Women founders of digital news outlets talk business models at IWMF Summit

by Margaret Looney
Oct 30, 2018 in Media Sustainability

Women trying to start their own projects in the digital media arena have their share of issues to address - tackling gender stereotypes, worthwhile ideas falling on deaf ears and more - but finding the money is key.

“People will pay for content,” said Jessica Lessin, founder and editor-in-chief of The Information, at this week's Women Digital News Entrepreneurs Summit, Cracking the Code, hosted by the International Women's Media Foundation at the Ford Foundation in New York.

Lessin joined a panel of international women making large strides in their own startups, including Maria Ressa of Rappler in the Philippines, Nataliya Gumenyuk of Hromadske.TV in Ukraine and Natalia Viana of Agência Pública in Brazil.

The Information, a news site founded in 2013 that covers the technology industry for professionals, is based on a subscription model of US$400 a year, which includes breaking news content, analysis and free events for subscribers.

“A business model that sort of pulls up the quality of journalism, that inspires us to write better stuff is a subscription model,” Lessin said, adding that it doesn’t matter where you set your price-point, but will just indicate what kind of audience you’ll engage. “As journalists, we’re trying to write to deliver value and say something new.” This model spurs that incentive, she said.

“We’re not ready for everyone, particularly as a startup in these early days” she added. “If we don’t know our audience, we won’t be relevant. For us, focusing on a person for whom our value proposition is worth [the subscription], that’s what's going to make us relevant to them and let us do that kind of journalism that keeps them coming back.”

Rappler, a “social news network” with a strong focus on community engagement and social action, follows a different kind of model. Founded by Ressa in the Philippines three years ago, the site is built around a four-phase business model - native advertising (clearly labeled), social media engagement (also clearly labeled), selling crowd-sourced mood metrics and selling big data. “It’s taking the tools that are there and monetizing every step,” Ressa said.

Rappler uses a “patented user engagement model” to capture how people are feeling around every article; they sell that information. They also monetize platforms that capture big data like reach-social.com, which shows how social content travels and who the greatest social influencers are around a certain topic.

“We journalists have to move into the world of tech,” Ressa said. “The tech guys have been making money off of our work, and we let them. This technology allows you to use behavioral science in a way we never could before, and we should.”

Founded by Viana, Agência Pública is a nonprofit that focuses on investigative journalism in Brazil, both as a producing organization and an incubator. Agência Pública produces two longform stories a week, and the staff works steadily to promote stories - available for free - into mainstream media and larger news organizations. The organization follows an inclusive, crowdfunding business model - asking people to pay for quality content, while folding them into the editorial process.

Donors who help to fund the stories get exclusive access to vote on the stories they’ll investigate. Donors also get invited to a Facebook page where they can follow along with the reporter’s process as they investigate the stories, and finally they’ll help to distribute the content as well. They’ve already raised US$25,000 on their first crowdfunding effort.

“Do your thing, do your journalism, and the money will come,” Viana said. “You have to show the world that you can do this very good journalism that other people aren’t producing and people will pay attention to it.”

Founded by Gumenyuk, Hromadske.TV is also a nonprofit, which filled a serious lack of independent public broadcasting for the country, and is published in English and Russian. The civic initiative started with a crowdfunding arm, and they received up to 70 percent of their funding this way, despite naysayers betting that Ukrainians wouldn’t be willing to pay for this kind of journalism, Gumenyuk said.

Now philanthropy is at an all-time-high in Ukraine, Gumenyuk said, and they’re still receiving funds through donations, which sustains the site considering it faces very low-production cost.

What business model are you using to get your startup off the ground? Let us know in the comments.

Image CC-licensed on Flickr via doug88888