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April 23, 2010, noon

Jeff Israely: In Paris, romance is in the air — but is a business model?

[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 and second installments. —Josh]

Our collective struggle to discover the future of news and information is alternatively presented as social revolution, economics puzzle, or pro wrestling death match. Down here on ground level, it feels more like a series of little soap operas: sweet talk, faraway gazes, broken hearts and “unexpected” plot twists — always more (melo)dramatic for those of us taking part than for the viewers at home, who continue to consume the not-quite-satisfying daily dose of content that’s out there without giving it too much thought.

In my little Paris-based telenovela, we left off last time in this space with a bit of suspense: Waiting for Mr. X…

Our well-meaning but lonely 40ish hack with little technical knowledge and scant business experience had miraculously found a younger man who had it all, who might just make for the perfect partner. But alas, after a preliminary, propitious rendezvous in the Latin Quarter, Mr. X was due to take off for a much needed two-week getaway to Morocco with some unidentified French woman.

Well, he came back after all, with a new beard and the woman apparently still in the picture. But Mr. X declared himself rested…and ready! He was excited to jump with both feet into this here digital world news project, except for one caveat. Yet another plot twist…

Meeting Mr. X

An introduction, in any case, is first in order: Our mystery man does have a name, and a past. Jed Micka is a 33-year-old Berkeley computer science/electrical engineering alum, who has spent the past decade prototyping, developing, and project-managing web, mobile, and software applications. His relative lack of news biz experience is, in my eyes, a huge plus. His fresh eyes at the news, like mine at tech, may be the best way of finding out what the customer wants, and how we might just get it to them.

Interestingly, Jed did have a project back in 2000 to develop a micropayment system for news and other content. That, of course, died on the vine. And it says something (uh, something depressing) that 10 years later, he’s back looking at how to integrate (invent!) pay models for our would-be product. But what he brings from all his experience is a focus on selling: both how to get paid for our content and how to pitch the project to investors. One of the first things Jed brought to the project was to tease out who are the would-be company’s “actors,” and how we can move forward in a way that benefits each. We’ve identified five: source media partners, client media buyers, seed investors, our reader/contributor community, and the two of us.

The twist in Jed’s background, which makes this an even more promising match, is his interest in international affairs. But that is also, for now, a stumbling block to storming ahead, full force, four feet and all. He is flat in the middle of writing a thesis for a master’s degree in political science at Paris’ Sciences Po university. That means, on a day-in, day-out basis, it still largely falls to me to keep the momentum going, while juggling my own monster distraction (see below). Still, we did manage to jam through a quick entry for the Paris stop on the Seedcamp tour. Rien. Otherwise, we have kept up a weekly meeting at the same Paris coffee joint (with 40 minutes free Internet). And with the long-awaited prototype now basically ready, we have begun plotting on how to get to potential funders and partners to pitch.

One thing I have pushed him to do on his own time is get up and running on Twitter, which was only in its infancy when he jumped into his master’s program. (He reads books!) More than for the content, I want him to see how the technology works and what it means for our project. I was hesitant to suggest all the news business types I follow — in some sense, the less you know the better — but figured he should get up to speed. So please, web friends, journo colleagues, and Twitter soap opera stars: Try to behave!

My monster distraction

In the middle of one of my Friday meetings with Jed, I got a call from New York. It was Time’s news editor, saying I had to get down to Rome. I have been their guy on the Vatican beat for nine years, and manage to still cover it from Paris, even though my staff position was whacked in the last round of cuts. Now, of course, we have a major, major story on our hands down at St. Peter’s. Back in 2005, I covered what the U.S. networks called the “papal death event,” but this is no less momentous, and somehow trickier…with no real end in sight. So like Jed, I too must juggle the rest of my life with that which we both hope will become a full-time, all-consuming, fully funded enterprise in the future. For the would-be journo entrepreneur, continuing to work for others is a mix of hedging your bets and staying in the scrum. It’s also a battle with schizophrenia.

Can’t get much more schizophrenic along the old/new media borderline than covering the Vatican for Time and bootstrapping a would-be website. My little case could be taken as a metaphor (melodrama, I know) for the wider no-man’s-land state of foreign news coverage in this particular moment. The old media is no longer committed to truly funding foreign coverage, and the new media can’t fund itself. I surf between the two, inevitably not doing true justice to either one. Still, in the best case scenario, holding on to the remains of my old life is a necessary bridge to the future: both in content and in the ongoing struggle to maintain my sanity. I always get a charge any time my beat is on the leading edge of the news cycle. Writing a glossy printed story provides the kind of satisfaction that you can’t get from a retweet. And yet…well, right now, for me at least, certain retweets are indeed worth more than a fancy byline.

Either way, though, I know my own destiny will largely be determined by how well I navigate this new, lava-like terrain where things are dying, transforming, rising from the ashes, and being born from that filament sizzle of a light bulb going on in someone’s brain. I want the old media to survive and thrive for many reasons — not least of all because it is integral to the new media destination I am trying to create. But even before I get there, I must keep my eyes open for ways to capitalize on my knowledge of and relationships with the traditional media to help build something that can only survive off the fat of the online land. And so you can imagine, for example, as much as Time’s cover, it’s the 2 million Twitter followers that are the target.

But beyond my own projects/interests, it seems evident that the established media must find ways to allow innovation to seep in to its walls from the energy and ideas of those trying to create something independently. Too often those with the ideas are moving faster than those with the resources and audience, a dual-velocity dynamic that risks killing off both the new ideas and old institutions.

POSTED     April 23, 2010, noon
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