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July 13, 2010, 10 a.m.

Jeff Israely: With partners found, figuring out how best to link up

[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, and fourth installments. —Josh]

Dating-but-eager-to-marry is the metaphor I’ve used before to describe the search for a partner for my world news startup. Save a few cultural or religious contexts, said metaphor works less well once there is more than one potential partner. And I now have two, which adds new requirements of proper symmetry, good chemistry…and, yes, good lawyers.

Like plenty of other big and small things that have happened over the past year, it wasn’t a matter of seeking out this particular set of circumstances, but rather the result of a more general seeking fundamental to trying to launch something from scratch. So here we are: Irene, Jed, and Jeff…already facing a long list of hard questions about the future of digital news — from story selection and crowdsourcing to content management and business models — to which we must add another eternal question: Is three a crowd….or the magic number?

On paper, we three create excellent symmetry: Irene Toporkoff is a successful internet executive who knows what moves eyeballs and balance sheets online. She brings a global perspective and a strategic mind. Jed Micka is a computer engineer and project manager who knows how to turn digital concepts into concrete solutions. He too brings a global perspective and a strategic mind. My 12 years as a foreign correspondent provide the journalistic chops for our world news brand, and yes, some more global perspective. And the best proof of my strategic mind is that I found Irene and Jed!

At the 10th arrondissement café where we have begun meeting regularly, we also appear strong on chemistry. Ideas flow, we don’t speak over each other, we listen, there’s the kind of energy that convinces all that not only are the big bases covered by our different resumes but that the whole is (even!?) greater than the sum of its parts.

Over the past month, with Irene’s connections in Paris now added on top of my continuous plugging away at contacts in the news business, the pace of the project has picked up notably. We have also continued a general policy I have had from the start to meet with just about anyone who wants to listen: business people, advertising executives, journalism gurus, potential future employees. But as we get closer to our autumn launch, we are zeroing in on finding what we will need to actually be operative. And so the meetings have increasingly been with potential funders, and would-be media partners of our project — both to help provide the content, as well as distribute it to the readers.

I can say with both pride and trepidation that the interest has been quite high, though the questions are not few. One key lesson I’ve learned pitching our project is the difference between what we are currently immersed in — the sweat and strategy for getting the thing up off the ground, i.e., The Launch — and what the thing is going to be, i.e. The Vision. In a certain sense, both funders and partners assume that you are taking care of lining up the ducks: They want to know what it is you will become.

Still, the launch is ever more central now. And high on our agenda right now is solidifying our own partnership. Like questions about where and when to incorporate, copyright, branding…the three-way partnership agreement is part bureaucratic, part strategic, part everything.

It was, in other words, time to find a lawyer. Serge Vatine is a go-to attorney in the French startup world, whose Paris-based firm 11-100-34.com specializes in media and intellectual property law. Last week, the three of us were seated around a large rectangular table in Serge’s sunny sixth-floor office trying to hash out the framework for incorporation and the pacte d’actionnaires.

From my point of view, especially after having had some false starts from potential partners, I have some issues of well, er, commitment. Before divvying up the shares of a project that for many reasons is my baby, I want to see if there’s a way to more or less lock the others in for at least the next 12 months. Jed and Irene have each in their own way assured me of their allegiance to the project, but they know “I’m committed, just trust me!” is not enough in this kind of circumstance. Things change. Tides turn. Other offers arrive. Serge has suggested different possibilities, including setting certain objectives in each of our spheres of competence that must be met by a fixed date. Still, at a certain point, the startup lawyer turns would-be marriage counselor. “There’s a certain amount of trust and loyalty that goes into it,” Serge says. “There’s no way to guarantee everything.”

Indeed, Jed said after the meeting: “This is the pre-nup.” It means having a legal framework in place if the marriage fails. (Or, in the case of business, succeeds!) Indeed, 98 percent of the time my energy is focused on creating the conditions for things to go well. It’s looking lately that I am not the only one. More and more other optimists seem to be out there in the scrum that is reshaping of the news. Not that anyone thinks a lasting, society-wide solution is either easy or close. Not that there isn’t major foot-dragging and pessimism in some corners of the established media. But maybe the industry as a whole has turned a corner, and opportunities are appearing.

One sign is how much energy there is for an endeavor supposedly in such crisis from non-journalists, which prompted me to ask the two non-journalists in this project why they’re committed to it. No one as smart and strategic -– and grownup -– as Jed and Irene is going to be doing this for kicks. Each would have all kinds of professional opportunities that steered clear of the uncertainty reigning over the future of news. Of course, much of attraction of this particular project is the product itself, which will be unveiled this autumn. In the meantime, though, I wanted to share their thoughts about both why they want to join me in trying to build a new world news site, and where they think the digital media is heading:

Irene: When you called I thought, Oh no, not another Internet startup! But working on something that is editorial at its heart is different. I believe there are new ways for the Internet to add value, and also economic value, to the way information circulates. Branded news is struggling, but it will not disappear. The value these organizations have is too often underestimated. But we need to look for innovative ways to rethink the way they do business, to build bridges between the old and the new. People in the traditional media are starting to understand that many of us who work in the digital space are actually on their side. We are business people who can help make their activities sustainable. I have worked in the U.S., Brazil, Germany, France, and I know certain differences exist in the international media, from country to country. But there are two central questions that all should be asking: How do we get the most out of technology? How do we define what is news?

Jed: The paradox is that right now, with the flood of information readily available on the Internet, there is actually a shortage of quality information. Many people see blogs as the future of journalism, but a blog is merely one person’s effort; it lacks the resources and the structure necessary to ensure the same level of quality as a professionally edited piece. Like in a café discussion, the blogger is never forced to respond to the criticism raised by an independent editorial team. But this makes my job as a reader much more time-consuming because I then have to verify the information and identify the biases myself. You might draw an analogy to the debate about open and closed source software: In open source, developers choose which part of the code they will develop, with a tendency for the most glamorous aspects to be treated in great detail, at the expense of some features that will never showcase their intellectual prowess. MySQL is a great open source database that excels in certain tasks, but falls short compared to Oracle’s flagship database, a product that contains a much more robust feature set precisely because Oracle pays developers to work on the issues that are ignored by the “crowd.” Similarly, journalists must be paid too. The challenge is to find both the methods and business models to allow professional journalism to thrive alongside the voluntary efforts of the blogging community.

POSTED     July 13, 2010, 10 a.m.
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