NewsTilt lesson: Know thy audience
NewsTilt, the ill-fated, venture-backed journalism startup that shut down after just two months, is a case study in how not to launch a business. The problems this company faced extend well beyond journalism but still provide some valuable lessons for any media startup or established media company experimenting with new business models.
Why did NewsTilt go belly-up so quickly? Co-founder Paul Biggar addressed the problems in excruciating, fall-on-the-sword detail in a blog post last Friday. The core problems he cited were not directly related to the media business: a poor relationship between the co-founders, overpromising and under-delivering on the technology platform, and a lack of understanding of the market they were addressing, followed quickly by a loss of motivation. These hurdles alone are significant enough to doom a startup in any industry.
But there were other contributing factors specific to creating a successful media venture. The biggest mistake involves the focus and the audience – both of which were sorely lacking in the NewsTilt model. A couple of things Biggar said to me in a March interview, as the site was launching, should have raised a red flag.
First, when I asked him about the audience they were targeting, he responded, "I would say that there is no 'audience' anymore. … Now they’re interactive. They want to comment, they want the authors to reply to them."
In other words, they were expecting that individual journalists would write about whatever they wanted to write about, and through the magic of social media, the masses would flock to them.
Note to entrepreneurs: This is not a compelling pitch to advertisers. If you’re launching a media site, you need a specific target, not just a loose collection of random topics that at some point might collectively drive tons of page views.
If your play is general news, you need to understand how people consume news content and the topics that appeal to them. The revenue play is volume, more likely advertising-supported. If you’re going niche, you need a laser focus on that topic, in a way that differentiates from anyone else’s coverage of that topic. The revenue play is loyalty and engagement, with a clear path to paid content.
This leads to the second red flag. In the April interview, Biggar said, "It’s not that important what [NewsTilt contributors] write about. It’s important that we produce interesting things written by professionals. We don’t care about the topics. We will write about what everyone wants us to write about – eventually, that will encompass everything."
Well, what you write about is vitally important. Again, this build-it-and-they-will-come approach to journalism does not work. You need to do your homework on the audience you’re targeting, how they consume content, and how you can differentiate your product in a way that not only draws readers to your content, but convinces them to return to it (and promote it to others). As a contrast, see Jim Spanfeller's approach to his media startup.
Biggar addressed the audience issue in his post-mortem:
“The fact that we didn’t know anything about our readers’ demographics underscores another problem: I don’t understand news readers. … My customer development had largely consisted of talking to journalists and figuring out what they wanted. I never really–despite good intentions on lots of occasions–talked to people who loved news about why they loved it. So I was unable to say what was going wrong and why people weren’t sticking around.”
But while acknowledging that he didn’t understand the audience, he also implied that he didn’t need to understand them when discussing why journalists lost interest in contributing: "Journalists felt that they were writing for us, instead of writing for themselves, for their own brands," he wrote.
Journalists should not write for their own brands. They should write for their audience. Whether they do that on their own or as part of a larger media brand is beside the point.
Still a valid concept?
In a brief phone interview yesterday, Biggar maintains that the concept of the "branded journalist" still has legs. "Every journalist we spoke to was excited about the idea," he said. "Journalists realize that the model of journalistic entrepreneur is the way to go in the future. We didn’t invent this idea. But journalists are good at being journalists, not entrepreneurs. Anything that makes it easier for them to launch their own brands, I think they’ll eat up."
Jon Margolis, a journalist who served as an (unpaid) editor for NewsTilt, agrees with that premise.
"I’m not a business guy," Margolis, who authors the Vermont News Guy blog, said in a phone interview. "I know how to write. I figured they were serious about providing a platform where serious journalism could take place.
"I think their motivations were honorable and good," he added. "They just couldn’t figure out a way to make money with it."
Biggar acknowledged that trying to create a destination site for general news, assembled from what basically was a journalism co-op, was probably not the right approach.
"I believe that people will stop reading generalist sites," he said in our interview. "Instead, they will go to niches they enjoy. Though there may be a niche for general news."
The takeaways for media professionals from this sad tale? Whether you are an "entprepreneurial journalist," manage a small team of writers and editors, or run a major media brand, you need to define your audience, write for that audience, promote to that audience, and engage with that audience. There are plenty of technology platforms and tools to help you do that, but if you don’t build that foundation first, you’re toast.