11 tips for journalism startups

Anya Schiffrin travels the world asking: “What does it take to make a journalism startup work?”. She’ll visit Sydney this November.

Anya Schiffrin. Photo: Open Society Foundations.

Anya Schiffrin is the director of the media and communications program at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs in New York. In 2015 she co-wrote the report Publishing for Peanuts with her Columbia University colleagues JJ Robinson and Kristen Grennan.

Their remit was to look for innovative media outlets that are producing high-quality news, that are technologically innovative and that might actually survive financially. They studied 35 startups including our own Crikey and The Conversation.

In November 2018 Anya will visit Australia to present an update on the report, particularly about the challenges faced by many of the outlets studied in their quest for financial viability. You can register for a free event at the Centre for Media Transition in Sydney on November 12, where Anya will discuss the updated version of Publishing for Peanuts with Peter Fray. Find out more about the event here.

Read on for an edited excerpt from the original Publishing for Peanuts report, a series of recommendations for journalism entrepreneurs that ring true today.

1. Figure out what you are trying to do

Ask yourself what the purpose of your outlet is. What information is missing in the market and what will you provide that is different and that people will pay for? Look at who the competitors are and what are the barriers to entry. Try and think of how you will differentiate yourself from others in the same field.

2. Figure out how you will do it and what your content strategy is

When you start something new you need to know how you will execute it. How much of your content needs to be original? How often will you publish new information and how will it be disseminated? Do you have enough contributors and expertise to come up with new content on a regular basis?

3. Expand your focus beyond pure editorial

Many journalists have a tendency to focus exclusively on content. Separate and carefully examine the editorial, distribution, business and security aspects of your outlet. What are the challenges facing each of these, and how do you plan to overcome them? Producing more content won’t fix matters if your business model is broken or a belligerent government shuts you down. Understanding the real problem at hand is often the first challenge towards solving it, and may require a degree of honesty and self-reflection (or a second, impartial, opinion).

4. Research your audience and what the market will support

It can be tempting for a content-focused journalist, inspired by passion for a particular subject, to write under the optimistic assumption that an audience will be gripped by similar passion and quickly reward the venture with subscriptions and page views. An honest assessment of the needs of the audience and the outreach efforts required to grow it can make for a stronger, more engaged and more sustainable outlet with a greater chance of long-term survival. In many situations donors may have different priorities from those of an audience, leading an outlet over time to reach the point where the donor agency becomes the primary audience. This is a vulnerable position to be in when the moment comes to pursue future grants.

5. Different markets and countries tolerate different models

This might seem contrary to the spirit of innovation, but expecting audiences to change their habits to meet the revenue needs of a publication is unrealistic. Paywalls don’t seem to work very well currently in South Asia, for instance, where a physical product is valued more than perhaps the US or UK. The reason for this may be cultural, or it could be lack of access to online payment services — but it would nonetheless be a brave publication to take the first step down this path.

6. Make sure your core team has complementary skills and strengths.

Having too many people who are good at one thing can lead to turf battles and a lack of skills in a crucial area. It’s tempting to hire people like you, but having a balanced core team will help ensure that you have all the skills your organisation needs to survive.

7. Honestly appraise your weaknesses, and compensate for them

Good journalists may not always make good managers (and often make lousy salespeople), as the destructive office politics of several large donor-backed investigative journalism projects in the US have demonstrated. Running even a small outlet requires many skills that may be unfamiliar and even distasteful to the editorially-inclined — bookkeeping, sales, web development. Find and utilise resources and the skills of others to compensate for your own shortcomings — and understand that accountants, salespeople and admin staff may be driven by motivations other than raw passion for a topic.

8. Find a niche and own it

Successful independent media outlets overwhelmingly appear to have identified a niche and made it their own. This can be a locality (ie InvestigateWEST covering the US Pacific Northwest), a subject (News Deeply’s Syria site), or theme (EcoBusiness and climate change). In an emerging democracy with a history of media repression and no prior culture of independent journalism, even the concept of credibility can be a market niche — where the demand for trustworthy information is not being met, providing this has a value. So might a broad concept such as ‘issue-based journalism’ or ‘news analysis’ in a market where mainstream media focuses on the specifics of day-to-day events. Competing with such outlets to try and cover every road accident when you have a fraction of the staff is counterproductive when the unreported issue may be why so many accidents are happening in the first place.

9. Free content is great — when you get it. Paying for it (however little) gives you the consistency needed to run a business.

A surprising number of journalism startups base their initial model on the assumption that a community will be readily engaged to contribute high-quality content for free. ‘Citizen journalism’ was much in vogue among but outlets that started on this premise and that still survive (such as Jordan’s 7iber founded in 2007) have learned to temper their idealism and expectations. Relying on unpaid contributions from concerned citizens can work, but usually takes many years, tends to revolve around the success of a particular platform (ie, a blog), and meets a very specific audience need (such as an underserved language). Instead, even a token sum offered to contributors inspires respect and loyalty, and offers the consistency needed to both develop writers and run a business. Consistency is often underrated by those who consume an outlet’s content infrequently — but veterans of daily news outlets with mouths to feed and advertisers to placate, will on a day-to-day basis value the consistently average reporter above the troubled and inconsistent genius.

10. Utilise existing resources, networks and peers

Even our limited pool of case studies suggest that problems faced by independent media outlets are rarely unique — usually, somebody or some publication somewhere has tackled them with a degree of success. NGOS and foundations with a stake in media development often have institutional knowledge they may not make immediately accessible, but can be followed like a trail of breadcrumbs through their various projects and public reports. A plethora of free tools are available for most of the common problems, particularly those relating to security, with many donors investing heavily in their creation only to fail to signal their existence beyond the lifespan of the grant. Peer networks (even in other countries), though difficult to establish, can provide a ready source of practical advice.

11. Don’t become so focused on the grind that you neglect wider business development

This is by far the most difficult concept for many senior managing editorial staff. The pressure of deadlines and the day-to-day challenge of journalism can quickly lead to a habit of ‘working harder, not smarter’. Changing and optimising components of a system once running can seem an overwhelming task in the face of a daily news cycle and need to ‘feed the beast’. Those editors who manage this successfully talk of sacrificing chunks of their working week to tasks such as outreach, development, updating workflows, special projects and other less immediately ‘mission critical’ components of the operation.


Anya Schiffrin will give a lecture and Q&A at the Centre for Media Transition on Monday, 12 November 2018, at 6.00pm.

This is a free event, but registration is mandatory. Please click here to reserve your place today.