The SpaceX of Media: Rules for New Models and Startups

There’s no one like Elon Musk in media. Arguably, there’s no one like Musk, period. Say what you will, but the founder of Tesla, PayPal and SpaceX has proven himself a genius at honing in to changing industries and growing startup ventures into successful companies.

Sasa Vucinic, co-founder of North Base Media, a boutique investment firm specialized in journalism-related media, drove the point home: “Who is the Elon Musk of the media industry? No one.” Yet journalism could well use a business pioneer, Vucinic said during a New Models and StartUps session at Uncovering Asia 2018 conference in Seoul.

The past decade has changed media perhaps more than any other. The Internet has produced a colorful marketplace for information, a kaleidoscope of news sites that offers media consumers exponentially more choice than print ever did. As a result, established models of financing, production and distribution have become unsustainable.

Now the industry is faced with questions: What new business models will emerge? How must journalism change to remain relevant? And what makes a successful media startup?

There is no recipe, said Vucinic, but there are standards that apply to most media companies.

1. Use technology

Think of digitalization as an opportunity. Digital tools allow journalists to analyze and visualize huge amounts of data, and cloud-based systems enable them to work regardless of location. Almost none of these tools existed a decade ago. “They offer a completely new way of reporting stories,” said Irene Liu, leader of the Google News Lab in the Asia-Pacific region. Technology is also speeding up the production process. “Many people are willing to make great journalism, but they are often missing the time and resources to implement their stories. Technology can help journalists to overcome these obstacles,” said Drew Sullivan, editor-in-chief of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, based in Sarajevo.

2. Know your audience

For a long time journalists determined what was relevant for their audience, selecting evening news topics and lead newspaper stories. The Internet flipped that completely. Today, the audience decides which news they want to consume. To stay relevant, journalists therefore have to empathize with their audience. They should be able to answer questions about who is their clientele, and what keeps them up at night? “Understanding your audience helps you to become a better journalist or better media organization, because you produce content the people actually want,” said Liu.

3. Be indispensable

“People don’t pay journalists for news, they pay for coverage,” said Alan Soon, co-founder of The Splice Newsroom, a media startup. It is not enough to just produce content the audience likes, the brand has to become indispensable. For that, focus should be primarily on the utility of the content. “People will pay you if the content is useful for them. For example, if it helps them to make money,” said Soon.

4. Finance matters

Media companies tend to focus on the content, knowing which stories they want to pro­duce. But most media companies have no concept of business, Vucinic observed. “One time I asked a woman how she planned to get money with her startup, and she answered: ‘I don’t know, I’m an editor.’ This is exactly the mindset that has to change.” For successful startup, media companies have to combine business with editorial knowledge.

5. Accept help

You are not alone. In industrialized countries there are plenty of programs supporting media companies and startups. Investors are putting millions into promising projects. In much of Asia, the environment for startups is still developing, however. “Support programs and grants are rare,” said Soon. To help bring about change, The Splice Newsroom launched a $1 million grant in July, which will help launch 100 media startups in Asia over the next three years.

Alexandra Jegers is a journalist from Germany who has completed the KAS multimedia program. She has studied economics in Germany and Spain and now writes for Handelsblatt, Capital and Wirtschaftswoche.

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