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Dec. 14, 2010, 1 p.m.

Jeff Israely: Speeding up a startup, but slowing down at the same time

Editor’s Note: Jeff Israely, a Time magazine foreign correspondent in Europe, is in the early stages of a news startup called Worldcrunch. He occasionally describes the startup process here at the Lab. Read his past installments here.

Okay, here’s my shot at a new law of physics to apply to our news startup: Q. When does speeding up help you to slow down? A. At the exact moment that slowing down will help you speed up. Experienced entrepreneurs (and basketball players) will recognize this quantum bit of gobbledygook as the art of the pivot. Here’s how this particular apple fell on my head.

A month ago, when we unveiled Worldcrunch in this space, with a signup page and basic description of what we’ll be doing, it was part of a fairly straightforward plan and timetable for getting our site launched. Step 1: Announce the thing and open Facebook and Twitter accounts. Step 2: Complete the back office and site development. Step 3: Revamp the design and refine the functionality. Step 4: Solidify the core crew of multilingual journalists to begin building the editorial structure. (Note: Fundraising, partnerships, and legal issues are always at the top of the list…but their timetables have a logic all their own.)

Once steps 2, 3, and 4 began to fall into place, we’d start. Gradually. Privately. Our homepage/signup page would be a placeholder, while the various pieces came together behind the scenes. Through December, we’d use a special password for access to begin to show what we were doing (design, functionality…and the articles themselves) to our friends and colleagues, potential partners and investors, and those interested enough to sign up. Then, by the first week of January, shazzam: Launch!

But in the span of 72 hours in mid-November, two things happened that convinced us it was time to, er, slow-down-and-speed-up. First, we were presented with the chance to create an innovative front end for the website, which also held the possibility to integrate iPhone and iPad apps more rapidly down the road. This new front end would slow us down. Around the same time, one of our news partners, top French business daily Les Echos, told us they were extra eager to have us begin producing their stories to post on their website. Well, we thought, after we saw the first few Worldcrunch-produced stories on lesechos.fr, we realized we should (as is foreseen in the partnership agreement) also start posting them on ours. This would speed us up.

Putting these two equal but opposite forces on some kind of pulley system attached to a pair of fisherman’s sinkers (10th-grade physics don’t fail me now!) created the perfect conditions for our startup to make that famous pivot.

So as of two weeks ago, we are live, sort of — for anyone to see. It is not our beta, or even alpha, version. Yet it’s not quite a blog either, since we are not just publishing stuff about what we’ll be doing, but actually starting to do it. We have chosen to call our temporary public home The Garage.

This was a major decision, strategically and psychologically. As such, it was bound to test the fiber of the team, and again proved that despite our occasional bickering like brother and sister, my co-founder Irene and I are truly in synch. There was a lot riding on the decision to both push back the beta launch, and in the meantime go live with our stories. It would change both how we’d present ourselves to the public, and the mechanics of how the actual site (and company) might evolve. Yet after two brief conversations between us, and consultations with our investors, we agreed on the change of plans as if we were thinking with one brain. This bodes well for other big decisions — and pivots — that are sure to come.

A pivotal meal?

Last week was The Lunch. If some day Worldcrunch ends up realizing its full potential, the cafeteria-chic meal at Gustave in the Eighth Arrondissement will stand as one of the key moments that set us on our way. The occasion was the arrival in Paris (for the LeWeb confererence) of Lili Rodic, our indefatigable Zagreb-based web development team leader. Along with Irene, there was also Frederic Bonelli and Diane Grappin, two of our first investors. Fred has been advising us on key technical and digital publishing strategy. Diane is driving all that is product- and design-related at Worldcrunch.

We were at lunch to talk about refining the Garage, and the next steps for moving closer to the beta launch. But inevitably what we need to do today, particularly in the development of the technology, leads to discussions about the future: about how to build into the technical framework the right tools to allow our editorial and business ambitions to be realized. We brought up ideas that had already been floating around. We factored in budget and timing issues. We ate our nouvelle cuisine off of plastic trays.

But at a certain point, Fred began to lay out his vision for what the architecture of Worldcrunch should be, literally mapping it out for Lili (and the rest of us) on a piece of scrap paper. Something in that moment started to crystallize. We could suddenly see how our editorial and technical potential was naturally intertwined. It was the blueprint for a news enterprise built with new eyes — as I put it a year ago in a blissfully ignorant “about” page for my blog — and legs.

Still, big plans aside, my days now are mostly (and finally!) filled with the nuts and bolts of producing stories. We have the beginnings of a dynamite team on the editorial side. Together, we are using this time in the Garage to begin to create what in some ways is a wholly new editorial process: the selection and production of stories in English from the best of the foreign-language press, in real time. There is much to dissect, much to learn, and it will of course be a topic for future posts. In the meantime, both the day-in, day-out journalism we are doing and the other dot-connecting to come is proof of another theorem: The quality and efficiency of the editorial side improves in direct relation to the quality and efficiency of the business and technical sides. And vice-(vice)-versa. But this is not another new law of physics: just the old, yet ever valid formula for what we still call the news business.

POSTED     Dec. 14, 2010, 1 p.m.
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