Economic pressures on the news industry caused by digital technology make it seem like fewer wannabe hacks than ever will be able to reach their goal of a full-time journalism job working a prestigious beat for a big news organisation. But those same digital forces are also opening up opportunities for journalism students to start up their own businesses, with much more chance of competing with the big guns for the attention of the internet audience. If you are thinking about building a product or service whilst trying to get your foot in the media door, here are three questions you’d do well to ask yourself.
What is your minimum viable product?
“Minimum viable product” is a phrase used in agile product development to describe the least amount of work you have to do to get a service up and running that will deliver value to the user, and valuable information back to the business. Sometimes that can be a lot more minimal than you’d imagine. Some people have launched with a product that simply consisted of an email registration form asking people if they’d like to try out a service. That is a great way of validating wether your idea will find a market.
Another way of thinking about “minimum viable product” is how you can scope it so that it works for a small group of users, and you don’t have to worry about building something of industrial scale. When Facebook launched you could only join it if you happened to be at the same college as Mark Zuckerberg at the same time. You might be building something that would be of use to journalists the world over – but can you find a way to restrict it to a location or demographic or specific purpose. This is especially true of services with a data component – it is often easier to verify and augment a small focussed dataset (for example all the bus stops in Manchester) rather than trying to do the equivalent on boiling the ocean (e.g. every bus stop in the world).
It might initially limit your potential audience, but nothing gives you greater insight into how people are going to use your product than having people use your product. So get something in front of people as soon as possible – here are ten examples of the MVP.
Digital content strategy is completely different to the content strategy you might be thinking about for a career in journalism. Content doesn’t get thrown away next day, week or month according to your publishing cycle. Content on the web lives on, and you need a content strategy for that.
Make a list of all the pages you think you need on a site – how people can contact you, answers to commonly asked problems, help and support pages. Then add to the list how often they need checking and updating. Not every day, for sure, but it is very easy to publish pages on a website that instruct users to “press the green button marked ‘Edit’”, and then in a subsequent product update change the button to a blue one that says “Update” – and not go back and change the help text.
You’ll be surprised how time draining running a small business or service can be. You’ll be wanting to promote it to encourage more users, you’ll be wanting to develop new features, and you’ll probably be so excited that you’ve got one successful project running that you’ll want to try another one. But hang on – what about customer support? Apple listen very carefully to people who have bad experiences – it is how they get a good reputation for customer service. And what about the unsolicited requests for advice? How much time does all this take when you might still be continuing your studies or doing some work somewhere to get experience? Think about how much time you are prepared to devote to running your project – and stick to it.
Similarly, set some success criteria. Maybe after six months you want to have attracted x number of users, or maybe you want to collect five positive reviews of your idea to put into your portfolio or CV. Perhaps you want it to break even, or, if it is a labour of love, want to keep monthly costs of running the service to £33. Whatever it is, find a metric, work towards it, and don’t be afraid to end the project if it isn’t meeting the targets. “Thanks everybody, we tried this idea, it isn’t working out for us so we are closing it down” is a much nicer way to sign-off than for a service to gradually wane and die as you lose interest.
Get started tomorrow
Datasets, open source software, frameworks like Twitter Bootstrap and the collaborative nature of the web mean that it has never been easier to put together a new service. So if you’ve got an idea for digital product in the journalism space, get started tomorrow.
Image courtesy of AndyRobertsPhotos.
Martin Belam is Principal Consultant at Emblem, a digital consultancy offering user experience design and training services to organisations and start-ups in the publishing, media, arts, heritage and culture sectors. Formerly UX Lead at the Guardian, he has spent over a decade building successful digital products and user experiences across mobile and desktop for global brands like the Guardian, BBC, Sony and Vodafone. He helps run London IA, a network for designers, information architects and writers. Martin blogs about user experience, journalism and digital media at currybet.net and for the Guardian, and can be found on Twitter as @currybet.