Digital Innovation Digital Publishing
5 mins read

Building a modern and sustainable media outlet is easier than ever

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“Easier than ever”, of course, does not mean easy. Here are the tools to make sure the hard work you put toward launching a successful news media brand pays off

From time to time I like to engage in a small thought experiment – I think about what it would take to start a new media publication. This exercise has evolved over the years as studies about reader revenue models, newsletters and conversion rates have mushroomed. 

There are easy and cheap tools available – to set up a website, a CMS (content management system) and operate an online newsroom. Timelines are no longer days, but hours. Together with the available data and tested models (e.g., we know that 5 to 10 percent of readers are willing to pay for quality content), that makes it easier than ever for budding publishers to launch a news media. 

Building a newsroom, first steps

OK, let me get back to the thought experiment.

First, it would have to be a reader supported venture, not a scale game (meaning, not ad-supported). Right there hangs the second question – for-profit or non-profit? I have never worked for a nonprofit news organization. So, in my mind, I always go with the for-profit model.

Next question, is it going to be something mission-driven? That would help decide between a membership model or rather a subscription-based outlet with paywalled content. Usually I do not have a clear mission in mind while doing this exercise, so again, I choose subscriptions.

Now we have an idea for a subscription news outlet. Next we need a newsroom and audience. It is really important to say at this point, that in real life you would be starting from the audience you are going to serve, not the other way around.

Also, make sure to define the audience and its needs precisely. There are many examples of newsrooms splitting, when a group thought they could target better via a new venture (e.g. Politico founding staff left The Washington PostAxios founding editors left Politico).

The tools (consider the latest Substack updates)

For years I was responsible for the development of our inhouse CMS (content management system). So I understand the need of bigger newsrooms to invest vast resources into creating their own system. On the other hand, WordPress is robust and secure enough to suit most outlets.

Of course, for smaller and medium-sized operations, there are a couple of options you can choose from. There is NewsPack, a self-proclaimed “WordPress for News Organizations.” The team behind the project is building on top of WordPress. It has all the features you would want from a CMS with several pricing options.

But if you are looking for a CMS to get you started really quickly, and possibly cheaply, the latest feature update to Substack may have you covered.

Last week, Substack announced the release of publication sections, which allow anyone to create and manage multiple newsletters or podcasts within a single main publication. Yes, you can now set up a newsroom with several newsletters and podcasts for free on Substack. The best part is that you will not need any developers to do it.

The Dispatch is a good example of such a publication operating on Substack. It has multiple newsletters and even podcasts.

With this seemingly small update you can now build a “mini media empire” on Substack, as The Financial Times put it.

Here is, what Substack co-founder Hamish McKenzie told the FT:

This is a very lightweight, very fast, very affordable, kind of instant way to start a news organisation, where you don’t have to go and hire a bunch of engineers, or a bunch of designers, or a bunch of business admin back-end people to figure out a model and sales operation and figure it all out from scratch.

Let me sum it up. You can now have a custom domain for your Substack publication, there is a little personalization allowed in terms of design, you can have multiple newsletters and podcasts, and you can take your list of emails and leave anytime for another solution.

The tools above cover all the important “must haves” for a new publication. This means you can focus your energy on editorial strategy and even subscription or membership strategies.

The obvious downside for a publication in a non-English speaking country is that Substack does not come in other language versions. When I asked the founders some time ago when to expect this, it was still low on the list. There is no mention when to expect it on the site. You can still write in your own language but everything else on the site will be in English.

Business strategy, content strategy, reaching audiences

Starting a new publication also means coming up with a business plan.

There are several guides to help you, here is a good description from Shopify’s blogA good business plan can help you clarify your strategy, identify potential roadblocks, decide what you’ll need in the way of resources, and evaluate the viability of your idea before you learn how to start a business.

At this point in the exercise, I have a site (running on Substack), staff (journalists and editors), a business plan (and some initial investment obviously), and an audience I want to reach (for training purposes let’s say I am building a local newsroom for a specific region with a focus on the urban areas).

My content strategy is going to be simple. I will start with a daily news briefing (a newsletter), with short and newsworthy information. I will try to convey to the staff that apart from summarizing news from existing outlets we need exclusive information. Also, possibly a fun element like adding a picture from someone’s Instagram.

One newsletter is not enough in my case, so the plan is to set up more with specific topics (sports, interviews with local leaders, business…). Some of the newsletters will be free, some paid. The same will go for the podcasts.

As my newsroom wants to reach a local audience, I will use social media to target them with ads. Also, a referral program with cool merch and free subscriptions from the start.

I want to be part of the community, so my newsroom will also host events. (Virtual first, there’s a pandemic, but in-person as soon as it is safe). Also, my goal is to build and grow an online community on WhatsApp, Telegram, Discord, Slack, or other platform.

All this sounds much simpler written down. Reality is seldom so straightforward. The point of this exercise is to review all the available tools and knowledge out there.

I have done this exercise many times over the years. It always gets a bit easier every time I do it. There is simply more information, more successful case studies to draw lessons from and more ready-to-use tools. 

Now, just the hard work of doing quality journalism.

David Tvrdon

This piece was originally published in The Fix and is re-published with permission. The Fix is a solutions-oriented publication focusing on the European media scene. Subscribe to its weekly newsletter here.