The Hyperlocal Journalist and the Salesperson

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Michael Meyer is a guest author. If you’d like to submit a guest post, click here.

I’ve been building the Columbia Journalism Review’s News Frontier Database for more than six months now. In that time I’ve edited and written profiles of nearly 150 digital news outlets throughout the country – both local and national operations – and been in at least some contact with dozens more. We at CJR started the project because we felt that the vast, overwhelmingly diverse world of online news needed to be talked about with more specificity. We wanted readers to be able to use the database to find new sources of information, and we wanted to provide journalists, entrepreneurs, and the philanthropic community with a body of knowledge on how digital news organizations function both editorially and as businesses.

This is all to say that I spend a lot of time looking at digital news sites and speaking with the people who run them, and while covering this beat has put me in contact with many talented (and a few brilliant) people, I’ve also noticed a trend that does not bode well for the industry – something that I feel needs to be fixed (and fixed quickly) if independently owned news sites are going to survive.

It won’t surprise many to learn that I’m speaking of the lack of business expertise (and, worse, lack of business earnestness) among independently owned news sites, many of which were founded by people whose only previous work experience was in journalism. At some operations this lack of business experience manifests as a lack of direction when it comes to earning revenue; at others as an excess of optimism about quality content translating into dollars and cents; at still others it manifests as outright indifference to thinking about the sustainability of their operation, as if truth-telling and good intentions are a guarantee of not only relevance but also staying power.

There are, of course, sites with journalists at the helm that take financial sustainability very seriously, but there are also plenty who are quick to name themselves the “publisher” of a news site but seem to always find better uses for their time than seeking advertisers, writing business plans, or analyzing a balance sheet. This isn’t a problem that’s unique to hyperlocal sites, but the hyperlocal industry is certainly among those affected.

I worry about the future of my profession when I see large segments of the online news industry failing to rigorously test the kinds of revenue models journalism needs to survive.

I’ve done my share of passion projects, and it is heartening to see so many people practicing journalism online who put craft and ethics above all else, but I worry about the future of my profession when I see large segments of the online news industry failing to rigorously test the kinds of revenue models journalism needs to survive. Taking our content seriously is a basic requirement, but are we taking ourselves (or even readers) seriously if we’re not wholly committed to monetizing it?

I’d argue that the answer is no. And so, with the hope of worming my way into the ear of some journalist somewhere who is thinking about starting a news site, or perhaps in hopes of reaching those who have already gone down that path, here are four pieces of advice for taking business seriously in online news.

1. Remember that you’re building an institution
Credibility is the lifeblood of journalism — the key to its social as well as financial worth — and journalism is at its most powerful when that credibility is invested in an institution with staying power rather than scattered among reporters and their individual brands.

Too many journalists think of founding a Web site as a way to disseminate their own work or that of a few individuals rather than as building an institution. This view is not only less-than-wholly-formed as a business proposition, it also distracts from loftier journalistic goals — building a long-term relationship with readers and a community, for example. I don’t think that many people are naïve enough to assume that simply publishing their work online will lead to financial success, but I do think a lot of people decided that publishing online was step one towards building a financially viable publication and are now caught in limbo trying to make it the rest of the way. Once you start publishing, the challenges and delays will be endless, so you need to start off with both a fully-formed product and a fully-formed business model, even if they are going to evolve over time. Which brings me to my second point…

2. Barriers to entry are deceptively low
It’s very nearly free to start an online news site, but incredibly expensive and time consuming to do it properly. That’s an obvious point, of course, but I do think that the low entry barrier – a free WordPress platform, an abundance of free writers (if not writing talent), and, particularly with hyperlocals, the relative ease of gathering large amounts of news items – lures site founders into a false sense of complacency. At the very least it can hamper their ambition, as well as their incentive to plan long-term.

Some of the most impressive startups I’ve encountered while building the database have a print product, and I think at least part of this was because the higher entry barrier created by their desire to print caused them to think more seriously about fundraising, staffing levels, publication schedules, targeted audiences, advertising rates…the list goes on. In other words, the higher entry barrier forced them to think like a business.

It’s very nearly free to start an online news site, but incredibly expensive and time consuming to do it properly.

Kyle Whitmire, a political reporter and one of co-founders of Weld, a Birmingham news site and weekly print newspaper which I profiled in May, started his politics blog Second Front as a “prototype” for the Weld mother publication, but he never thought of it as a business entity or even really a publication in its own right. The entire time he was writing it he was spending the majority of his energy recruiting private investors so that he could start the kind of publication he felt could actually be financially sustained in Birmingham. Every online venture should have Whitmire and company’s mentality, but not nearly enough do.

3. Someone has to run the business
This might seem obvious, but the point doesn’t seem to hit home with everyone. With only so many hours in the day and endless tasks to be accomplished – both journalistic and otherwise – many journalists who start news sites seem to forget that, unless they have a business partner, they’re going to have both a news outlet and a business to run. As strange as it sounds, I think a lot of this is simply suspension of disbelief – the same kind of self deception that made me think I was going to finish writing this piece at 3pm when I in fact didn’t finish it until after dinner – multiplied across the few thousand other deadlines and obligations that go into running both sides of a news operation. Perhaps journalists actually think that they’re going to wrap up that phone interview by noon and then switch to selling ads the rest of the day. That rarely happens, and because they are journalists, and because they understand that they need a product to sell ads against, the journalism comes first and the business gets neglected.

Part of what I’m getting at was well said by Street Fight’s Alex Salkever recently, when he argued that husband-wife teams had an advantage in the hyperlocal game because one spouse could run the news operation, the other could run the business, and, I’m extrapolating here, both could live on the same income. Few sites can afford to either pay or split revenues with a full-time publisher, but unless you are one of those rare people who despises both sleep and social life and can write and edit twelve hours a day while keeping the books by night, you should either marry a very supportive MBA or figure out some other plan for bringing both capital and expertise on board – going back to the lesson of Weld again, fundraising is an obvious start.

4. Sustainability matters for journalistic reasons, too
The storied, now-crumbling “wall” between business and editorial at traditional newspapers may have been created in order to protect journalists from undue influence by advertisers, but it had the added advantage of protecting business people from undue influence by journalists — the core of the newspaper enterprise, but people whose job it was to be concerned with something other than the bottom line. Obviously, for many of us, the days when we could focus completely on one side of what evolved for many decades as a dual-sided profession are long over. We shouldn’t forget the importance of maintaining the values born in that tradition, but neither should we use them to buoy our spirits each time the many personal savings accounts that are funding journalism throughout the country get drawn down a little lower. A profession saturated with serious people – and, again, I think you need to take sustainability seriously in order to be wholly serious – is going to innovate and grow more quickly, be better and more respected, than one populated by people who are inexperienced, distracted, or indifferent. Business is unfamiliar territory, and its time that more journalists admit that with something other than a sense of pride.

You can submit your news site for inclusion in the News Frontier Database here.

Michael Meyer is a staff writer at the Columbia Journalism Review, where he runs the News Frontier Database,’s project chronicling digital news outlets. His feature documentary “Camera, Camera” was an official selection of the Los Angeles Film Festival and the AFI/ Discovery Channel Silverdocs Documentary Festival in 2010.