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.

One Comment

  1. Posted February 14, 2009 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    Tim’s right. Spunk is hard to eat. But what’s even harder to eat (or swallow, rather) is the idea that quality journalists have been exiled from the industry on account of money. Figuring out a way to fund quality reporting is the paramount question in the news business right now, and I’m glad Horizon took the time to interview me and the folks from the Arizona Guardian about the future of news.

    First, I’d like to thank Tim for his kind words about me and the work I’m doing. His compliments were surprising. I took a class with Tim a few years ago while I was studying political science part-time at ASU and working full-time at the East Valley Tribune. It was one of Tim’s first semesters in academia. He was teaching a class on ethics, but truth be told he spent a good deal of time talking about the future of the news business. In fact, he was one of the first newspaper people I heard talk seriously about the need to find a better business model. So I commend him on his new “future of journalism” course and hope he finds answers for many of the questions he’s been asking for years. I’m also flattered that he’s paying attention to my work and career.

    I’d also like to add a little bit to Tim’s analysis of Heat City, my new site, and hopefully ease some of the worry about whether what I’m doing is a sustainable business model.

    Let me clear the air: It’s not. Back on Jan. 5, about 18 hours after launching Heat City, I tried to clarify what I’m doing now. “This website is no business venture,” I wrote at the time. “I wish I had a solid model to finance my work. But HEAT CITY is not it.” I mentioned at the time that I have been looking into starting a project to fund solid, investigative, community journalism in the Phoenix area, but any such venture would come along down the road. (Contact me through heatcity.org if you want to know more.)

    “Still, I intend for this to be something a little special and a little different,” I wrote in that same post. “HEAT CITY will be a place for some original reporting, and soon I may ask for small donations to keep it going, but the site itself is little more than a traditional blog.”

    At the time I wrote that, I hadn’t put a tip jar in the right-hand column of my blog. But after numerous people encouraged me to do so (one even sent me a check by mail to urge me on), I stuck a little widget on there and started taking gifts.

    If you’re a journalist wondering whether the idea of a blog with a tip jar is potentially the way to make a living, I’ll tell you it’s not. However, if you’re like me and care about a topic, want to write about it all the time and want to ask for a little cash as a way to help offset the costs of the reporting, it’s not a bad way to go. Personally, I’ve been continually encouraged at the response from my readers. These are smart people who are engaged in their community and interested in seeing in-depth reporting within it. They write great e-mails and often give good story tips. They’re the best part about doing this. However, if you’re going to start a blog of any kind, you’re probably going to need other income. I’m a freelance journalist now and am making an extremely modest living writing for other, traditional publications. Heat City alone is not enough to sustain me, nor do I ever expect it to.

    Tim would argue this is a business model. After all, asking for gifts or donations on a blog is indeed a way to help finance newsgathering. In a practical sense, however, I disagree. Heat City has been an experiment of sorts. And locally, to my knowledge, nobody else is doing anything exactly like it. However, boiled down to its basic elements, my blog is just a blog. It’s a platform to put out information. There is a revenue model, so to speak. Mine is financed largely from the other work I do, with only about 25% of my monthly earnings coming from readers of the site. But it is no business. And alone, it’s not a means of survival. I’m not sure whether subway performers have other jobs.

    In real world terms, Tim has a much better model for McGuire on Media. His blog is financed by Arizona State University through endowments and student tuition. That, I would argue, is more likely to survive than any mostly self-financed blog.

    Tim’s post spurred me to think a lot about the work I’m doing right now, and hopefully this helps explain it. I’d love to hear from others, though. Comment here on Tim’s site or send me an e-mail with your thoughts. (E-mail me at emailnickmartin@gmail.com.) Thanks, Tim, for keeping up the conversation that began Tuesday night on Horizon.