Gaz Corfield is a one-time student newspaper editor, founder and editor of The West Londoner local news website, and is now a social media specialist working in London. He is passionate about journalism (despite having sold out!) but just can’t see how it will survive in the digital age. He rants about everything from Leveson to London transport at @GazTheJourno.
Starting your own news website seems like the perfect answer to a lack of jobs in the journalism market at the moment. You get to be your own boss, follow your own news instincts and build your own reputation for yourself. What’s not to love?
The money. Put succinctly, there ain’t a lot of it in British journalism, and what few market
opportunities do exist are jealously guarded by the companies who’ve already capitalised on them.
Present-day journalism training focuses on the core skills of journalism; writing, interviewing and law. What it needs is training in the mundane but utterly essential skills of advertising sales. Without those skills (and they’re vastly different from journalism), any hyperlocal startup is doomed to failure.
This approach works as long as your intended career path centres around getting a job with an established media company. It doesn’t work if you’re going to try and go semi-freelance and work for yourself.
Now, I was relatively lucky. I happened to start myself a little WordPress news blog the week before the biggest London news event of the decade; the London riots last summer. I then met a market demand (for fast and accurate content) and did it better than everyone else (me and my team were ahead of the BBC by hours, Sky News acknowledged us on air and the Daily Telegraph even linked to us from their own liveblog).
This netted me 2 million page impressions within a week, 10,000 social media followers and a
thousands of regular readers. What went wrong, you ask? Why did a website with a relatively large and loyal following not survive in commercial terms?
Simple. Money. Journalism on its own does not generate revenue. Journalism on its own is, in fact, a giant bottomless pit into which money sinks at a terrifying rate. Don’t believe me? Consider the costs of buying equipment, travel, time spent travelling/researching/interviewing/writing, and so forth. What you need, if you’re going to start your own site, is a dedicated sales person. With the economy in the state it is at present, small businessmen aren’t interested in spending money on advertising campaigns. As one contact of mine remarked, “It’s so expensive and there’s so little reward from it.”
Are there any revenue-generating solutions for hyperlocal startups that don’t involve bringing in another (potentially costly) member of staff who isn’t focused on content creation? There are a few. My personal favourite du jour is Addiply, which takes over your existing advertising spaces and runs them on your behalf, giving you a 90% share of the revenue they generate through their network of dedicated advertising salesmen.
The problem of revenue generation is, of course, a problem with modern journalism in general, and far finer minds than mine have cogitated over it. From my personal experiences, I can say: had I known months ago what I know now, I’d have concentrated on revenue generation first and journalism second.
All that said, the West Londoner did get me my current job (which isn’t in journalism). The
transferable skills from actually doing online journalism (website construction and maintenance, social media, community management, copywriting, editing, etc etc) are definitely worthwhile acquiring.
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After finishing my stint in student media, I couldn’t help but look