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Startups need to address real needs

“The startups most likely to succeed will be those that are closest to their communities and that have an intimate understanding of their readers’ information-seeking behaviors and motivations.”

I’m excited to see what 2014 brings for the many media startups that have launched over the past few years and hope to both fill the void left behind by struggling legacy institutions and tap digital tools to create more informed and engaged communities.

csmithI’ve spent the past year and a half or so immersed in learning about entrepreneurship from a variety of different people and perspectives. The excellent Scripps Howard Journalism Entrepreneurship Institute, led by Dan Gillmor, offered journalism professors expert help in introducing entrepreneurial concepts into our teaching; Memphis Innovation Bootcamp was an intensive three-day introduction into design thinking; our local accelerator introduced me to the business model canvas and other startup principles with their ongoing programming, and PBS MediaShift’s Collab/Space Atlanta offered the chance to get a close look at the challenges and successes of a group of fledgling media-related startups. Suffice it to say: Startups have been top of mind.

If there is one thing I’ve learned from all of this, it is that the most important thing startups need to succeed is a relentless focus on their customers’ problems and the ability to constantly iterate. The news startups that do this are the ones we will see succeed in 2014 and beyond.

This applies to nonprofits as well — at least the ones hoping to sustain themselves for the long haul. As more than one startup expert has told me: “Nonprofit isn’t a business model. It’s a tax status.”

While I don’t think there’s any doubt that communities need information and tools to engage with each other in order to thrive and to self-govern, I think some media startups are a bit vague when it comes to articulating precisely what their readers’ needs are and how they will meet them. Journalists have long talked about serving “the public” even as, unconsciously or not, they have succumbed to writing for their peers and Pulitzer judges. Doing that in the startup environment is risky and may lead to failure or at least lackluster results.

Spending so much time with entrepreneurs has taught me to be suspicious of business plans or pitches that don’t start with an intensive period of observation and discussion of how customers experience problems and what kinds of solutions would best meet their needs, followed by developing an ongoing process of testing new product features with users.

One example of a journalism-related startup that I think shows promise in its focus on a concrete problem to-be-solved is Clear Health Costs, and I look forward to seeing what they achieve in 2014. This startup uses journalistic skills to bring transparency to the notoriously opaque medical industry and meets a demonstrable need for more information about the costs of health care procedures and drugs. Particularly for people with minimal health insurance and high deductibles, this information is an obvious, pressing need.

Another example of a promising media startup I hope to see do good things in 2014 is Groundsource, which uses a simple system to ask people questions via text message. It works even on basic feature phones, and thus can be used throughout the globe. Not only is this of obvious use to journalists seeking to broaden their source base and do better reporting, it’s also easy to imagine how pollsters and other experts in public opinion or market research could also use the tool, perhaps subsidizing its journalistic and pro-social aims.

I’m also encouraged by the substantial number of new and established hyperlocal news startups, many of them nonprofits. I think many show great potential for 2014, but the most likely to succeed will be those that are closest to their communities and that have an intimate understanding of their readers’ information-seeking behaviors and motivations.

Carrie Brown-Smith is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Memphis.

Updating regularly through Friday, December 20