What Journalists Can Learn From: Startups

By on March 21, 2012

Y Combinator-Inspired Mousepad, by tagxedo

Startup culture has captivated the nation over the last few years, with starry promises of long nights spent in product development resulting in millions of dollars of funding and the potential for billion-dollar payoffs. Startup fever even infected the White House, prompting the launch of an initiative to support high-growth industries and entrepreneurship. So what lessons can media makers pull from startups? Read on.

Think lean

The Lean StartUp method hit the scene as a new, streamlined way of thinking about products, development and the launch process. By focusing on reducing wasted time and wasted money, the Lean Startup method centers on the MVP (minimum viable product) that can be put to market and tested. In many ways, news organizations are ahead of the curve on streamlining operations, since covering breaking news requires a quick turnaround and the processes generally are in place to support quick publishing.

However, operations can still feel bloated and bureaucratic, and strongly punish failure and creativity. In a time where every dollar counts, traditional news organizations are hoarding their considerable resources, and failure never has a higher cost. Still, following lean startup principles can help many fledgling projects breathe. Create a small side project and test out the reception. For those in organizations, it can lead to a valuable understanding of risk tolerance (and since you are pushing out your minimum viable side project, it probably won’t get you fired). For those outside of traditional news outlets, debuting your dream project before it’s fully finished may seem frightening, but it also speeds the process of trial and error, ultimately allowing for a stronger presentation.

Determine a project’s financial viability

In-depth reporting requires quite a bit of an upfront investment. There’s the time to actually report the piece, the production, the editing and the presentation — and costs only increase if you want to do something special with your research, like create a microsite or other digital tie-in. In this way, journalists need to learn the art of the sale from startup founders. Since much of their preparation involves showing and proving how a project will be financially viable, most entrepreneurs can calculate the bottom-line numbers. Journalists have to be aware of the bottom line, but, just as valuable is their other currency, which is measured impact. Taking a great idea and verifying the financial result is not fun. (After all, the industry is still haunted by The AOL Way, which is a grim reminder of what could happen if journalism is left to market forces.)

Still, a journalist shouldn’t be afraid to articulate why her project is valuable, and how it will generate either revenue or much-needed buzz for the company. The past few years have seen a rise in comics journalism and newsgames illuminating social issues, projects which help advance the distribution of information but are not necessarily profitable. While proposing these projects may be risky (particularly in cash-strapped news organizations), figuring out where new innovations fit in the journalism content mix is vital. While digital revenue models are still a huge mystery, understanding how much it costs to produce and create innovative content is the first step to developing a funding strategy.

Become a project evangelist

Startup founders are relentless at plugging their ideas. They visit conferences, pitch competitions, meet ups, and cocktail hours, feverishly honing their billion-dollar pitch idea. There are competing ideas about what makes for a good pitch (the short one liner or a more nuanced approach, but the main idea is that you should be ready and able to explain your idea, clearly and succinctly, at any given moment. Make sure that you inform others about your project and what you are working on — it jump-starts the project incubation process and you may pick up some supporters along the way.

Contemplate funding beyond advertising

For journalists contemplating creating a media company (like our MJ Bear Fellow Laura Amico), the possibilites feel limitless — until you hit your first cash crunch. Journalists are in a particularly difficult position. Serving the public is not lucrative, and the way the industry has made money in the past is entering a free fall. A recent report from the Project for Excellence in Journalism noted that while digital represents the future of the industry, the present is grim with seven dollars in print revenue lost for every digital dollar gained.

Check out this video from Inc. on seeking investments, and pay special attention to what investors are looking for. The world of journalism and the world of startups may be galaxies apart, but it’s becoming clear to everyone that an ad-based model is a flawed model.

Create your own seed programs and accelerators

The startup world is ripe with programs and groups that assist would-be entrepreneurs in developing their ideas, polishing their concepts and pitches, and approaching a funding market. Institutions like Y Combinator and TechStars provide valuable support to fledgling institutions, making connections, helping founders stay accountable to each other and placing people in the path of investors.

While there is a journalism accelerator that just blinked into existence (and undoubtedly others in the works), most people will not be able to land one of the coveted slots. So build your own. An accelerator is really a way for people to carve out the space to work on one of their projects without interruption and with a large group of advisors, for a set period of time. Could you create that kind of space for yourself next year — perhaps even as short as a four-day stretch, where you pack up, spend time with a friend in another city or a hotel, and bang out your business idea/narrative story arc/new digital project? Find two or three people who care about you and your idea and make them your cofounders, accountability coaches and advisors. A DIY accelerator is easier to pull together than you think.

Slide photo of the FT Newsroom is by Adam Tinsworth via Flickr.