5 keys to success for entrepreneurial journalists

by Janine Warner and Mijal Iastrebner
Oct 30, 2018 in Media Sustainability

While quality content remains the most important key to success for a digital media project, if you’re too focused on just producing good journalism, you’re doomed.

After more than a year of extensive research at SembraMedia, we’ve found five common keys to success among the top digital media entrepreneurs in Latin America and Spain.

1. Diversify your income sources:

We all know that the internet has forever changed traditional media business models. But it is only gradually sinking in that no digital media company can survive solely on advertising and subscription revenues anymore. What we’ve found is that to survive, successful media projects must develop a combination of income sources. Many of us can tell you that there are at least 10 ways to make money with your digital project, but it’s up to you to decide which three to five will best fit your local market conditions and your team’s skills.

As we’ve learned more about what works, we’ve divided revenue sources into two categories: those that can help you launch a new project, and those that can help you develop sustainable income sources over time.

Among the things that we’re seeing work when it comes to raising funds:

A.    Foundations.

B.    Crowdfunding.

C.    Private investors.

D.    Investors who specialize in media, such as The Media Development Investment Fund and Omidyar Networks

Best sources for long-term revenue include:

A.    Donations from readers organized into reader clubs and memberships.

B.    Events, seminars and conferences.

C.    Consulting services and training.

D.    Content production for clients.

E.    Content syndication to other media sites.

F.     Sales of digital books and other products.

G.    Advertising networks and affiliate programs, such as Google AdSense and Amazon’s Affiliate program.

H.    Sponsors and advertisers.

I.      Native advertising (Note: We only recommend this sponsored content option when it is done with a carefully crafted policy that protects your editorial integrity).

J.     Providing full-fledged digital agency services to clients.

2. Create a community:

You won’t last long unless you can build a loyal reader base that not only consumes your news, but also shares your stories and interacts with your reporters. Your readers are your most valuable asset, and increasingly, their donations are proving to be one of the best long-term sources of income for digital media projects. Their enthusiasm for your content will build your audience. Their comments and contributions will make your coverage that much richer and more diverse.  

3. Diversify your team:

The best digital media projects are created by highly diverse teams — not just in terms of ethnicity, age and gender, but also in terms of skills. For a successful digital media business, you’ll need more than just journalists and content creators. You’re going to need programmers, designers and a digitally savvy sales and marketing team.

You will need to step outside of your comfort zone to find, recruit and retain these people. You may even have to bring in recruiters to help you find the best sales and marketing staff. Bottom line, if all you have in your organization are people who have the same skills as you, look like you, talk like you and think like you, you will not last.

Also, keep in mind that investors are more interested in finding effective teams and people, rather than good ideas. Anybody can have ideas — what really matters is how well the team can execute it.

4. Tell your own story so people care and pay attention:

Many journalists are great at telling other people’s stories, but they suck at telling their own. If you have any hope of convincing your audience to contribute to your digital media project, you must tell your own story in a compelling way.

We are continually shocked to find that a significant number of digital media sites don’t even include an “About Us” page. It is essential that you create a great page on your site to tell the world who you are and what you do. Here are some suggestions:

A.     Create a video that explains who you are.

B.     Create a team page that includes photos and bios of key staff members.

C.     On your “About Us” page, make it clear who you are, what makes you different and why we should care.

5.  Quality original content:

Yes, we all know it. “Content is king,” and we’re not going to contradict that accepted wisdom. The problem is too many journalists focus almost exclusively on content. If you want to create a sustainable project, you need to dedicate time and resources to developing great technology, a loyal audience and a solid business model with diversified revenue sources. We made this point No. 5 not because it’s not the most important, but because we know it’s already No. 1 on most of your lists.

Now let us take this key point a step further. If you’re not interacting with your audience and verifying that the content you produce meets their needs, you need to pay more attention to your readers. How do you know what your readers want? Take the time to read their responses and shares on social media, and consider using a tool like Hearken to understand readers better as you develop stories.

Bonus #6: Balance:

If you can find an equilibrium across all five points and spend your time and resources more evenly, you’ll have a better chance of long-term sustainability.

At SembraMedia, we’re dedicated to helping you develop a well-rounded digital media business. We hope these five key points help you diversify your business focus.

Over the coming year, we’re working on publishing new case studies to share the results of our research and help you identify best practices. We’re also launching a new online school to provide practical training in all of these areas, and we’re hosting a series of local and regional events to provide you with training and networking opportunities.

To stay informed, we invite to you subscribe to the SembraMedia newsletter (in Spanish), follow us on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, and email your ideas and best practices to us at contacto@sembramedia.org.

Click here to read this article in Spanish.

Janine Warner is the founder and executive director of SembraMedia. Learn more about her work as an ICFJ Knight Fellow here