In a previous Monday Note, we looked at an ideal newsroom, profusely funded by Pierre Omidyar and managed by whistleblowing facilitator Glenn Greenwald, a structure that combines the agility of a tech startup with the highest of journalistic standards. Today, we look at the product and the business model.
Profit or non-profit? Definitely for-profit! First, because the eBay founder's track record (see this The New Inquiry article) shows a fierce appetite for profitable ventures. And second, because there no such thing as a free and independent media press without a strong business side: financial vulnerability is journalism's worst enemy while profit breeds scalability. How to make money, then, with a narrow niche such as investigative journalism? Can Omidyar's venture move beyond the cross-subsidy system that powered legacy media for decades? This weekend, in a FT.com interview, Henry Blodget justified the deluge of eye-grabbing headlines spread over Business Insider by saying "The dining and motoring sections pay for the Iraq bureau". . .
For this, Omidyar can look at a wide set of choices: he could devise click-driven contents built on the proven high volume / cheap ads equation. Or he could opt for what I'll call the Porsche Model, one in which the most visible activity (in this case sports car manufacturing) brings only a marginal contribution to the P&L when compared to its financial activities: in 2009, Porsche made $1bn in profit from car sales and almost $7bn betting on Volkswagen stock. More realistically, an endowment-like model sounds natural for a deep-pocketed investor like Pierre Omidyar. Most US universities are doing fine with that model: a large sum of money, the endowment, is invested and produces enough interest to run operations. One sure thing: If he really wants to go against big corporations and finance, to shield it from pressure, Omidyar should keep its business model disconnected from its editorial operation.
Investigative journalism is a field in which the subscription model can work. In France, the web site Mediapart offers a credible example. Known for, among many others feats, its investigation of the Budget Minister's hidden Swiss bank account that led to its resignation, Mediapart maintains a newsroom of seasoned reporters working on hot topics. In five years, it collected close to 80,000 subscribers paying €9.90 per month; the web site intends to make €6m ($8m) in revenue and a profit of €0.4m ($0.5m) this year. Small amounts indeed, but not so bad for a market one fifth the size of the US. Scaling up to the huge English-speaking market, and assuming that it will go for a global scope rather than a US-centric coverage, the Omidyar-Greenwald venture could shoot for 500,000 to 800,000 subscribers within a few years, achieving $40m to $60m in yearly revenue.
On the product side, the motto should be Try Everything - on multiple segments and platforms.
Here is possible product-line structure:
Mobile should primarily be a news updating vector. In a developing story, say hearings on the NSA scandal, readers want quotes, live blogging, snapshots - all easy to grab while on the go. Addiction must be the goal.
Newsletters deserve particular attention. They remain an excellent vector to distribute news and a powerful traffic driver. But this requires two conditions: First, they must be carefully designed, written by human beings and not by robots. Second, they must be run like an e-commerce operation: a combination of mass emailing and heavy personalization based on collected navigation data. For an editorial product, this means mapping out granular "semantic profiles" in order to serve users with tailored contents. If the Omidyar-Greenwald project lives up to its promise, it will deliver a regular stream of exclusive stuff. A cleverly engineered email system (both editorially and technically) stands good chances to become a must-read.
User profiling must allow the creation of several verticals. Judging who will join the venture from the first bylines (see article in CNet), the coverage intends te be broad: from national security to White House politics, sports issues (a sure click-bait), civil liberties, military affairs, etc. This justifies working on audience segmentation, as not everyone will be interested in the same subject. The same goes for social web extensions: the more segmented, the better.
Web TV. If you want to go beyond kittens or Nascar crashes, providing TV contents on the web is more difficult that it appears. But "programs" available in Scandinavia show that, for developing stories, Web TV can be a great substitute for conventional TV as it allows simultaneous coverage of multiple events. Nordic viewers love that.
Fact-checking. Since the Omidyar-Greenwald project is built. t on trust and transparency, it should consider launching the equivalent of politifact.com, a fact-checking web site operated by the Tampa Bay Times, which landed a Pulitzer Prize in 2009. A vertical fact-checking site on national security, privacy and data protection issue would definitely be a hit.
Other languages. Going after the Chinese market could be hard to resist. According to Internet World Stats, it is by far the largest single market in the world with 538 million people connected to the web in 2012. For a media venture aimed at lifting the veil on corruption, China offers strong potential in itself. As far as evading censorship, it should be an appealing challenge for the squad of hackers hired by Omidyar-Greenwald.
A print version? Yes. It sounds weird, but I strongly believe that a well-designed weekly, large format (tabloid or Berliner), distributed on selected, affluent markets, would complete the product line. Print remains a vector of choice for specific, long-form readings, ambitious news scenographies with high impact photographs, for an in-depth profile or a public interest story.
Global Thinking. Its potential for worldwide reach is one of this venture's most interesting factors. It will be of limited interest if it doesn't embrace a global approach to public interest journalism in large democracies but also in countries that are deprived of a free press (a long list). Creating a high standard, worldwide affiliation system to promote investigative journalism everywhere, regardless of the economic and political constraints, should definitely be on the founders' roadmap.