McGuire on Media

Horizon appearance addresses future of news and local startups

Wednesday evening I appeared on the local public television show Horizon to discuss the future of news and two local startups: Arizona Guardian and Heat City. 

Here is the video of the segment

I deeply admire the spunk of the founders of both organizations, but spunk is very hard to eat and it doesn’t pay rent or mortgages. The founders of each of the sites visited with me prior to starting their news sites. I really wish they both had more capitalization than I think they do.  I understand need sometimes overcomes the wisdom of a business plan. All the people involved in these courageous startups are laid-off journalists from the East Valley Tribune and all are feeling a lot of urgency.  

They are all journalists, and journalists produce journalism. They needed to sell that journalism right now. As I have said before, journalism is in search of a business model . These journalists are in a very specific and certain search. Both organizations have taken a “build it and they will come” approach.”  You might also call it the Twitter approach, although the Guardian and Heat City seem way more advanced as a business model than does Twitter.

The Guardian is a newsy site. The Phoenix New Times reports that ” It’s free for now, but the Guardian will reportedly be subscription-based, like the Arizona Capitol Times’ Yellow Sheet Report. It will also accept advertising.” That approach is incredibly risky and demands that the site’s material be indispensable. That is a high bar. The Guardian is going to need a “schtick” or a feature that simply cannot be found any place else if it is going to entice political junkies to invest in such a product.

There is no denying the readability and general interest of the material on the site. That is a very different proposition from offering a value-added “must-read” element that makes the site worth a big monthly fee.

Heat City is run by Nick Martin, a former student of mine. He  is way under 30, but carries a tenacity, a thrill of the story and an ethical compass of a time-worn journalist.  He is hoping if he does good stuff some deep pocket out there will pay for it.  As I watched him tell his story on the Horizon show I was reminded of a subway busker in New York, London or Paris. His model literally has him writing for food. I really admire his courage, but I worry about Nick and about the future of practicing journalists if this is going to be a common business model for journalists. Nick tells me he is freelancing for other publications and he is well aware that his Heat City blog is not a business model.  He feels strongly enough about his journalism that he is willing to give this a try while he develops bigger ideas.

The life of a pioneer is tough, and journalists like the Phoenix journalists are indeed pioneers trying to figure out what lies beyond the borders of corporate journalism. Pioneers suffered great hardship and dangers, but they paved the way for all who followed. I have been thinking a lot about the processes required to put together a journalism business. I hope the pioneers can build and consider careful business processes.

There are a lot of elements, but I told my students the other day if they want to start their own media business they need to develop a value proposition that adds value to commodity information. They need to ask what it is that we can do for our market that nobody else can and how valuable will that be to the market? If it is a commodity product I can’t charge much. If it is truly special and distinguishable, like the Guardian wants to be,  the value of the product is greater. That will differentiate your product from competitors and make you indispensable to readers. 

That might make you a surviving pioneer.

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