Leaving the newsroom to build a startup: lessons learned

The American Journalism Review recently published a feature story about how journalists are leaving their jobs in newsrooms to build their own new media startups. Carl Straumsheim wrote in the article published last May 2 that “a growing number (of journalists) are taking the skills learned in the newsroom and their personal brands to launch online startups.”

The article features several journalists who gave up their newsroom jobs to start their own new media companies.

“These journalists are regional experts, international correspondents and investigative reporters looking for editorial freedom―and the Internet lowers the entry barrier for them to fill gaps in the media landscape with aggregators, consumer databases and hyperlocal sites,” the article said.

The article resonates strongly with me because my wife and I now run our own new media startup after years of just talking about. Marlen quit her job in 2011 to focus on our new media projects and months after she left, we realized that it was something we should have done a long time ago.

Not that we didn’t think about it. For years we kept on talking about one of us quitting his or her job to focus on our new media projects and to do things that we’ve always wanted to do. But we kept putting it off. For a time, I had thought of quitting but I loved and enjoyed my Sun.Star Cebu newsroom job too much to leave. We decided that that she would be the one to leave. But that fear of the risks involved in building a new media startup always held us back. We have two kids to raise.

INTERVIEW. Here I am being interviewed by host Borgie Cabigas for an episode of MagTV of ABS-CBN.
INTERVIEW. Here I am being interviewed by host Borgie Cabigas for an episode of MagTV of ABS-CBN.

When Marlen did decide to quit, it was the best thing to have happened to us.

Now, we’re finally doing new media projects that we’ve long been talking about, including the use of QR codes to deliver tourism and heritage information, which we finally got to do last year. We’ve published two e-book titles (with multiple editions) and are set to put out a few more. We’re working on several new media projects that will be launched later in the year and we’re enjoying every minute of the learning experience.

Two of our projects were the subject of a resolution of commendation unanimously passed by the Cebu City Council in January 2012.

Our experience since the past year has taught me a lot. These are lessons I’d like to share with you if you’re considering making your own leap of faith:

Take the plunge

Had we started years ago, Marlen and I would have been able to build new media products that we were already talking about at that time. Instead, we took what we thought was the safer career choice — her staying with a thankless job for regular pay.

It was only after she left that we realized that we got the short end of the bargain — we traded the excitement of building a news startup and its potential for earnings for regular pay that proved unrewarding.

A year after leaving her job, Marlen and I have several projects lined up — making more than what she gave up and for less stress and more rewarding and meaningful work.

Personally, I feel that I should also take the plunge. But I still love my newsroom work too much to quit.

Build on open source

We use open source programs in all our projects.

Apart from being free, many open source products are superior to their proprietary competitors. By using open source products, you build on the strength of a system that is produced by a community of developers and users.

When you want a system to manage your website, the best content management systems to consider are WordPress and Drupal, which are both open source projects By using either of the two, you gain a huge advantage of using a system that has been engineered to manage websites very well. By using either of the two, you can have a website that’s far superior to that of mainstream media companies using legacy proprietary systems.

For anything you’d want to do online, there’s probably an open source tool already available to do it.

Leverage the cloud

Utility computing is already accessible; take advantage of it. There are now many cloud-based services that can be used in journalism or in running a new media venture and many of these come in a “freemium” model that offers free plans and paid upgrades. When you’re still starting out, free plans are more than enough for your needs.

Learn tech

Hacker-journalist Brian Boyer says in this article by Time, “If the source of the tumult in the news business is technology, then journalism needs more nerds.”

Compartmentalizing is old media. In new media, you need to have both journalism and technology skills. Knowing basic HTML and CSS and having the ability to work with CMSes are as important as possessing basic grammar and reporting skills.

If you want to be an effective digital journalist, you should have the skills needed to work with the medium.

Iterate

As a print journalist, I operate in a work cycle dictated by publication issues. Work is a daily struggle to prepare the next day’s paper. It’s printed on paper but it might as well be writ on stone — what’s published is done and there’s no taking back.

But digital media is different. You now have the ability to iterate, to publish as you work, to continually work on a product and release incrementally.

Our e-books, for example, are not only released on multiple editions but these are still being worked on — being regularly updated. This you cannot do in print.

Mobile first

People are increasingly consuming content on mobile devices — smartphones, e-readers and tablets. By making sure your content is optimized for mobile display, you can tap into a market that is growing exponentially. When we built our websites, we made sure that these worked well in phones, which, by the nature of our projects, are the primary devices that will be used to access it.

Tap into social networks

Many of the hot startups in the market today build a community quickly by tapping into social networks. Take advantage of these networks. Make your product or content shareable and give people tools for sharing. If you run a blog, consider using Facebook Comments for your comment system: it will allow you to take advantage of the network effect, simplify commenting and deploy a robust identity system.

Don’t sweat the “other” stuff

For a time, I was bogged down solving problems we did not have. In one site, I was agonizing over which community solution to use for a non-existent community. In yet another site, I spent days trying to build a responsive theme from scratch.

As a writer, my time is better spent coming up with articles and producing content. And yet there I was, sweating over “other” stuff. I eventually just decided on using a responsive theme — freeing me from programming and maintenance work to focus on content production.

Know the business side of running a startup

Years of working with that wall that divides journalism from its business side has left many journalists without the business skills needed to make their startups a success. If you launch your own new media startup, you need to learn the business side of journalism and quickly. You can get away with not having to deal with advertisers by choosing to monetize with an ad network like Google AdSense, but this may not be the most viable option for your product. For many publishers, AdSense is no longer as lucrative as it used to be. You need to find other ways to monetize.

You also need admin skills to set up your business and run its operations. This is something that we do not have the skill nor time for so we decided on being incubated by the Cebu Business Incubator in IT, which has a program to help us deal with these things.

Bootstrap

Be prepared to bootstrap. It’s still hard to get venture capital for your new media startup in a country like the Philippines and in a province like Cebu. You will have to bootstrap.

You have to be prepared to fund your own startup. You have to be ready to take on day jobs or newsroom work or call center employment to fund your venture.

Learn; experiment

Never stop learning and always experiment. Technology changes so fast that if you do not keep up you risk falling by the wayside. To be able to harness opportunities brought by advances in technology, you need to continually upgrade your skills and knowledge.

E-BOOKS. Marlen being interviewed by Jason Baguia of the Philippine Daily Inquirer on our Sinulog e-book.
E-BOOKS. Marlen being interviewed by Jason Baguia of the Philippine Daily Inquirer on our Sinulog e-book.