Developing a loyal following is how most journalists hope to make a living online, and new Website NewsTilt wants to help.
The business strategy itself isn’t new, but the approach could be revolutionary.
Online news startup NewsLabs, backed by VC firm Y Combinator, launched NewsTilt on Tuesday, April 13. NewsTilt’s mission is to feature in an online community the work of journalists selected through an application process. The site started with 30 journalists. Over half have already posted articles and blogs. NewsTilt plans on doubling their ranks within the next week.
NewsTilt will offer services like advertising and syndication to help build a following while the reporter focuses on his or her writing. In return, NewsTilt receives 20 percent of the revenue from advertising and selling content to other media outlets.
The reporters own all their content, but agree to allow NewsTilt the right to redistribute, edit, and modify it. And NewsTilt allows their journalists to post their work elsewhere, provided that they own the rights to redistribute the work. John Graham-Cumming, for instance, posts some of his articles on NewsTilt after they have appeared in the Guardian.
Readers can sign in through Facebook Connect and comment on the stories, or even make suggestions about other possible stories as well. Some of the journalists purposely leave questions at the end of their articles to encourage discussion with their readers. NewsTilt does not offer an option for anonymous comments.
Examples of journalists featured on NewsTilt include Thomas Seibert reporting on Istanbul and Christopher Lloyd on films; and health and science journalist Jack El-Hai and Iran Davar Ardalan from NPR News.
Kelly McBride, a reporter and instructor at Poynter Institute of Journalism, approves of the site’s approach to public commenting. “It’s not a bad idea,” McBride says about the ability to let readers influence the content. “Taken to the extreme, it could be a problem. I mean there’s a chance that the readers start saying to the journalist, ‘We want you to do something about porn.’ But I don’t think that will happen.”
Paul Biggar, founder of NewsLabs, originally tried to sell the idea of creating an online community to traditional newspapers. Though many liked the idea, Biggar kept running into the same issue. “They kept telling us to come back in March, when the new technology cycle begins,” Biggar said. “We realized that this was utterly ridiculous. The speed at which newspapers move would ultimately be the death of them.”
So instead of waiting for newspapers to take a chance, NewsLabs decided to try it alone.
Biggar feels the future of journalism revolves around niche branding and building a community of followers. Many people will see a film based on the actors who are in it; similarly, Biggar believes that readers will return to see their favorite reporters. You might not go to NewsTilt for local news, but by browsing through the site, you might find a journalist with subject matter you’re interested in.
Biggar’s betting that the success of NewsTilt will be in putting the journalist first. Since the Internet is full of information and content, having someone else do the marketing takes a lot of “back-office work” off of the journalist.
“We’re going to help support the work of the journalists,” Biggar says. “Overall, we want the brand of the site to say, ‘This is a quality journalist.’ We think that the brand of the journalist is more important than our own.”
Creating a brand for journalists isn’t a new idea. Steve Lacy,
a journalism professor for 28 years, says many columnists and sportswriters have been used to sell papers for years. The Detroit Free Press uses Mitch Albom to move papers off the stand, and The New York Times has a star lineup of columnists.
“Journalists have always been branded,” Lacy notes. “There has always been a star who has been promoted by newspapers.”
But Lacy feels what’s more important is the fact that NewsTilt is trying to figure out new ways to monetize news content. Since the field is changing so rapidly, experimentation is key for journalists and content providers.
"This is what people need to do. Go out, try it, and see what works.”
— Matthew Mikus is a journalist specializing in technology, business, and environmental issues.