Rafat Ali, publisher of PaidContent.org
On niche publications, working alone, and why publishers must be brave enough to empower their journalists
How did you start working in the web publishing industry? I started back in 1997 in Delhi, India, where I was working as a business journalist writing about advertising issues.
The first Internet World event was happening in India, and the IT reporter at the magazine I was working with fell sick that week. As I had a computer engineering degree, my editor thought I would know about this emerging internet thing - so I went, and got hooked.
When was your first big break? I went to the US in 1999 to do my masters in journalism, and when I finished in January 2001 I moved to New York City.
The first big break I got was getting a job at Inside.com - the hottest media gig in town in those days – and I was writing on digital media. Our company was a dotcom and we had tons of fun but, like much else, it closed down fairly soon.
What inspires you to start work each morning? Believe it or not, it is the email. I look forward to reading email from my readers, checking things like the number of new subscribers and breaking news.
Also, I know a lot of readers start their working day by reading my site and newsletter. I feel an obligation to them - I can't disappoint them.
What's the best thing about working for yourself? Not being answerable to people who don't understand the work I am doing. Working for someone else is such a drag. I can't see myself doing it, though you never know…
But don't believe in the 'oh-you-can-work-on-your-own-time-since-you-work-for-yourself myth'. It is what it is - a myth. When you're working for yourself, you're working all the time. Some amount of discipline is required. It evolved for me over time - my girlfriend made sure of that…
Which sites do you use most often? I read a lot of sites using RSS. For general tech news, CNET News.com is still the best. I read a lot of tech blogs, which point me to different stories.
Google News is always the best way to get breaking news on my topics. I use it to find stories that I link to - I am the human contextual filter on top of the raw Google filter.
What advice would you give new web journalists? Do not be afraid of venturing out by yourself.
The way things are evolving in journalism, you have to be an expert in the field you're covering. Identify that niche and go for it. Start a blog and write on it daily. And if you like what you're doing and are good at it, people will notice.
What are the most common mistakes made by news publishers when they establish websites? Thinking of the website as a second cousin to the print publication – that is a mindset that is very difficult to change.
Also, thinking of web journalists as a different species from print. It's all the same. Print journalists have to adapt to web, not the other way around.
And whatever kind of website you have, there's absolutely no excuse for not having a daily or even hourly component to your operations. If things are not happening on a daily basis in the field your news site is operating in, it will probably not succeed as a news operation. Period.
Is the news industry scared to take risks with online publishing? Publishers are afraid of taking any risks. It is good to be cautious, but investing in the future ensures you're there when the future arrives.
Take for instance a technology like RSS. It does not require a substantial investment - in fact in most cases it should require no investment. Maybe the audience is not big enough right now for RSS newsreaders, but it is fulfilling a real need. It is sure to take off once newsreaders get integrated with web browsers and as awareness rises.
Thinking with only an ROI [return on investment] blinker sometimes makes you DOA [dead on arrival] when the future happens...
How does the US attitude to web publishing differ from that of European publishers? I've talked about this US-Europe divide before - it is a cultural difference.
In the UK and Europe, end consumers are more willing to pay for content piece by piece than in the US.
I attribute it to the societal difference: in the US, the eat-all-you-want culture is prevalent, be it something users want or something companies do to scale their operations. In the UK and Europe, things like pay-as-you-go are more acceptable, though I do think US will also move in that direction soon.
How will news publishers resolve the challenge of creating financially self-sustaining news sites? I think publishers need to empower journalists more. I know that sounds very new age, but that's what it is.
Give more control of the editorial agenda to individual journalists, as good journalists know what's happening in the industry. Empowered journalists create great editorial, which leads to more loyal audiences and which naturally attracts advertisers and users ready to pay up.
I know it is easier said than done, but it is the best way I have learned to do things.
Where would online news be without the BBC and the Guardian? Ultimately, the market would have fulfilled any needs had the BBC or Guardian not been there.
I am a strong believer in taking a hands-off approach when it comes to such ventures. Both are great news ventures, though I am not sure they are indispensable. Entrepreneurs will rise to take their void, even if they did not exist.
What will be the toughest issue for web publishers over the next year? Staying relevant.
The younger generation is growing up in a news-less world, to a large extent. For them, the small screen means the mobile screen - so how do media companies reconcile with that? If I were them, that would keep me awake all night...
Where do you see online news publishing in 10 years? I do think the 'nichefication' of news media will continue and smaller and smaller niches will emerge - some new, and some which we haven't even thought about. Publishers who realise these trends and ride these smaller niches will win.
I do think individual journalist-entrepreneurs will become more common in the next few years, as they realise that they can develop their own businesses.
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