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March 16, 2010, noon

Jeff Israely: Transatlantic nightblogging, the hunt for a partner, and other startup lessons

[Jeff Israely, a Time magazine foreign correspondent in Europe, is in the planning stages of a news startup — a "new global news website." He details his experience as a new news entrepreneur at his site, but he'll occasionally be describing the startup process here at the Lab. Read his first installment here. —Josh]

I am running late. My prototype should have been live and locked on its URL by now. March was supposed to be the month I began meeting with potential partners and investors, refining the project’s design and business model, and going public with the name and exact nature of the website. But the past four weeks have decidedly not brought me from my planned Point A to Point B. It has also been an incredibly busy and potentially very fruitful phase for my project. Credit and blame can both be pinned on that rock’n’roll tech startup concept: iteration.

I don’t think I’d ever said out the I-word out loud in my life before six months ago, though any hack worth his salt and barstool is used to iterating on a regular basis. It happens when you’re just about to wrap your daily story, and a big break in the news suddenly arrives; or when your month-long in-depth piece is just coming together, and the big interview you’d long since given up on finally comes through. In such a moment, a major reset is in order on something that had been going perfectly well, thank you very much. And so you curse through the hard work of integrating/revamping the best of the old with the fresher (better) material. In the end, however, the kick-ass hack is always thankful because she knows her article will necessarily be much richer in its new, updated form. And responding to events is, after all, a big part of what this nutty job is about.

As a first-time (would-be?) entrepreneur, iterating doesn’t come quite so naturally. That create-destroy-repeat ethos suddenly feels radical, a well-executed pivot being always harder to pull off when you’re still getting your bearings. With that said, you’d have to be more than a bit dim not to see that the lightning pace of change in media and technology right now means that the only straight line from Point A to Point B is where B is failure.

The iterating for me lately has mostly been around the question of audience, both how to identify it and how to grow it. Let’s start with the latter.

Building an audience and the birth of a one-man news bundler

I’m still finding my tweetin’ voice, but we MSM folk are starting to grasp what the real-time feed may mean for the news business. Based in Europe, and with most of my followed-and-followers in the U.S., I’d started to see how my geography and language skills position me to get some breaking news into the Twitter stream ahead of the crowd. Still, I’d been content to treat it like an ongoing mini-exercise in improving my speed and range and eye for news that would be useful when launch time arrived.

Yet, there I was one morning last month about to retweet some bit of French burqua-ban news when another interesting story popped up from Germany, and I thought: Hmmm? Let me try to squeeze these two world news items together into one tweet. But with 140 characters to work with…well, good luck. So I put the two links aside into a Word document. And then it hit me: Why not expand the two links into five…and bundle them into a “Top Headlines From Jeff” post? I could post it on my blog, and link to it once a day. But then it hit me again: If timing is everything, that’s doubly true on the real-time web, which is bound to create new niches in the ways and whens of how we consume information. With my time-zone advantage and news biz experience, I could bundle and deliver a story list early, like at 7 a.m. Eastern, composed solely of news that has broken since 11 p.m. Like Slatest, but more time-specific, and aimed specifically at helping to sort through the endless stream of news flashes coming across your Facebook and Twitter feeds. I would take the established practice of aggregating from everywhere, and combine it with what seemed the novelty of a bundled selection of the news that has broken since Americans logged off last night. Exactly three weeks old, this has become whileUslept.

Unfortunately, coming up with an idea — half or fully baked — is no more than one-third of the battle in building an audience. You gotta get it to them, spread the word, go viral…and keep it going. I began posting the daily link on my own personal accounts, and in the last few days set up While U Slept pages of their own on Twitter and Facebook. It definitely did not catch on like wildfire. After two weeks, I had exactly three email subscribers, and a best-day grand total of a whopping 56 pageviews. (The daily average was 23.) Still, the webbiness of the web means that you are potentially always just one Link or Recommendation or Follow away from exponential growth. A private boost from one new-media guru, and then a retweet from another with the word “useful,” and my daily hit count suddenly spiked to 400-plus. Then a couple days later, it topped 600 after a link from a former colleague who has since transformed himself into the epitome of the 2.0 one-man news brand.

