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News Entrepreneuring

You can be creative, dogged, well meaning and very hard working. You can produce excellent journalism. You can be willing to take risks. You can even mortgage your home to fund your startup. But that does not mean you can make a go of a good news site.

Increasingly, professional journalists are realizing that they can kiss their newsrooms goodbye and still do journalism by launching an online news site. It can be an independent metro news site, a regional investigative news site, a community news site, or a topic site, covering health, local business or the environment.

And now “news entrepreneurship” has become a big buzzword at many journalism conventions. So, by all means, go forth, but do it wisely. It takes more than good content and good intentions to make a start-up news site work.

In funding 65 community and women-led news startups since 2005 (thanks to the Knight and McCormick Foundations), J-Lab has observed some sharp entrepreneurs in action. Here are 10 tasks that we’d advise any entrepreneur to undertake.

1) Assess the landscape. Don’t duplicate. Define your unique value. Who’s already doing news sites in your area? Are they competitors or collaborators? What gap are you seeking fill? Why will your audience value your particular efforts?

Or as Mike Orren, founder and publisher of advised at last week’s 2010 Online News Association convention: “Figure out whose problem you are solving.” If it’s a journalist problem (ie: you’re an unemployed journalist and need a job), you should re-think your efforts. Be sure there is value to someone other than yourself.

2) Test-drive your idea. Don’t make assumptions. Do some reporting. Once you’ve firmed up your idea, test it with your network. You need feedback on whether the idea resonates with others: Would readers visit your site? Would advertisers buy an ad on it? Would investors see a business model? What advice can you elicit from other news entrepreneurs?

One clue: will they offer to help you in some way with financial backing, pro bono services, co-working space or introductions?

3) Develop a project “wireframe.” Sketch out just how you think your project would work. Who would build a website? Who would do the reporting? The editing? Post content? How often will you update? Would it be mostly a solo enterprise to start? Will you have staff or interns?

4) Scope out the best structure for you – and file your paperwork. Will you be a for-profit business or a nonprofit? Will you affiliate with a university? Will you look for a fiscal agent until you spin into your own 50(c)3? There are pros and cons to each option. Bottom line, what will inform this decision is: do you want to sell ads, seek grants, woo members? Or do all three?

Check out this new step-by-step guide for Launching a Nonprofit News Site on the Knight Citizen News Network for some good advice.

5) Develop a business plan. How will your enterprise be organized? How will it be funded to start? What’s your initial budget? How will in grow in a year – and beyond? How will people find out about your project? Who are your consumers?

Who are your customers? Gather demographic data on your target community: Household income, education, broadband connectivity.

Think about a name, a logo and business cards. And as David Ardia, of Harvard’s Citizen Law Project, pointed out at J-Lab’s Pre-ONA workshop: Don’t forget to research names, first, lest you stumble on someone else’s trademark.

6) Refine your pitch. Now take all this effort and distill it into a confident and concise, one-minute wrap-up that nails what you’re doing, for whom and why people want it. It’s part mission/part marketing. Hook your listeners with a factoid or question to whet their appetite. Tell ’em what you need. Do you want them to take a meeting with you? Look at your business plan? Make an introduction?

Flesh this out with a full PowerPoint presentation to elaborate on your project when you actually meet with others.

7) Build a website. It might be best just to start with a simple site until you’re ready for something more, and you have a better handle on what you want. No doubt, you’ll be working on this while you’re moving on other fronts. But it’s important to let people be able to quickly see what you have in mind and not wait for some custom site to be finish. Once you have a site, make sure you can easily tweak it again and again.

8) Gather content. Write stories. Commission stories. Invite guest columnists. Gather photos. Assemble lists, data and resources. Firm up partners, links and content swaps. Sell, barter or give away your first ads or sponsorships.

If you’re planning to sell ads or accept donations, be ready with a page for people to heed your call to action.

9) Launch with fanfare. Will you have a launch party? Develop a Facebook page? Take out ads? Have a social media campaign? Co-sponsor and man a table at a community event? Make plans to get some notice.

10) Begin to tell your tale. In addition to the stories you want to tell in your community you need to begin gathering stories about your enterprise. Start collecting your metrics. How many unique visitors are coming to your site? How long do they stay? How many pages do they visit? How does that grow over time? How many stories have you published? How many contributors have you recruited? Have your stories had any impact. Have your ads worked for your advertisers? Have you grown a network of members, subscribers or donors?

Above all, stay focused, but be ready to change on a dime. If you’re finding your audience isn’t plugged in to Twitter but holds robust conversations on your Facebook page, engage them there. Not having luck with ad sales because your prices are too high? Find another way to open a valve to potential advertisers. Can’t rely on some contributors? Tease out others.

As a local news entrepreneur, you will need to evolve, and evolve. Make the surprises work for you

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