Most articles on the state of journalism these days take two distinct forms: either a legacy outlet is contracting and laying off writers, or a hotshot upstart is taking in cash for an optimistic new journo-venture. There isn’t much in between.
Journalism as an industry is at a weird crossroads of concurrent contractions and expansion, growth and shrinking opportunities. On one hand, even the New York Times’s profits continue to fall, and The New Republic is only the latest heritage property to essentially go extinct in its traditional form. On the other hand, journalism ventures like Vox (of Vox Media) and 538 and Grantland (of ESPN/Disney) have lured millions from investment rounds or in-house support, with full-time staffs and rising-star journalists like Ezra Klein and Nate Silver at their helms.
Operating within this wider context are several local journalism outlets in various stages of the startup phase. Legacy outlets in the area, such as the McClatchy-owned Raleigh News & Observer and Charlotte Observer, or Paxton Media Group’s The Herald-Sun in Durham, have seen contractions and layoffs on pace with local papers nationwide. Filling that vacuum in the media space, or perhaps just adding to it, are new startups in the area aiming to offer a different take on journalism and storytelling.
Scalawag, a print-plus-web magazine based in Durham, just wrapped up a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter that raised over $31,000. Launching in coming months, it promises a “new magazine for Southern politics and culture” and plans a quarterly print edition with supplemental material online.
Bit+Grain, launched in March, publishes culture-themed work once a week, every Wednesday releasing an eclectic longform piece accompanied by multimedia photography and design. The website was started by three 2011 UNC graduates with backgrounds in folklore, design and nonprofit administration.
Raleigh & Company, a web-only outfit at RaleighCo.com, launched a year ago this past week. The author you’re reading here is one of the editors and a member of the co-op of local professional writers and radio personalities that make up their contributors. Raleigh & Company has everything from beat coverage of local sports teams to business journalism to cultural commentary and podcasting from radio talent in the area.
All three offer a different take on what media could look like as we plow ahead into the 21st century. And ExitEvent, as a young niche publication itself, is interested in how upstart journos are shaping the industry and working to find the best mix of revenue and content in the online new media world.
“Filling in the gap”
The Columbia Journalism Review recently published a piece on the rise of national journalism startups, arguing that their very existence is a critique of the current state of the press. Some even offer a manifesto explaining how they’re bringing something to current media that’s not already in the landscape.
Regardless of their mission, the motivation is certainly to provide coverage or a voice that might be lacking.
At least that’s a theme I noticed when I asked these new local startups about their inspiration for taking on the enormous task of developing a sustainable media outlet: They simply thought there were more stories that needed to be told.
“We want to fill the gap being left out there,” says Jesse Williams, a co-founder of Scalawag Magazine (pictured above with co-founder Sarah Bufkin). “We’re going to do the deep, detailed long form and high-quality political commentary that’s missing.”
One thing sites like Scalawag can do is provide colorful commentary with a contextual background that legacy sites haven’t been providing at the local level (or haven’t been able to due to budget issues).
Raleigh & Company has seen on and off success selling online banner advertising the old fashioned way—mostly with local companies and organizations, often involving some means of trade as way to communicate value. We plan to sell exclusive, locally-made t-shirts as a way to raise funds.
Scalawag hopes to grow mostly through subscriptions, with online advertising a potential revenue source ready to be tapped. The crowdfunding campaign has gotten that effort off the ground.
Crowdsourcing presents its own problems of course. No journalism entity is going to be successful if it can’t promise readers some semblance of independence from its revenue sources, and asking for donations can at least appear to be a slippery slope.
Davidson says this is one reason Bit+Grain has skipped crowdfunding for the time being, but she leaves the door open, adding that if her team pursues it, they would make sure they “did it the right way.”
Williams says Scalawag promises total transparency to donors. It’s a 501(c)3, and has a full editorial board completely independent from the business side of things.
Neither of the three organizations has a sustainable model in practice yet, and their hard work now in the early stages is very much a gamble that may or may not pay off.
The goal of any publication in 2015 should simply be to survive at a sustainable rate, and that sentiment figures prominently in the stated goals of all three upstart outlets profiled here. Each wants to be able to pay writers a competitive wage, and hopes to be around as long as possible.
Bit+Grain is not paying writers but is working toward that goal. Davidson says her team has had no problem finding writers—many reach out to create work for the site and pitch stories.They’ll simply have to hustle to make it work until they begin to cross into the black.
Scalawag—notable for the Kickstarter investment—is paying writers, though their rate is lower than some legacy outlets, according to Williams. “We’ve had writers say no to our rates,” he says.
Raleigh & Company has used a bit of a hybrid model, paying (relatively low) rates to some writers when ad sales are flowing, and delivering value to writers such as with trade and gift cards from local businesses, or simply by providing press passes to writers who would not otherwise be able to cover particular topics or organizations, essentially offering access as pay. The majority of the writing on the site since its birth has been unpaid.
Raleigh & Company has also been in the unique position of publishing professional writers who—counterintuitively maybe—prefer to occasionally write unpaid, as it allows them to write outside normal editorial control they may find restricting.
Becoming profitable is near the top of the list for each outlet, but it was obvious speaking with teams from all three that creating fantastic work is the paramount reason for being. And in some ways, they’ve already seen success in that context.
Though Scalawag Magazine hasn’t published its first piece, Bit+Grain has already shown success with their one-native-advertiser-per-article model in its first few weeks. Raleigh & Company’s work has been showcased in popular media commentary like Sports Illustrated’s Media Circus, Jim Romenesko’s blog, Gawker Media websites, and the site can more or less can be credited with launching Bojangles “Cheddar Bo” biscuit to a nationwide audience.
One thing for certain is that neither organization is in its final form, and all of them know it.
“Keeping an open mind” to all kinds of opportunities, both creatively and financially, is how Ryan Stancil of Bit+Grain puts it. That might be the best way for any new media startup to approach today’s landscape, as they attempt to add to it, stay flexible, and simply hope they’re around to see what comes next.