A "coffee shop" approach to creating an independent news outlet

16 mai 2024 dans Media Sustainability
Looking into a coffee shop window, with people talking and working inside

Journalism has been navigating an existential crisis for two decades. Newsrooms have shuttered, layoffs have become commonplace, and consumption of traditional news sources, including print, broadcast and digital, has declined

At the same time, audiences on video-led social media platforms such as TikTok, YouTube and Instagram are on the rise. This shift to social media has created a space for content creators to share information and tell stories about specific communities, and for independent journalist-run media platforms to thrive. 

“Larger organizations are declining because the cost structure for [them] is very hard to justify with the revenue that's coming in,” said Ava Seave, professor of business at Columbia Business School. 

If you are contemplating launching your own outlet to operate primarily on social media, here’s some advice from industry professionals:

A “coffee shop” approach 

For journalists wrapping their minds around how to start a small independent outlet, understanding how a coffee shop works is a pretty good place to start, said Alan Soon, an ICFJ Knight Fellow and co-founder of Splice Media, a Singapore-based media development startup that provides training and workshops for media entrepreneurs. 

When someone visits a cafe, they often seek more than just a coffee. The environment the cafe provides is a draw – a space between home and work, where people can meet with friends and colleagues, have meetings or read a book.

Consider the growth strategy proposed by The Wood Roaster, a coffee business that started with a tiny cafe in Australia. Five of their seven pillars for maximizing profitability have nothing to do with coffee. Instead, they focus on elevating customer experience, building loyalty, maximizing technology and optimizing costs. 

When it comes to their content, media outlets should focus on identifying what kind of Information will help readers navigate issues in their personal and professional lives.

“If people approach building a media outlet with an open mind, they realize very quickly that it’s not about the content, or an article, or the format. What it’s about is helping someone make better decisions,” said Soon. “We need to first figure out what the need is without defaulting to simply creating more content.”

Define your audience

Traditional mainstream news was meant to cater to the masses. But media on the internet is increasingly user-centric and interest-based. It's “meant to be a collection of niche points of views, niche ideas, niche experiences,” said Soon.

Outlets should identify and cater to audiences by both geography and topic of interest, said Seave, who in addition to teaching business, also co-founded Quantum Media, a New York City-based media consultancy firm. 

“If you have an interest like horticulture in the northeast [U.S.], and you publish material and pictures having to do with flowering trees, you're going to find some people who are interested in flowering trees,” said Seave. “They support each other, and then they'll pay you money [for that information].”

This also helps media entrepreneurs determine the platform(s) they may want to publish on. If you’re writing about supply chains, or topics pertaining to economics and business, focus on LinkedIn, Soon suggested. If you’re giving information about health care, or more specifically family health care, Facebook might be a better option because of the platform’s popularity among parents.

Keep costs low 

When launching an outlet, keeping production costs low is critical, especially at first.

“It's very difficult to start something, hire a bunch of people and make enough money that you can support all these mouths,” she said. It's more sustainable and profitable to work out of your home, especially when your revenue comes from subscriptions and/or memberships – sources that take time to grow. 

Consider this example: If you hire a cinematographer and an editor, and buy a lighting kit and a nice camera to produce several videos a week, your approach will create a barrier to sustainability. "You've ballooned your cost structure, and you'll never be able to compete against a TikToker who is just standing in front of a camera doing quick videos,” said Soon.

Instead, start simple, for instance with a smartphone, and scale up from there. Importantly, make sure the cost of making a video matches the revenue or visibility you’ll generate from it. After you’ve built an active audience, expanding into different formats will be more viable. 

Start a newsletter, too, suggested Seave. Newsletters are cost effective, and one of the most reliable ways to engage with audiences, build a community and subsequently monetize it. 

Always look to diversify revenue streams, as well. Donations and grants, for instance, can also be important sources of funding. Here is an IJNet article about different income streams independent journalists can consider. 

Make sure you like doing business  

Handling finances, budgeting and administration are all part of running an independent outlet. They are tasks that can’t be avoided. “You want to know that you don't hate doing the business side,” said Seave. 

She suggested that entrepreneurs regularly ask themselves:

  • Does this particular story bring in sponsors or not?
  • How can I be attractive to subscribers?
  • Do I need to hire a consultant?

“If you aren't interested, or hate the business side, then you're not going to be successful,” said Seave. "Then you need someone taking care of that for you, so you can [be] creative.”

Photo by Jacek Dylag on Unsplash.