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Investing in Journalism

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Starting online magazines was not an easy task. Here are a few of the lessons we’ve learned along the way creating online magazines.

Raising Money is Hard

We started in the logical place: raising money.

so many media startups fail because they try to behave like tech startups. Everything, from Backfence to Patch, is about creating a technological solution and keeping human expenses as low as possible. That only works if you’re creating a content farm.

When sites have gone (comparatively) premium — The Huffington Post, Politico, TMZ — they can be successful, but they are expensive. They have a lot of employees. They also make a lot of money. Fast. Politico, for example, made $4 million in its first nine months, TMZ $3 million in its first 11 months. But claim you might hit $1 million in your first year, and it just looks like self-delusion to the experienced angel. And what the hell? Maybe it is.

Good Initial Hiring is Essential

Hiring, as anyone who’s ever done it knows, takes a stupidly long time. I am especially prone to underestimating this fact, however, because I’m the kind of person who, for better or worse, decides to leave his family’s company and move to a new state in a matter of days.

And, it turns out, hiring people into a company with no track record, history, revenue, office — nothing — isn’t as easy as hiring usually is. Especially when they have a good job they already like, and a demanding schedule.

Hiring reporters in an existing company with a good system is something that can be done fairly rapidly, as hiring goes. It ended up taking about twice as long as I expected in this environment. That was at least partly because we realized that without any existing momentum to catch people up and carry them along in the current, we needed to have just the right people to start out with.

The platform

We’d been building a website as a sort-of proof of concept. We’d also been working with a few freelancers to create sample content. And we even did some experiments to verify our content’s inherent appeal — articles about the online community are about 50 percent more compelling to social media users than the same stories about the offline world.

The question for us became, however, how do we beta-test a media site? First impressions matter, and if readers come to a news site for the first time and find it lacking, then there will be few chances to woo them back. The impulse is to impress out of the gates, and yet we were generating quality stories from our web communities that needed a home before it was built.

While we built out our official site that we launch this week, we were producing individual stories and posting them in a variety of formats and communities. If we’re covering YouTube, why would we not produce and distribute within YouTube? We posted stories as public Google docs, as Facebook notes, and even Reddit threads, until finally we could post and share them as isolated stories on our own domain. It was more about disseminating the voice of  our magazines rather than driving traffic to our site.

This strategy was unorthodox, but we feel effective. It gave us time to get the site properly developed, and our editorial team time to ramp up, while also helping integrate our magazines into the communities we covered.

We soon realized that we didn’t start with enough people and should have hired someone to just plan and run things. Everyone was a coder, but we were rapidly at a position where planning was itself a full-time job.

And if I were to step back, I would say that not enough planning is an endemic problem. I think this has been exacerbated by the physical and functional space between us. On one hand, we decided to be virtual — we cover virtual communities so it would seem hypocritical to make everyone move — and frankly, we could get the best people if we didn’t make them move anywhere. But simply being in the same room helps create a sense of urgency; it makes it easier to ask questions and get into serendipitous conversations, and it puts you face to face with the people relying on you.

Our virtual newsroom has put Yammer and Campfire and Skype to some extreme tests, and we’ve managed to establish a functional newsroom routine between these. Yet I feel this is not so much a function of those tools themselves as it is the dedication of the team we’ve put together, and their commitment to our online and virtual vision.

Lessons Learned, in summary

1. Hire, hire, hire.

This is job No. 1. Get the team in place, and get them in place early. You can never have someone too early — you can always manage budget or other timing issues by having someone keep their current job for the time being and start in a month, or three months.

2. Plan, plan, plan.

In a startup, everyone’s impatient just to jump in. There are so many unknowns, and you need to get things done — or so you think. But really, your grandmother was right: measure twice, cut once. There’ll be plenty of the make-‘em-ups anyway.

3. Establish norms of doing what you say you’re going to do early.

Startups are so formless, so routine-free that it’s easy to let plans and tasks be kind of vague. Start small and conservatively, but everyone has to commit to being utterly reliable.

4. Don’t compromise on people.

People make any business. But early on, there are no norms, no momentum to sweep people along. Everyone is going to feel like they’re dragging a big boulder uphill. There’s going to be lots to improvise, and relatively little room for learning on the job. You need people who are ready to operate on the best information they have, and yet still question everything they know. You need people who can take surprises in stride, who are ready to plan, but also to act.

5. Get to market.

The reader is the ultimate and only judge. Getting the reader to care is the only convincing you need to do.

And in the end, the uber-lesson is this: Minimize the X factor.

All of the above comes down basically to this principle. To be an entrepreneur, you have to be risk-tolerant — even risk-seeking. When it comes to the actual process of starting a business, however, the job is all about trying to eliminate risk. Being out early and iterating often with your product (something we did very well, actually) is about verifying your assumptions. The same principle goes for the internal process. There will be plenty of surprises on the way; your job is to eliminate as much uncertainty as possible.

There’s a rich literature online at this point about tech startups. Much of it has been useful to me, but starting a media company has its own unique trials as well, and we need to be sharing those and creating a similar literature. Creative destruction requires a huge rate of innovation — otherwise it’s just destruction. If we can eliminate, as much as possible, the foolish reasons that media startups fail, and create a communal knowledge of success, we’ll have a better home for a bright future for journalism.

We have, in partnership with the math whizzes at Ravel, analyzed the Reddit and Tumblr communities, ranking their users on a variety of metrics tracking activity, engagement and influence.

Reddit is somewhat easier because it’s an active group of users who are engaging with each other and with a range of important issues, and it’s all right there for the reporter to see. It’s like standing in the middle of Times Square and listening to the conversations of the passers-by, street performers, evangelists, hawkers and protesters. When we crunched the numbers, we got a big compass pointing to the most active, interesting discussions and movements.

To cover the online community, our online magazine group needs data skills. We don’t just need programmers to produce a website; we need some in the newsroom, too. And we need highly skilled mathematicians. We need people who didn’t spend all their time in the humanities in college — we need those who understand scientific research.

In the information age, journalism needs to go further. Information bombards us. What is scarce is insight, understanding and knowledge.

The news industry is built on the assumption that if you give a reporter a notebook and a few days to ramp up, he can write authoritatively on any subject. That’s not enough anymore. In today’s information-rich world, reporters need to bring more to the table. To provide readers with truly insightful experiences, they need to have the kind of expertise that will allow them to see the story behind the story, to see what’s really going on.

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