Journalism startups want to change journalism for the better. But success means you’re still doing journalism. And that's baggage you’ve got to carry beyond the initial pitch.
You don’t spend much time in and around journalism without thinking about its future.
There’s a perpetual conversation about what the industry is going to do about one thing or another. Sometimes it’s curiosity. Sometimes it's full-on existential panic. And it can feel like it just veers wildly between the two. But cut through the noise and the root of the problem is more often than not — sustainability. How do we keep this thing going?
The thing in question is often the complicated bit to unpack. At one level, the thing in question is journalism itself. You can’t have an existential crisis if the core reason for your existence is threatened right? But the thing is often more mundane — it's the company; the publication; it’s the business that pays for the journalism.
Like sustainability, those questions and the answers often boil down to one word — innovation. How do we do what we need to do differently in order to make journalism sustainable? Some might argue that’s quite a limited sense of innovation. You could argue there’s not a lot of innovation if you essentially end up doing the same thing. I guess that depends on your innovation school of thought. Maybe we could agree that the innovation we see in journalism tends towards the atypical routes to increased efficiencies end of things.
That’s an issue if you’re a journalism start-up.
Sustainability is obviously a key issue for any start-up. There’s some immediate baggage that comes along with it that can really drag a new initiative into the mud. Initial Investment might come with hope, support even some understanding. But continuing investment demands scale. At the very least, it demands a return. It’s a massive challenge for any founder to have to carry that weight of expectation.
Of course, that weight of expectation isn’t limited to startups. Established companies labour under the weight of expectation in a similar way. The structural weight may be bigger/different, with more staff, more buildings, and shareholders. But it’s still weight to carry.
Start-ups are seen to have an advantage here. The structural weight is clearly not there. And expectations often create essential initial traction that can really accelerate development and engagement. It costs people very little to get behind a great idea and it's a good shove to build momentum.
Startups, we are told, can move fast and change direction quickly. Explosive speed and explosive growth. Fail fast. Learn loads.
The weight of tradition.
But in the midst of all of this, just over there, in the background, is a much bigger weight. And it’s a pernicious and problematic load that sits heavy on any conversation about the future of journalism. It’s that existential concern for journalism. It’s the weight of tradition.
If you’re a large journalism organisation, we might be glass-half-full and argue that weight is positive. It adds a gravity that draws people to your way of thinking and doing. Anyone who wants to move you has to deal with that weight if they want you out of the way! Ask any dodgy politician who’s had the full weight of the press scrutinising their every action. At the same time that monolithic mass means you can’t move it when it really needs to shift — think press regulation and standards or proper political transparency. That weight also sits heavily inside journalism. We all know the inertia of “what about good, old-fashioned journalism?”. Insert your own story of newsroom dinosaurs here.
That’s rich pickings for any journalism start-up — a veritable smörgåsbord of intrinsic and extrinsic challenges. Not only can you draw on some of the heft of ‘traditional journalism’ as validation. You can also point to that inertia (and the teeth-grindingly pointless own goals it causes) to make your case. The pitch writes itself. Look at the state of things. We need to do things another way! We need to change this!
And in that context, most journalism start-ups fall into one of a few camps.
- Assistive: The “this makes <insert part of the journalistic process> easier for <cash/time/resource> strapped journalists” model
- Structural: The “this makes it easier for journalists to get up to speed on <insert subject/audience of concern here> to enable better reporting” model
- Oppositional: The “we are going to do journalism <differently/properly/better>” model.
The first one is common but often stony ground. For every idea that gets bought by Google, there are dozens that have left ‘no longer exists’ embed errors across countless news sites.
The second is entirely admirable and essential. But it's massively difficult in terms of managing stakeholder expectations.
The last one? Well, that’s the meaty stuff. It’s the more seductive and perhaps appealing. It’s certainly, the ones that attract lots of interest. Why? Because it speaks to that existential angst it's the ‘fix journalism’ solution. It draws heavily on the idea of good journalism not just its practice or its structures. It’s an idea. And that pitch that “We need to save journalism” really resonates. Especially in the context of those own goals I mentioned.
But then the inevitable question: How are you going to do that? The answer? Well, it really boils down to one thing — “by doing journalism”.
For the assistive and structural start-up, that’s often a straightforward proposition — We do journalism with a thing or about a thing. But for your oppositional startup. The one built on proper journalism, there’s a proper ‘wicked problem’ there that you have to solve to make things sustainable.
Carrying the weight of good journalism
If your startup is going to fix journalism by doing good journalism instead of bad journalism, that’s ok. It makes for a great pitch and there’s lots of bad journalism that needs fixing. But you need to be prepared for two things that are intrinsically linked:
- For the sake of your audience as well as your investors (and yes they may and will be the same thing) it will need to scale up.
- You better hope you can keep doing that good journalism.
Because if it works, you’ve just built a company whose whole reason for being is to carry that weight of tradition and the weight of expectation that comes with it. That’s quite a hefty combined weight of responsibility.
Oh, and, if you’re a big journalism company? Well, you only need to prepare for one thing- the startup might succeed