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A conversation with David Rose, little magazine veteran and publisher of Lapham’s Quarterly
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March 2, 2010, 2:38 p.m.

Shhh! Secret Journalism Startup (a.k.a. NewsLabs) wants to build your brand and make you money

Remember when journalists were merely overworked and underpaid? In today’s hypercompetitive market, it’s not enough to be a tenacious reporter or an elegant writer; you also need to be a tech-savvy coder, a capable videographer, a constant conversation-engager, a shameless self-promoter, and, in general, a worthy bottom-line-improver. Call it the soft bigotry of high expectations: Journalists who hope to keep giving voice/shining lights/etc. must also become adept at designing web sites, producing podcasts, tweeting, Tumbling, and, just to be safe, mixing a mean martini.

A site launching later this month claims to offer some recourse in the case of the ever-expanding skill set. Its name was originally shrouded in secrecy, as suggested by its working title: Secret Journalism Startup. But the enigma now unveiled as NewsLabs is seeking journalist partners for what it calls “a service to publish your work to the world, which lets you focus on the content.”

We handle everything else: making money, getting readers, online marketing, etc. Whether you are freelancing, laid off, or still successfully employed, now is the time to move online, and we can make it as painless and profitable as it can be.

In other words: a partnership, NewsLabs promises, will allow journalists to focus on doing journalism — rather than spending their time engaged in the Everything Else that being a journalist requires these days. That subsidiary work being “the sort of thing that journalists (a) aren’t capable of doing except for a vast effort on their part, and (b) don’t want to be doing,” NewsLabsPaul Biggar told me. He and fellow programmer Nathan Chong are behind the startup, which is funded by Y Combinator, Paul Graham‘s noted startup incubator which has recently been interested in journalism projects.

The idea is to replicate the infrastructural benefits of the newsroom — the resources shared among journalists, the content dissemination architecture, etc. — for journalists who, whether by choice or by something else, work independently of a newsroom. Journalists who sign on to work with NewsLabs (the site is aiming to cull ten or so to start with, and then to expand from there) will post their content to the site—”we want to be a centralized space for publishing,” Biggar notes — and NewsLabs, in return for that content, will provide the subsidiary support that will help them to keep producing it. Based on NewsLabs’ ad, that support includes:

Revenue generation: we only make money if you do; you get 80% of revenue from your content (not profit, revenue); ad sales; selling your story to publications; affiliate links; sponsorship.

Bring traffic to your stories: We submit your content to Twitter, Facebook, Digg, Reddit, etc, appropriate[ly] tailored for each community; We automatically recommend stories to readers based on what they read, who they are, and what they’re interested in.

Community management: The new news model is about community interaction. We make this as cheap and simple as possible: Facebook Connect so people comment with their real identities; Automatic moderation and spam control; We organize your interaction with social media outside the site.

Lead generation: get tips from your readers; automatically get sources for your stories; find out what stories people want to hear about, before they know themselves!

Collaborate with other journalists

Analysis: We tell you: how much of the story readers read (when they get bored); what headlines are most effective; where does your traffic come from; what topics people want to hear about.

The unbundled news product is one thing; what NewsLabs is proposing is, essentially, unbundling the journalistic process. Revenues will come mostly from ads, Biggar says. “We take a cut out of the money that we earn for them,” meaning in the end that the journalists “get 80 cents out of every dollar that is earned by their content.” (The ad specifies a $30,000-$70,000 “salary” for participating journalists, but notes: “We help journalists make money online, and earn a small portion of the proceeds. So while this isn’t a paid position, we only earn money if you do. (So the 30K-70K is an estimate, not a concrete figure).”) “It’s difficult to know for certain,” Biggar acknowledges, “what our major revenue is going to be in the long term.” Much of NewsLabs’ success — or lack of it — will depend on the individual journalists who sign on to the service, and to the quality and popularity of the journalism they produce.

NewsLabs isn’t entering a completely open space. There are any number of tools and platforms available for journalists seeking back-end support, from ad networks to publishing tools. And NewsLabs’ idea doesn’t seem too far away from True/Slant‘s, since both aim to make money helping journalists “build their brand online.” Biggar told me NewsLabs imagines itself as more of a brand-builder than a brand-facilitator — more of a comprehensive support structure than a simple platform. “It’s almost a distinction in wording,” Biggar says. “There aren’t contributors to our site. We are providing a service to journalists. It’s a difference of perspective.”

You can see a lot of NewsLabs’ plans in this discussion thread on Hacker News (part of Y Combinator), where Biggar (posting as “stealthyc2010″) answers questions about the startup’s plans, including:

We have many people interested. I haven’t triaged them all, but there are high quality people in there. We don’t need people to jump — there were 8000 journalists laidoff last year, and there are many many freelancers out there. The people interested are mixes of both, and some full timers who want to make money on the side, and are looking to jump online in the future.

The main distinction, Biggar notes, is the fact that NewsLabs will focus on collaboration among journalists, rather than competition. Tools are being built toward that end, he says, but he declines to specify what they’ll ultimately look like. (Biggar and Chong both have substantial comp-sci chops.) But they’ll ultimately rely, he says, on leveraging the network effect by way of empowering the individual members of the network. “The large media conglomerates are going to die whether they like it or not,” Biggar says. And “it seems obvious to us that the content providers — that is, the journalists themselves — are the ones who should be benefiting” from the content they produce.

“We’re really aiming for journalists to make a living out of this,” Biggar says. And “we want this to be the model for how news is generated.”

POSTED     March 2, 2010, 2:38 p.m.
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