the easiest time to start a business, the easiest time to spread the word, the easiest time to distribute information and products and services.

Starting now though won’t be easy – and you’ll need to be lean. But that is such an important skill to keep things afloat later on. Be sensible with your money, don’t overspend. It’s the thing the big companies can’t do, and the reason they lose money hand over fist. And don’t be mean: journalism is a small village – make friends and keep ’em!

The final word:

Journalism.co.uk offer some great practical advice for freelancers, which cover things like registering as self-employed, pitching for new work and managing finances. And if you’re still unsure of taking the entrepreneurial route, just watch this:

Next: audio for multimedia journalist!

The online news site that IS making money

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on January 14, 2009

Non-retail/business sites on the internet find it difficult to make any money.

And news never makes any money. So combined, websites offering news content are usually loss makers.

Except for one:

the worlds news forecaster

Hubdub: the world's news forecaster

Well…OK it’s not a news website. Instead it asks its users to gamble play money on how actual news events will pan out.

And never mind play money, Hubdub is making some real money too. According to @jemimakiss at The Guardian:

“Hubdub has raised £810,000 in funding from a mix of angel investors, software venture firm Pentech and the Scottish Co-Investment Fund.

“This new round of funding will support more partnerships; at the moment those sites have a page on Hubdub, but the startup wants to extend that to other news sites to make a lightweight ‘powered by Hubdub’ feature available on external sites.”

Great news for startups. But what can journalists learn from this? Well if anything it’s that with sites like this community is king. It’s the ability to interact with other users which sees a quarter of a million people log on a month, not news.

And also the importance of having a good fundraiser on your team. I bet £800k from a mix of investors took a lot of slog on the ground.

Oh, and out of curiosity, I’m giving it a go – bet against me, I’m called NewsJedi.

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