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Nov. 10, 2010, 10 a.m.

Jeff Israely: An idea and a brand come together as Worldcrunch

[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 past installments here. —Josh]

This is a long overdue introduction: a kind of public christening, a chance to share with you, the reader, our vision for the future of news. Okay, you see where we’re headed: this post is all about marketing. Sixteen months after secretly banging out my first PowerPoint business plan, nine months of blog posts delving into every twist and turn of my digital news startup except what the damn thing was — I am hereby beginning the rollout.

But first, one last hedge. Up until now, the motivations for these pieces for the Lab have varied: trying to figure out where I fit in to this transforming industry; sharing the daily ins and outs/ups and downs of Old Media Guy launching New Media Thing; a public search for my writing voice on new platforms and in the new role of would-be startup business dude. On that final point, I have been keenly aware of the potential benefits afforded by this space — and blogging in general — in the attention it might generate when (and if) my project got off the ground. It is an expression of that sometimes uncomfortable truth about the 21st-century journalist: that we can no longer shy away from the nitty-gritty of promoting, selling, marketing each piece of editorial output we produce and the building of each of our respective personal brands as the best way to increase the chances that we may continue (or begin) doing the actual newsbiz work we originally set out to do.

And so here, just this once, let me set aside the personal exploration and entrepreneurial and journalistic “processes,” and focus solely on product: a mini/soft/pre-launch and presentation of our company’s core concept, our big ambitions, our brand. I won’t go into detail here about our plans for actually executing what we set out to do, though that is perhaps the most difficult and decisive of all topics. Once we’re up and running live, we will see together how that execution is proceeding, both in the back office and on the front page. But first: throat clear….drumroll!….spotlight!!

What we do

How do you cover the world — the most sprawling and variegated and expensive beat of them all? Where do you turn to find the fresh new stories and voices that break through all the inevitable chattering and cannibalizing around this or that single news event that only the wires or The New York Times have managed to chronicle? Where is the existing, untapped potential for on-the-ground journalism that is more than just a lucky tweet? Might there be a shortcut to quality content? Real, worldwide scoops? Though ours is just one part of the solution to covering the global beat, we believe it is strong on simplicity and economy and immediate impact: The professional (and participatory) selection and translation of the best, most relevant stories in the foreign-language media.

This new idea, of course, is not brand new. There is much interesting already happening now around online translation of news and information: Global Voices’ coverage of international bloggers, Meedan’s innovative Arabic-English online current-events dialogue, Café Babel’s and Presseurope’s multilingual European coverage, Worldmeets.us‘s global viewpoints on American policy, Der Spiegel’s English-language website. But the quest for a commercially viable digital formula around the top names in global journalism is indeed something new. And, we think, rich in potential.

The roots of the model can be found in Courrier International, a successful general interest weekly launched 20 years ago in France, and has been taken up by others, including my good friends at Internazionale in Rome, Forum in Warsaw and Courrier Japon in Tokyo. Indeed, we are exploring a range of possibilities in partnering with Courrier, which is just a Paris Métro ride away from our home offices. We have much to learn from what they’ve been doing in print, including questions of selection and translation and copyright. And some day, they may have something to learn about what kind of journalistic and business opportunities we can create by applying this formula digitally, and in the real-time news cycle of the Internet. Indeed, partnerships will be key to executing what we will be doing. More on that in a future post.

Where we are

Unlike Courrier International — or World Press Review, a high-brow New York-based monthly that survives as an online forum for global opinion — we are being born as a live news source in the digital space. This will permeate everything we do. But the technology (like the traditions) must serve the journalism, not be an end in itself. Frédéric Bonelli, one of our first investors, describes the media world right now as being “like Europe after World War II“: a mixed landscape of ruins, reconstruction efforts, old institutions trying to salvage their standing, and ambitious new players, some with true vision, others just looking to exploit the confusion. As a company that is both global and agile, we hope we can fit somewhere in the “vision” camp, aware of the words of Jay Rosen, who declared in a September speech here in Paris that “the struggle for the next press is an international thing.” Mais oui, monsieur!

What’s our name?

Way back in December 2009, when my Danish-born, Rome-based web designer friend Annie Skovgaard Christiansen agreed to create the demo site for the project, she casually said, “Okay — but I can’t start until you tell me the name.” Panic. There was a working name attached to my working biz plan, but it was both mediocre and unavailable as a URL. So the next 48 hours, I spent wracking my brain, harassing friends and colleagues, getting to know goDaddy. It had to be punchy, global…and available as .com for the standard $8.99 rate! The good names were all taken, and those not yet taken, weren’t quite good enough. Until…hmm…that’s not bad…probably not available? Let me see…yes! The feedback ever since — colleagues, friends, potential partners and investors — has been about as positive as you could hope for (though my ownDaddy said it sounded like breakfast cereal). So the URL nabbed back in late December has stuck as our website’s name, our company’s brand. And if we do the rest of our job well, we hope it sticks in your brain as a mark of quality international news: Worldcrunch.

One last bit of bald marketing: Please sign up for updates on our launch, as we continue with our alpha testing and building our team (and continuing our fundraising). We also have Twitter and Facebook pages. And though my business partner Irene is opposed, one day the Worldcrunch coffee mugs will arrive as well!

And finally, the brand needs a slogan, or what I’ve since discovered is referred to as a baseline. It came to me just a few weeks ago, as I swam my laps. Maybe you once heard it in j-school? Or at your first newspaper job? They say “All news is local.” Of course it is. The county hospital’s response to national health care reform, the school board budget deliberations, and the new stop sign installed around the corner must get covered because they affect the lives of you, the reader. But for the same reasons, we must keep up with the latest news from Peshawar or Pyongyang, China, Chile, and Chicago too, to say nothing of this autumn’s harvest in Bordeaux. What happens there matters here. All news indeed is local. We just say it differently here at Worldcrunch: All News is Global.

POSTED     Nov. 10, 2010, 10 a.m.
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