It’s Easy to Start Your Own Media Company

Making it work is the hard part


My daughter has been to her father’s office a handful of times now, and after every visit she asks me, “Why can’t we visit your office?”

Because you’re looking at it, I tell her, seated at the dining room table. I show her my website and explain to her that my work is online, which means I can work anywhere. Either this is incomprehensible to her five-year-old sensibilities, or completely boring, because within a few minutes she is back to coloring.

My ego takes a tiny beating in that moment. I want her to be impressed. I suspect it would take a whiteboard and some dry erase markers, and a tour of my office to meet my co-workers, but the reality is that I chose to pursue a career path that allows me to be more available to her and my son. On the road to becoming a freelance writer, one of the most flexible jobs around, I took a small detour and started an email magazine called Brooklyn Based, which grew into a media company that I now co-run.

I still get to do most of my work from home, but I barely do any serious writing or reporting anymore—I’m too busy keeping the site afloat and being a mom. In her book All Joy and No Fun, Jennifer Senior describes how the absence of flow—that creative zone you lose yourself in when you’re able to focus on one project for a solid block of time—is a large reason why raising kids can be so frustrating. Flow is elusive when you’re running a business, too, and you’re doing almost every job yourself. In any given day I’m toggling between being an editor, a saleswoman, and an event planner. But since Brooklyn Based is my baby too, I’ll do almost anything to keep it going.

Without events like our twice-annual wedding fair, a series of bar crawls, and Indie Media Camp (IMC)—the one gathering that hews closest to our passions—we couldn’t pay ourselves or our freelancers in lean months when ad dollars trickle in, like this month. The upshot is that I feel like I’ve spent more time in the past few years texting with bar owners and corresponding with wedding vendors than writing and editing, the very pursuits that led me to start Brooklyn Based.

Things have gotten easier—a freelance event manager now helps me stay sane, an ad network has taken the majority of our ad sales off our plates, and we have a co-working space for meetings. But the gear switching is still constant for myself and my business partner, Annaliese, our editor-in-chief. She doubles as our marketing manager, devoting a chunk of her time to devising contests with partners that will grow our subscribers and, like me, pitches in to do whatever else is necessary.

There are alternatives to this crazy-making venture. We could raise money to invest in Brooklyn Based (and another title we have in mind) so that we could hire people with discrete roles. We could call it a day and find jobs that will be more lucrative and less emotionally exhausting. Or we can reevaluate after one more year, a stance I’ve taken for at least the last three. It’s hard to walk away from something you’ve built from scratch, and that still brings you creative freedom.

I just can’t imagine caring this much about someone else’s business.

I also fear that re-entering the media workforce would bring more of the same nail-biting, and multi-tasking, that I already face. Two of the magazines I worked at prior to starting Brooklyn Based have essentially folded, existing as shells of their former selves. Sally Koslow, a longtime contributor of the now-defunct Ladies’ Home Journal, where I worked as an editorial assistant my first year out of college, lamented that as traditional media is dying, the young punks are taking over, and not earning their chops by slowly climbing the masthead:

“It must…be a kick to get a top online job when you’re only years out of college, and work with writers who’ve worked for five times as long as you have while they’re now paid, at the most, bubkes. Hey, if I were 26, I’d want that job, since on the Seven Sisters it was unheard of to become a top editor before 40.”

That twentysomething online editor is probably pursuing the most financially feasible career option right now, because writing for a living is pretty much out of the question, and despite that “top” job title, there are fewer publications alive today that are paying “top” salaries. In this incredibly shrinking industry, it’s impossible for most of us to earn a decent wage from words alone. Words aren’t enough now—you also have to be adept at social media and preferably skilled with photography, SEO, and some CMS system. If you want to really stand out, you should tack on video, CSS, and data visualization, too.

And if you’re foolhardy enough, you start your own media outlet. I figure I’m putting in the same amount of work, and getting the same monetary return, as if I were cobbling together a living by writing for other sites and magazines, or copywriting, or both.

In other words, I’m not getting rich at this, but I feel a lot more empowered by determining my own fate.

As much as I hate to admit it, I do think Jay Rosen was on to something when he said, “Journalists are stronger and smarter when they are involved in the struggle for their own sustainability.”

Indie Media Camp is a reflection of how entwined media and entrepreneurship have become. Since Annaliese and I need to focus on both the business and the creative sides of our site, we created a conference that addressed topics like funding alongside writing better headlines—one that spoke to the way we were actually working, wearing multiple hats and walking through the imaginary wall separating editorial and advertising.

We program the conference by asking questions we would like answers to, like:

  • What, exactly, are we supposed to be doing on Instagram and Pinterest? We’ve invited the social media manager of Refinery29, which has hundreds of thousands of followers on both of these platforms, to give us a clue.
  • How do you grow your audience? We plan on asking the marketing teams at major media companies and start-ups, from Bon Appetit to Barkbox.
  • And the question we often go back and forth on: Do you need funding to succeed? We decided to pose that one to the VC-backed Food52 and two self-funded empires, Gothamist and Corner Media.

The bulk of IMC is dedicated to practical matters like these, but this year we’re devoting time to larger issues, like the hostile work environment faced by female journalists, who are harassed with a kind of vitriol only the anonymity of the Internet can provide.

Most everyone in media is passionate about what they do — you need to be to put up with the meager pay and the angry trolls. But while the community of media makers thrives online, we need to connect with our tribe in real life, too. Especially if your workspace doubles as your children’s craft table.

IMC is a chance to get inspired by, and learn from, our counterparts, wherever they work.

Indie Media Camp

What we learned this year: http://bit.ly/1ukmMOB

Thanks to Kate Lee and Kendra Vaculin

    Nicole Davis

    Written by

    Co-founder of Brooklyn's best email (@brooklynbased). Curator of Indie Media Camp and Screen Time Social.

    Indie Media Camp

    What we learned this year: http://bit.ly/1ukmMOB

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