Overturning the cliche of journalism with startups

An interesting article in yesterday’s Observer focuses on several young entrepreneurs that have created promising business start-ups in spite of the tough economic climate. None of those startups really resemble a journalistic endeavour (video platform SBTV comes closest), but what provoked a few thoughts in me is the relationship between young journalists and their future employers.

Last month I worked on the Media Briefing’s Paywalls 11 conference. One of the most interesting findings in a day that was full of stats was by media analyst Nick Thomas. He said that his company’s recent survey of 14,000 adult internet users found that 31% would pay for music in future, but the proportion that would pay for news was only 13%. So there’s a big wall already; people simply aren’t prepared to pay for news, at least in a tangible, straightforward sense.

How does this mesh with the idea of a journalism startup? As is oft-documented, the US has always had a buzzing scene based around startups, particularly in Silicon Valley. The idea really appeals to me. Getting together with a team of three or four initial staff and controlling the product in its entirety is both liberating and terrifying, and I imagine that it’s this mix of adrenalin and fear that compels many to go the way of a startup.

But why don’t we see more of it here in a journalistic sense? Many UK journalism schools are innovative, and the projects produced by some students are intelligent and unique ideas. Why then is the idea of working for a national newspaper or magazine still perceived as the Holy Grail? We live in an age where news is not defined by the platform, it’s defined by the content. Readers care less about where the news is coming from, and more about whether whoever is writing it has any authority. More and more, people are realising that non-traditional news organisations hold the key to a particular beat; take Guido Fawkes.

Readers can deconstruct and take apart pieces that reek of inaccuracy; so we’re in an age where it matters less who you write for, but how good you are.

Why is that important for trying to understand a startup culture? Because it reinforces the idea that the playing field is wide open. Take your chance now, while everyone from the top to the bottom of established media companies is scratching their head. Chances are you’re less likely to be doomed to failure than you think you are.

But none of that will happen. The idea that joining a big name company comes with its own kudos still outweighs the possibilities of a startup for many graduates. Your mum is more likely to ask when you’re going to get a real job if you’re involved in a startup rather than getting on the Telegraph Graduate Scheme.

And that’s painful. Painful because I think that unless we put facilities in place (mentoring schemes, cheap co-working spaces, more funding opportunities) we’re in danger of just recycling what we’ve been doing for the last 50 years. Good graduates should be making their own way, not joining a creaky newspaper house that’s on its last legs. Newspapers had their chance. They sat on the sidelines as their industry fell apart, and they did nothing to understand or connect with the readers who felt disillusioned with what the news industry had become. Without the necessary implementations, graduates are right to feel that they have to tread the age old career route of journalism.

Let me suggest an alternative  future. A cluster of startups that all produce content within a really niche area of content. I don’t mean “multimedia reporting”, I mean honing in on something that’s so specialised that they do it better than anyone else in the world. This ecosystem of startups grow up in the digital age; they are digital natives, and understand everything that comes with that. They stick to what they do best and don’t try to be all things to all men (magnify that idea to something like the FT and you can see that it works).

This group of startups not only feed their customers directly but enter into open collaboration with news organisations. When they do, they are paid. It’s by outsourcing and recognising that they stopped being leaders in many areas of reportage long ago that newspapers will reap the benefits of becoming a platform for these startups. Good content: check. Keeping a trusted brand: check.

I fear that none of that will happen. Not because it’s unrealistic, but because the mindset required and facilities needed aren’t prevalent in the UK. Startups also need luck, not only in implementing and selling the product but also in happening upon a perfect meeting of minds with the people they choose to set up shop with. Co-working spaces are still generally priced at a premium membership rate, and people have little or no clue as to whether they have any routes to access funding.

Yesterday I tweeted this:

Final thought: If grads are still feeling the pull of big media, how can we ever create a proper ecosystem of entrepreneurial journalism?less than a minute ago via TweetDeck

I received a myriad of replies, some of which discussed the problem and some of which despaired because they really wanted to give the kind of stuff I’ve been talking about a go. Hopefully they will. Let’s experiment a bit, shall we?

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  1. [...] I've been inspired by a number of people in my first steps into journalism: teachers, colleagues and more [...]

  2. [...] 14, 2011 by Joseph Stashko TweetLast week I wrote a post titled “Overturning the cliche of journalism with startups”, and it generated a healthy stream of debate across several other blogs. If you want to catch up [...]

  3. [...] Stashko, J. (2011) Overturning the cliché of journalism with startups. In News Stash, blog by Joseph Stashko 7.3.2011. Available at: http://josephstashko.com/media/overturning-the-cliche-of-journalism-with-startups/ [...]