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Sept. 26, 2016, 9:30 a.m.
Business Models

Jeff Israely: Five years in, our news startup is seeing the pace of change slow

“The future is already here, and we have to hustle every day to survive. And succeed.”

Editor’s note: Jeff Israely, a former Time magazine foreign correspondent in Europe, is the cofounder of a news startup called Worldcrunch in Paris. For the past six years, he’s been describing and commenting on the startup process here at Nieman Lab. Read his past installments here.

It’s been five years since we launched our little global media outlet here in Paris, and nearly three since we rolled out a new design for our website — and we’re now in the process of redesigning the redesign. I’m overdue, it seems, to step back and take some stock in what we have (and haven’t) accomplished since launching, and what we think happens next in our never-a-dull-moment world of digital news and communication.

Question 1 is fundamentally (er, tautologically), the first question to ask: Are we still here? Absolutely, yes. Question 2: Have we figured out the winning business formula? Certainly not. Yet.

Aside from rare exceptions, simply surviving to fight another day (day after day) is always part of building a company, and it requires its fair share of good decisions, spotting hidden opportunities, wind-sniffing, and executing, often with limited resources. It’s what a fellow small media company boss calls hustling, in both the Mookie Wilson and Steve McQueen senses of the word.

But surviving is not success, and along the way we’ve made our fair share of mistakes: We pursued strategy X for too long and gave up on strategy Y too soon; we were overly ambitious some days, not ambitious enough on others; our marketing efforts were inconsistent and we didn’t question our editorial approach often enough.

Yes, we’ve worked very hard to build something unique, and do the hard thinking required to figure out where a sometimes painfully small (yet global) operation like ours fits into an industry being turned on its head. But none of that is enough either. No one wants to hear complaints about limited time, staff, or investment capital: Not the people you’re making deals with, nor the team who commit their time for modest wages — and certainly not the folks who did invest their capital. You surround yourself with the best people you can, but in the end is another simple startup dictum: It’s up to the founders to figure it out.

One concrete example of where we fell short was the original Plan A for building revenue out of the block. With no marketing budget and no interest in playing clickbait poker, we set up a system to secure the licensing rights to resell the articles we translated, with a revenue share to the original-language publication. It was a cost-efficient way to produce and distribute high-end journalism. When we signed a deal with the biggest player in the traditional news syndication market to represent us, it was a big day for Worldcrunch.

But the sales were soft from the get-go, and in retrospect, we should have pivoted more quickly. Should we have seen that coming? Should we have worked on our own direct sales? Or maybe, shifted our focus to (cashless) digital news distribution partnerships? Or better yet, find different destinations altogether for our goods and services?

Irene Toporkoff, my business partner-in-crime, and I share a deeply practical streak alongside our big, far-flung ambitions. We are keenly aware of the odds and obstacles, and we too have committed our time for modest wages. There have been real moments of doubt. But we’re still all in, even if we can’t say we have the magic formula in hand. (More on that below. Spoiler alert: Magic doesn’t exist.) But what surviving has given us, besides the opportunity to do some journalism we’re proud of, is the time to build the foundation around the original core concept that still offers different paths to success. Meanwhile, our Plan B for revenue is starting to work. We’ll have to hustle for that too.

As we were in the midst of finalizing the 3.0 version of our website, a summer reading experience offered some further clarity on the challenges ahead, which may be relevant for others slinging news and information on the Internet. Looking for a new book, I was swiping through my wife’s Kindle and saw a novel by the French writer Emmanuel Carrère, whose 2011 Limonov, was the best thing I read last year. La Moustache…hmmm, looked interesting: a contemporary tale of a Parisian who shaves off his mustache, and no one notices. Or did he ever have a moustache? So I just started reading.

Quickly, though, something seemed strange (beyond the plot): It was the protagonist’s inability to find any recent photograph of himself, a colleague who was out of the office and thus unreachable, messages left on answering machines. I quickly checked: the book, which I’d assumed was one of his latest, was instead published in 1986.

The momentary time warp was particularly jarring in an otherwise contemporary setting — running much deeper than, say, seeing a 1986 Chevy in a 1986 movie. Still, these analog flashbacks are not uncommon, and old food for thought for those of us who work in digital communication. But this time got me thinking backward in a different way (maybe because 1986 was when I graduated high school?). Fast forward just eight years to when I sent my first email (1994), and five more to my first cell phone (1999). I had, by the way, already worked six years as a full-time reporter by then without a mobile, even though they were already on the market. (Stingy newspaper bosses!) I got a Blackberry in 2006, was on Facebook and Twitter by 2009, and got my first Android in 2012. (No smartwatch. No Snapchat.)

I’m just one guy, of course. But we can all agree that in the West, the mass diffusion of a handful of new technologies that changed the way we communicate and consume information occurred in a relatively short time frame (for me, 1994-2006). And in the decade since? Even as we’ve watched these habits take root and the news industry (too) slowly confront the challenges, can we really say that another technology has arrived that alters the basic math set forth by the sum of the Internet, GPS, personal computing, and mobile devices?

So my question as I daydreamed from my French novel was the kind that usually doesn’t get asked out loud in future-looking forums like this: What if the biggest changes that ultimately matter to the production and consumption of news and information have already happened? What if, in some fundamental way, this is it? There is nothing that can be invented to allow you to be connected more than 24 hours a day. With all the world’s information at our disposal, all the time, we are maxed out. If every single human can be a citizen journalist (and/or publisher), who’s left? Monkeys, maybe?

Sure, digital innovation in production and distribution will continue to expand and accelerate, with new ways to make these tools even more powerful. There will be plenty of cool new bells and whistles; social video could further supplant text articles; virtual reality could then start raining on video’s parade; Snapchat could kill Facebook; I might buy a smartwatch. Hey, there could even be a revival of print products when digital information overload starts to make the masses both ill and ill-informed.

But what if we changed our state of mind in the face of all the unpredictability on the product and personal habit front? What if our industry began to tell itself that the big changes that really matter have already arrived? Perhaps we might begin to find our bearings and stop living in constant fear that the world is always about to turn upside down. We may even get some new clarity about what technologies can and can’t do. We’ve learned, for example, that the Internet-age mantra “Now anyone can be a journalist” is not by itself a formula for covering the news, let alone for building a news company. Artificial intelligence may be extremely powerful in delivering worthwhile journalism, but can’t produce it. Algorithms can behave as badly as capricious editors.

Speaking of which…last time around, for the redesign of our website, the attempt to build a user experience that was, er, future-proof was the source of some serious soul-searching. But my 1986 flashback experience also helped me realize how little has actually changed in the past three years. Use a responsive design, make it mobile-first, have the right social share buttons. Compared to our last redesign project, this time, I have no illusions about anything changing everything overnight, either for the website or for the company. No, there’s no such thing as magic and the concept of being future-proof is an illusion. The future is already here, and we have to hustle every day to survive. And succeed.

In the climactic scene of La Moustache, as the protagonist is staring into a hotel bathroom mirror at the confusing situation above his upper lip, he can hear the sound of his wife out on the bed flipping through the pages of a news magazine. That scene, I realized, could have actually been set in the present, though today’s news-consumer-on-a-hotel-bed is more likely scrolling an iPhone silently. In our future, will we be consuming journalism that has been produced by other human beings? Absolutely, yes. Will there still be print magazines to flip through? Or TV sets in hotel rooms? Maybe. Does it matter? Certainly not.

Still from the film version of La Moustache by Nathalie Eno/Les Filmes des Tournelles.

POSTED     Sept. 26, 2016, 9:30 a.m.
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