Last semester, the Single-Subject News Project interviewed and amassed data from 20 single-subject publishers from single-subject news websites originating from different fields. This culminated in the Single-Subject News Conference in November 2013 and our preliminary report, “Seeking the Single-Subject News Model.” As we initiate our research for the next phase of our report, we narrowed in on the million-dollar questions that are effecting the course of niche news websites today in the following categories: Operational Design, Monetization, Community Building/Audience Engagement, Technology and Experimentation as a Method of Strengthening your Site. Over the course of this phase, leading up to our final report, we will explore these categories and issue our preliminary findings. It is our hope that our research can unpack these major concerns for entrepreneurs, citizen journalists and journalists foraying into this new arena of the field of journalism, elucidating trends and best practices as the decentralization of the news continues, creating a new informed frontier:
Operational Design: What is the most effective business strategy in designing your operation, and what skill sets are required to produce a healthy operating business?
Journalists are trained in the art of storytelling. They are trained to elucidate complex conflict, to think critically, interview actors in a story, and on the ethics therein. However, ask a classically trained journalist to run a company, develop a business plan, conduct market research, employ people, and designing marketing strategies, and you might be faced with a different problem. It’s not that journalists are incapable of doing so, far the opposite, but they are not yet trained to do so.
Over the past several years as single-subject websites have transformed into stand-alone businesses, classically trained journalists have had to learn on the job what it takes an MBA student a solid two years immersed in a graduate-level education to soak in. It’s not the end of the world, but it is the future.
In today’s newsroom, journalists are expected to do it all, not only within single-subject realm, but also at many legacy papers. As journalists’ skill sets evolve towards incorporating skills sets designed for roles traditionally held outside of the newsroom by the advertising department, human resources, and other fundamentals, they need to refocus their energies on the simple building blocks to better business. They need to think like an MBA candidate.
Based upon preliminary research, we found that there were four main points of inquiry for our study that echoed across the literature. Please note that these topics will be expounded upon in the final report but are merely mentioned here to identify the course of said research:
- Strategy as a Foundation, Considering all Elements of Operational Design
In a later stage news-oriented business, there are several traditional departments: accounting, finances, legal, human resources, content, sales/business development, marketing, and technology—among others. When planning to start your own news business or website, while some concerns may not be as large, such as office space or printing, one must take the time to fully plan out how your business will function day-to-day and how it will proceed into the future. Who will run your payroll? What will your mission statement or “About Us” section look like? How will you deal with vacation days of your staff? Will you have a staff? What is your place in the market? The fundamentals of small business ownership will continue to play an increasingly important role in niche news. As this trend continues, those who wish to enter this arena must take into consideration how the organization will operate as a basis for producing revenue.
- Personnel and Alternative Skill Sets
As time goes on, it is becoming increasingly common to have non-traditional backgrounds in a newsroom, such as technology experts or employees with subject matter expertise. We have found this to be particularly true for niche news in that professional backgrounds are highly diverse and experience isn’t necessarily linear. However, this raises another important question: What are the ideal personnel and alternative skill sets required to run a single-subject site? We have found that this relates directly to the elements of the departments of a traditional small business as mentioned above (i.e. accounting, content, sales, etc.). While the correct cocktail varies per business, it is necessary to have persons who represent multiple skill sets. This is not only for producing environments with a capacity for innovation, but also because of the realities of available capital in a start-up environment.
- Alternative Revenue Streams
Depending on your tax status (i.e. 501c3, B-Corporation, LLC, etc.) you may have different goals for your organization; however, it is critical in your organizational design that you are able to accept and plan for diverse revenue streams. More and more so, it is becoming clear that one method of fundraising or revenue cannot cover costs completely.
- Market your Brand, Not Your Story
Within our Phase One research, we learned that many single-subject sites are concerned with getting eyes on their story, but not on the aspect of marketing their business and brand directly. In our final report, we will evaluate this trend and attempt to provide suggestions about the best ways to market your business as an aspect of operational design. This will overlap with our section on Community Building/Audience Engagement.
The average startup entrepreneur works long hours and invests their hopes, dreams, and life’s savings into their start up. However, success rarely comes overnight. According to a study by Allmand Law conducted in January 2013, over 90% of internet-based start-ups fail within the first five years. As a result, start-up businesses—especially in the news sector—must provide a service or coverage that will be able to generate revenue. A thoughtful idea, balanced with business acumen, creates an easier environment for success. However, none of it can start without a solid business plan accompanied by an innovative and premeditated operational design.
Next month we will discuss our next bucket of research, Monetization.
For more information on Operational Design and our other research, please stay tuned for our final report, which will be issued in Spring/Summer 2014.
For more information on the Single-Subject News Project, click here or visit us on Facebook.
To read our White Paper, Seeking the Single-Subject News Model, click here.
Lara Setrakian and Kristin Nolan are Tow Fellows working on the Tow Center’s Single-Subject News Network at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism. The Single-Subject News Network is a project made possible by generous funding from both The Tow Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The goal of the Single-Subject News Network is to study, build a network of, and develop best practices for journalist-founders who have designed custom digital outlets focused on one story. Follow Lara Setrakian and Kristin Nolan on Twitter @hypertopical. To learn more about the Tow Center Fellowship Program, please contact the Tow Center’s Research Director Taylor Owen: email@example.com.