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Can We Afford To Be Independent?

Tom Hedley asks if there is commercially viable life beyond the corporate mindset. 

Slaving away at a big-time news cooperation may be your cup of tea, but to some aspiring journalists making the tea may not be enough.

On the other hand, how else can we begin to make a living, when many independent publications are unable to pay their way?

In 2014, a record-breaking 581,173 UK businesses were registered with Companies House, while 238,000 crashed out. The report by found that the trend for failing businesses sloped by 6 per cent. In layman’s terms, 59 per cent of all businesses in the UK have survived.

Journalistic ventures, however, don’t.

Survival is Success, published by Reuters, found that the publications they examined across three countries ‘struggled to break-even’. So why do start-ups in journalism perform so poorly? The Reuters report explains that there are two particularly important challenges that start-ups face. The first is that income from online revenue is far lower than it was many years ago, and declines even more when millions of websites saturate the market each year. But the second point, which is my major concern here, is that the competition from the legacy market is much, much too fierce.

‘The market for online news continues to be dominated by legacy media organisations,’ Reuters continue, ‘which have leveraged their existing resources and well-known brands to draw audiences and generate revenues’.

Effectively, the big guns (News Corp, News UK etc) can pay to smother smaller publications using high-cost ad campaigns to bully the print and digital shelf-space into submission. Leading by example, Rupert Murdoch-controlled News Corp bought-out a UK-based video ad tech firm, Unruly, for $176 million this year. The company has the ability to monitor and predict viral ads and correctly channel ad-spend into the fastest-growing areas of multimedia. It’s a dog eat dog world, after all.

Thankfully, one Australian start-up has found a way to produce and fund content that doesn’t fit into predictable boxes.

The Typewriter, founded by University of New South Wales student Benjamin Cheung, is a platform designed for ‘global citizen journalism’. Content is submitted from several countries and is written in several languages. Cheung claims the site to have a unique following of 200,000, generating 800,000 hits per month. Although a mere stripling in comparison to the Guardian‘s 1,077,000 readers, The Typewriter has managed to sustain itself by publishing free, user-submitted material.

Cheung remarks, however, that revenue is not prioritised and instead ‘the major focus for the company is building the platform and growing its user base’.

Elsewhere, most independent start-ups focus on finding and exploiting the ‘gap’ in the market. But what happens when the enemy fills these cracks?

UsVsTh3m (or Us Versus Them) was a project developed in May 2013 by British tabloid the Mirror, which translates mainstream media for niche audiences. Topics such as the general election were made attractive for teens using ‘memes’ and ‘awesome’ language and articles such as ‘The list of the nation’s favourite biscuits is making the Internet angry’ and ‘How obeying the law will no longer be enough to protect you from the police’ made front-page stories.

This ‘more digestible’ approach to journalism was such a success that the Mirror now publishes the content to its own website. Along with comparably focused in-house brand, Ampp3d, which was released shortly after the success of UsVsTh3m, these sites have been credited with the Mirror’s remarkable growth between 2013 and 15, more-than-tripling their online readership from 1.2 to 3.8 million.

The move, however, is paper-thin. Following the announcement of domain repositioning, angry and confused users lashed out. Apparently, UsVsTh3m readers hate the Mirror.

‘I think I’ll pass. After a year of coming to UsVsTh3m, it’s disappointing to hear,’ said one distraught follower. ‘That’s me done with this site, sorry guys,’ said another. In a further turn of events, the Mirror announced that the ‘new formats’ team would loose 27 jobs, with both sites facing the axe. Seems like they have managed to pull failure out of previously successful developments.

As evident, legacy media can’t always fill a gap in the market. While undisputedly effective at what they do, they can’t have it both ways. They can’t be the majority and minority.

UK comedian and activist Russell Brand is a perfect example of what the anti-mass wants. Produced, directed and starring Brand, The Trews is an online medium published to YouTube, ‘telling you how it is’. It’s heavy on anti-austerity and anti-establishment; everything legacy media is not. Each 10 minute short was completely free to consume, and although capturing 1.2 million subscribers, and amassing over 113 million video hits, The Trews was sadly cut short in August for Brand to focus on other ventures.

While it’s possible The Trews was successful only because it was fronted by Brand, it surely opens up a range of possibilities for like-minded entrepreneurs. So be inventive. Be creative. But most importantly, don’t be satisfied with what’s in the Mirror.



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