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Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

Jeff Israely: Juggling on a tightrope, aiming for a news startup’s launch

[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, second, third, fourth, and fifth installments. —Josh]

For any startup dude or dudette, impatience is a virtue…and delays a necessary evil. You must insist, insist, insist and then keep insisting: with gurus, colleagues, developers, designers, potential partners and funders, and that eternal beast of institutional inertia. But you must also remember that all those people essential to your success can never share the same degree of urgency you have in getting your project off the ground.

So we must always guard against our own over-eagerness, that hunger to start actually producing what we have spent months preparing to produce, to finally have something to show for yourself. The journobeast is a creature used to having his work out there to see and touch, and so we must adjust to the longer rhythms and anonymity that go with planning, lining up ducks, laying groundwork. Succumb to your own anxiety and vanity, attempt to stick to timetables linked more to your (tunnel) vision and psychology than to the facts on the ground, and you can start to make mistakes: You frighten away people who might otherwise (in due time) be on board; you overlook key details; you oversell the proximity of your target launch date.

Even in this space, for example, I’d desperately wanted my first after-the-summer post to include a sign-up page — and perhaps the announcement of our name — to add some grist to these musings. That ain’t happening here and now, though it does feel as though we are close enough for me to say (ever impatiently!) that over the next two posts the who and what we are will begin to come into focus, as we head toward the alpha launch of our website.

Still, as always, I hope there may be something from the startup experience itself that may be worth sharing with others wading through the wreckage and sawdust and buzz of heavy machinery of this global information retrofitting. In the final countdown phase of my little piece of it, five distinct areas are staring me in the face: product, partnerships, team, fundraising, the company. Like a watch, all are interconnected, and must be properly calibrated to keep the thing moving forward. But things move forward (or backward) at unpredictable paces. Progress on one of the five components can spur on the others, and the whole project suddenly lurches forward; conversely, one aspect getting sidetracked can send the whole thing unraveling. It’s a confidence game. A juggler on a tightrope. Last week, I taught our French lawyer Serge Vatine the expression Catch-22. The road of a startup is filled with countless such binds and potential binds. They are what keeps me up at night…and alas, what sometimes slows things down.

Smarter, more seasoned people who have already crossed the threshold and beyond can tell you from experience what worked and didn’t work in the weeks before launch. Instead, here I can tell you what it looks and feels like now: facing the unknown of all those moving parts. Scared. Hopeful. Too dumb to know any better.

PRODUCT: One could break down the building of a news website into two component parts: the journalism/information and the how-to-get-it-delivered/consumed/interfaced-with. Content and functionalities. In an ideal world, they should serve each other. But the reality of this early stage, when you’re not quite sure what you have, when your time and resources (that’s what polite folk call cash money) are limited, extra attention on one can sacrifice the other.

We have the good fortune to have found Lili Rodic, who began her career as a journalist, to project manage the development of the site. Though she may not be able to provide us with everything on our wish list, within the constraints of time and money, it’s never because she doesn’t understand what we are after. She knows perhaps better than us — too often entranced by some cool feature or design — that the functionality is not an end in itself, but a tool to bring out the best in the journalism. That is, in fact, our product.

PARTNERSHIPS: In the networked future-of-news, doing it alone is not an option. Gotta partner up, link out, look for love. Partnerships are fundamental to the content we will be offering, and we are perhaps farther along on this aspect of our project than any other — and pleasantly surprised by the relative lack of institutional inertia. But the Internet’s immediacy and accessibility is a double-edged sword: It makes it much easier to actually get a product up and visible. And that means some people will want to wait to see you in operation before committing. That’s been particularly true on the distribution side, where the good feedback from would-be partners has stopped short of actually talking turkey on sales, syndication, links, etc. Instead it’s been some variation on “Let us know when you have something live.” (See above overeagerness to launch!)

TEAM: I have had conversations, in one form or another, with some 20 journalists — of all ages, locations, levels of experience and ranges of interests — who could potentially take part at launch. My network from my years as a foreign correspondent is key to all of this. Still, others have found me via my more recent blogging and tweeting. It’s obviously a buyer’s market — lots of talented people trying to figure out how to continue (or begin) making a living in this line of work. But it’s also a moment of great uncertainty. Talk is plenty, ideas abound, and many by now have had brushes with startups, some of which have never gotten off the ground. Or gotten people paid. So the conversations, on some level, must remain just that until…

FUNDRAISING: It was a full 13 months after the first draft of my business plan that I actually asked anyone for money. Sure, I’d been thinking about it, talking about it, reading about it from people on both sides of the proverbial table. Once I have more perspective on the process, I plan to write a separate post on what it’s like for a longtime staff journalist (read: employee), who is used to asking just about anything from complete strangers except money, to find himself seeking out serious people who might be willing to bet their hard-earned cash money on him.

I am lucky to have a business partner, Irene Toporkoff, who has plenty of experience dealing with money, contracts, and the like…though for her too, this is the first pure fundraising startup experience. We are still gathering advice, getting reactions to our project. But I am now no longer shy about telling just about everyone I speak to that investment is at the very top of our to-do list. Though we still have a scenario for launching first in pure bootstrap mode in order to show what we have to potential investors, we are convinced that we can show much more clearly what we we can do at launch if we have the proper, er, resources.

THE COMPANY: We have decided after some initial wavering to incorporate the company in France, though we know that we can always expand our operations and company to the U.S. Our choice to launch here is in part because that is where we are based. We also like the idea of a new English-language global news source that was born here in the rest of the world. A global perspective is key to the product we will be offering.

But we have also found that France has quite a lively Internet business environment, with smart, forward-looking people and new laws to encourage entrepreneurship. That doesn’t mean there isn’t paperwork to take care of, documents to fill out, a bank account to open. That, it turns out, is high on our to-do list this week. And by October 1, this would-be world news startup will be a living, breathing company. A champagne toast will be in order, then right back to work…and plenty more impatience on the way.

                                   
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  • james graff

    It’s going to be worth the wait, and we’ll be watching and judging and hopefully investing.