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Future of News meet-up: Pick a big market, be your own marketing, wear red shoes

I get tired of bloggers and journalists (let’s face it, like me) who spend their time opining about the problems and challenges for journalists. Which is why I’m a fan of Adam Westbrook’s Future of News Group in London, which he founded to discuss the latest in practical solutions for the news biz instead of lofty theory.

So I came down to the latest #FONG meet-up – concerned with “entrepreneurial journalism” – on Tuesday night to find out more. Westbrook – who himself has a very healthy entreprenuerial streak – kicked off the session by admitting, with blunt accuracy, that “lots of us are coming round to the idea that we can be entrepreneurial journalists, but none of us have a bloody clue how.” Here’s Adam’s take on the event, but here’s what I made of it:

Pick a big market, be your own marketing, wear red shoes

First up was Emi Gal, founder of Brainient, a Romanian video advertising start-up – it adds a layer of contextual or affiliate-led ads over any video content. (I’m not entirely sure how this engages with Google/YouTube’s own increasingly profitable overlay ad programme, but that’s for another time…)

24-year-old Gal is a good person to listen to because this is far from his first attempt at making a start-up work. He founded his first business aged 18, a social network which became very successful, and then went on to found an online TV start-up, which he admits “failed big time”. Brainient was one of six winners at the Seedcamp start-up competition in 2009, which landed it $50,000 in seed funding, and Gal has since received more funding.

Gal has lots of advice for would-be entrepreneurs, though much of it is the kind of thing you will hear from other enthusiastic entrepreneurs: things like pick a good co-founder, get the right team, pick a massive market, figure out the “minimal viable product” that people will pay for. Check out coverage of this Techcrunch’s GeeknRolla conference for similar advice, particularly the excellent Morten Lund (funded Skype at an early stage, made gazillions, went bankrupt) and Rummble founder Andrew J Scott.

But for me the best advice Gal had for news professionals looking to either sell themselves of a product they’ve built is that “you are marketing, your product is marketing, your mum is marketing.” In other words, everything you do as an entrepreneur should contribute to the buzz about your business.

Being personable and memorable when meeting people is a big part of that: it sounds flippant, but Gal made a big deal of his vibrantly red shoes. But, he says, at least it makes him memorable.

But how do you fund journalism about human rights?

Up next was YooDoo, which provides advice and tools for new businesses. Tony Heywood and Nick Saalfield talked about what they do – I wasn’t entirely sure how they might specifically help news entrepreneurs but I’m sure they’ll offer help to some people out there and the service is free.

This was Saalfield’s harsh but accurate approximation of the print media: “Start feeling sorry for newspapers and publishers. They’re badly managed, they work very slowly, they’re fragile and not very agile.”

I was more interested in the debate that started after their talk. Deborah Bonello – aka @thevideoreport – founded Mexicoreporter.com and carved out a niche as a multimedia freelance journalist (she spoke at the Frontline Club alongside Adam last month at a great event on freelance journalism).

Bonello hit the nail right on head by describing the economic barrier for anyone wanting to make a living from original content: the FT can make money from writing about stock markets and emerging markets; Gizmodo sells ads by writing about gadgets – this is all actionable content, stuff that will inspire readers to click on an add or affiliate link and buy something.

But what about reporting focusing on human rights? Who’s going to click on an ad surrounding that? She said:

The problem is, if you’re not writing about the decisions about why people make investments, [but about things like] immigration, or culture, art… there’s not that same market for people that might like to pay for that.

As she so rightly says, “as journalists we’re taught to questions the powers.” The plan for most people who go into the industry – I would say – is not to think about how to give the capitalist classes exactly what they need to make more money.

Here’s what content entrepreneur Evan Rudowski said on paywalls on PCUK in February:

The paid content opportunity is greatest if the content is unique, actionable, targeted at a relevant niche, frequently updated and from a credible or trusted source.

Availability of free alternatives can be a limiting factor, but not the determining factor – there are barrel-loads of free content about wine, for example, but plenty of people are nevertheless willing to pay FT wine columnist Jancis Robinson £69 a year for her unique expertise.

So “actionable” is one of the things journalism needs to be to be profitable. But could you tick the other boxes on Rudowski’s list and still make a living? Or, more likely, is there a public or charitable solution to this problem that takes news production out of the corporate, profit-driven, assembly line model?

I have no “bloody clue” either but I’m looking forward to more FONG meet-ups in the hope of getting closer to some answers.

Patrick Smith is a freelance journalist, event organiser and formerly a correspondent for paidContent:UK and Press Gazette. He blogs at psmithjournalist.com and is @psmith on twitter.

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