At such peaks, you sit there watching the views come in and start to dream that you too can build an audience all by yer lonesome? But the numbers that really count are still a long ways off from major mojo: 38 Twitter followers, 109 Facebook fans, 16 email subscribers. Perhaps I will need to hop on the shoulders of a major website? Iterate the iteration, making whileUslept richer and/or feed it at multiple points in the day. It will have to grow (and sustain) exponentially if I want to reach the kind of audience that actually helps me both pitch and execute the bigger project I am aiming for. Still, what started as an exercise on Twitter to prep myself for the big launch has actually become the beginning of the soft launch itself.

Perhaps just as important is the fact that some new ideas are flowing into my old media brain. This one I will dub the Baby Moses approach to aggregate realtime news: bundle the best content and drop it in the moving river of information at the right time and place.

The crowd and the core audience

The immediate collateral damage of this mini-project are the brakes it’s put on short-term progress of the Big Project. While I have essentially begun the “link to the rest” half of the famous Jarvis formula, I’m no closer than I was a month ago to actually establishing the “what you do best” part. And what will I do? Here too there is iteration to report. Without going into details — both because I still prefer to speak here in general terms about the product, and because the details of the new feature simply don’t yet exist — I will just describe it as crowd-source related. Though I do not plan on changing the entire product around this idea, as this very smart fellow startup dude vigorously suggested, I still think there is much room to integrate it in a way that could give the project some extra watts of glow in the eyes of potential investors. Crowdsourcing addresses two key questions that arise at different stages of the startup: identifying our core audience at launch, and giving the enterprise a vision of how to scale it up.

But before that, all this iterating risks sapping some of the vital big ‘mo from the Big Project. On the prototype (which I keep saying is just a week or two away), we are now rejiggering all the current pages and adding a brand new page or two. Meanwhile, the business plan will have to be overhauled. Completely. Again. Blessed be the iterationists, I and I: In creation where one’s nature neither honors nor forgives.

Looking for Mr. Right

All of this upheaval is further reminder that what I am missing most right now: more than audience, more than money: a partner. He or she would have the tech and business background that I lack, while having a natural interest in the news business. Last week, through a mutual friend in Paris, I set up a rendezvous with Mister X, whose resume features all what I am missing and more. But looking for a partner truly is like dating: “On paper” means nothing. We met at the Mabillon Metro stop in the Latin Quarter and found a nice café to chat over a beer. Though it was a relaxed conversation, a back and forth, I was also effectively pitching him my project as best I could. Talking to a potential partner is different than pitching other people. It starts out much more casually. But you are all too aware that if it goes well, really well, the project becomes his as much as mine. So in some ways, you must actually tread a bit more lightly on your first encounter. He needs to like me as much as my project.

As with the search for a life partner, timing is key. In this case, I am single, and looking, but I couldn’t know for sure what his status was. A couple of times in the past few months, I’d met people who might have fit the partner profile, who had the right skill set, and even interest in the project, but simply were not at a place in their life/work to commit to me. Though Mister X seemed to react positively to the project, and explained that he was finishing up a master’s degree this spring, he wasn’t giving any indication of his plans for the future. And then, about 40 minutes in, I finally said: “I don’t know if you might be interested…??”

He paused about two seconds, and said: “Hey, so long as I can be running a business, I’m open to anything.” My heart skipped a beat. Later, as we walked toward the metro, and I told him I’d send him all the working docs, we even talked for a moment about what the first steps together might actually look like. Then we shook hands, and said we’d be in touch when he got back from a long planned two-week hiking trip to Morocco. Perhaps for my next update here, I will have something (good) to report from our second date…

POSTED     March 16, 2010, noon
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