My Journalism 2.0 search for better business models

by Jeff Vance on August 26, 2014

in Blog,PR/Marketing

As many of you already know, my business is undergoing some fairly radical changes.

The old business models supporting good journalism just don’t work anymore, and many of the new ones hoping to replace them simply mirror the mistakes the U.S. made in the past by letting manufacturing get gutted, unions destroyed, and labor devalued, as lower-cost competitors from overseas filled the void.

The lower-cost competitors to trained journalists typically aren’t overseas writers, but they’re the million and one writers willing to give content away for free. Even if most of what you find on a site like BuzzFeed or Digg or Gawker or, heaven forbid, Upworthy is pure, distilled garbage, these sites still gut traditional business models.

And even if I dismiss much of their content, disrupting those models isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Publishing and journalism are experiencing almost daily disruptions, and I’m doing my best to help drive, rather than simply react to, those changes. I will continue to write for many of the outlets I’ve always written for, just not as frequently. The economics simply don’t work. In fact, for all of the pubs I have long relationships with, my rate is equal to or less than it was when I started freelancing back in 2003.

That’s not sustainable, which is why I do less and less and less of it.

I often contemplate just cutting the cord with these publications, since the economics are so messed up, but I’ve built up relationships with some of these editors. They stuck with me during the hard times right after the Great Recession hit, and I know that the economics trouble them as much as they do me.

That said, in every other part of my business, the economics work. Sometimes too well. I’ll do my best to stay loyal to some of my good friends still fighting the good fight behind the editor’s desk, but I can only do so much.

The hunt for good writers — it’s harder than I suspected

Here’s what I’m up to: first, I’m bringing in some ghostwriters who I can train to, if not write like me, at least handle research, some interviews, and the early drafting, so I can swoop in for the final draft or two and whip the beasts into shape without spending an exorbitant amount of time on the story.

mug2However, this process takes time – an excruciating amount of time. Finding a good writer/content marketer, who understands technology, understands writing for an audience split between IT folks and business leaders, knows to emphasize pain points and real-world stories, and who, on top of all of that, also understands that sending along a final draft is really only the mid-point of the article writing process these days . . . well, that Venn Diagram of overlapping skills is an intricate one, and the process has been more miss than hit.

I do have a couple of good prospects starting out, however, but I suspect training will take some time. No, I know training will take some time.

Next, my copywriting and content marketing business is still doubling every 6 months or so. As a result, it’s taking up more and more of my time. After fine-tuning my hunt for my own writers, I have a much deeper understanding now about why tech companies need skills like the ones I listed above so desperately. It’s a mixed skill set that few have. I have a much better read on the value I deliver these companies, as well as a much deeper understanding of their pain points, and with that knowledge, it’s a heck of a lot easier to make the economics work than with trade and business publications. (In fact, you kind of have to work hard to make the economics not work, but that’s a discussion for another day.)

User conference pain points

Third, if you know me, you know the first thing I focus on whenever I try to understand something new is pain points. A new pain point has emerged in the content marketing world, one I wasn’t really aware of, but which I’m in a really good position to solve.

I’ve been getting more and more invites to trade shows and conferences of late, typically user conferences.

The organizers, marketers, and PR people supporting these user conferences (UCs) are in a tough spot. Their clients want media coverage, but media organizations will only pay to send their reporters to the top shows, such as CES, RSA, or the Mobile World Congress. Smaller shows, they skip.

Yet, most of these media organizations also have rules in place prohibiting their journalists from accepting hotel accommodations or travel reimbursement from third parties, since conflicts of interest arise.

As a result, it’s become a common practice for show organizers to invite freelance journalists and influential bloggers to these user conferences, covering their hotel, air fare, etc.

CES_FloorThat’s great if you’re a journalist working close to the bone who probably has no other way to afford a trip to Miami or Barcelona or San Francisco or wherever it is you’re being invited to. Must UCs will cover your expenses and give you a decent amount of free time to enjoy yourself, as well. I did go on a couple of these junkets just to check them out.

I also went because I thought they would be good business development opportunities for me. They weren’t.

It’s not that the conferences weren’t good, but it’s just the wrong audience for my services. Most of these are technology shows, with most attendees being technologists of one stripe or another, and that’s really not the proper target for my services.

I also end up losing money attending these shows because I’m either a) postponing higher-margin projects for something with no real ROI, or b) putting off a real vacation (and mental break) for a mini-vacation lite, which it’s really anything but, since it’s not a real break if I have to sit through briefings and then get hounded about follow-up coverage afterwards. Any vacation you need a vacation from is one you need to rethink.

So, after two or three of these trips (I never claimed to be a fast learner), I stopped agreeing to attend.

Bad strategy. I guess it’s like middle school. The more you rebuff a potential suitor, the more interested they become.

What I’m doing now is creating a set of services for conference organizers, services that range from live blogging at the show to ghostwriting for key executives to speaking engagements to running half-day workshops on things like “How to make sure your corporate blog doesn’t suck.” (Yep, that was a real workshop.)

I’m figuring out the pain points, the services to address them, and doing my best to create a business model for UCs with good enough ROI that attending will be something I look forward to rather than avoid.

Setting this all up, though, takes time, and that’s what I’ve spent a lot of the last month or so doing (and I’d say there’s just as much work left to be done as has been accomplished).

Finally, as many of you already know, the Big Data 50 will be released later this month. For me, the Big Data 50 and its parent site, Startup50.com, were yet one more experiment in finding new ways to subsidize journalism. I’m still fine-tuning those efforts, but the Big Data 50 is almost here, and it’s the major project I’ve been focused on lately. And I’ve been focused on building a business model around it so projects like these have ROI high enough that I’ll continue to do them.

Why am I telling you all of this?

The main reason is because many of you have asked. If a half dozen subscribers email me because they think they’ve been accidentally unsubscribed, there’s a problem. I’m also laying open my new journalism playbook because I’ve been working with you, my loyal subscribers, on these experiments from day one.

Story Source itself was an experiment. I figured there had to be a better way to interact with PR pros than simply ignoring you or working through impersonal, imperfect services like HARO. That experiment has paid off many times over, and when Story Source goes on hiatus, I’m reminded of how much you want to receive the updates.

I’m also revealing all of this to assure you that even if I end up abandoning traditional journalism altogether, we’ll still be working together. We may work together much differently, and you may be interacting with my writers more than me in coming months, but this is a community I value and will continue to serve and learn from.

Other projects I have in the pipeline include setting up a podcast, getting a Big Data book out, and, perhaps, even developing an app companion for Story Source.

Thanks for sticking with me, and I look forward to the continuing experiment of making journalism work in our hyper-connected, change-obsessed world.

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