We are seeing a proliferation of media startups trying to innovate the news industry. But becoming the head honcho of these enterprises is sometimes a cryptic endeavour. Journalists who take to these roles will find it requires new and old skills. In this series, we talk to the leaders of media startups of all sizes to demystify their job descriptions and understand what they have learned in the role.
VIEWdigital is a digital magazine that launched in January 2012. It was set up by two journalists, Brian Pelan, a former sub-editor at Belfast Telegraph, and Una Murphy, who trained initially as a newspaper reporter with Irish News before delving into TV documentaries and producer roles at RTE and BBC.
It had a clear vision: to focus on social affairs in their homeland of Northern Ireland, discussing topics like suicide prevention, homelessness and migrant women. To date, it will celebrate its 60th edition in November and its tenth anniversary at the turn of the year. You can find it on publishing platforms like Issuu.
VIEWdigital has limited print runs which it gets into local libraries across Northern Ireland and Dublin. It works with tight-knit group of freelancers who can bring big stories on social issues to the publisher.
VIEW is a community interest company. That means it is for-profit, and as such has developed a model of sponsored stores via charitable foundations or philanthropists to talk to issues they would like to see amplified. Past funders include the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. Or, that partnership can extend to full issues, like the one they are working on about digital exclusion, where their country has seen women in rural areas struggling with lack of access to broadband. Advice NI, an independent advice network, will support that issue.
Murphy works closely to monitor these connections. Her role as co-founder and publisher sees her navigate the line between editorial and business domains, making sure their hard-hitting journalism is sustainable. With just less than 25,000 unique readers per year, they are still looking to grow and develop, but have steadily grown over the past decade.
Her past role as a journalist has prepared her for the editorial tasks, and working within small companies in director roles has got her used to doing the admin bits. Speaking to Journalism.co.uk, she shares what she has learned on the job.
After 10 years, is VIEWdigital still a startup? And if so, when will you stop being a startup?
We are a startup in terms of how we develop and diversify our revenue to sustain the journalism we want to do. If we ever reach a position where that has been solved, we will stop considering ourselves in the startup category.
It has been a slow process for us in terms of grappling with revenue generation as a mission-driven media outfit and social enterprise. We have had to do a lot of learning on the business side, so we have been part of the Google News Initiative (GNI) programme looking at revenue generation and digital immersion. I am also involved with the journalism innovation and leadership programme at UCLan and the Public Interest News Foundation's leadership programme: every day is a school day for us. We still see us in the startup phase because we are still getting to the point of sustainability, which is not yet the case.
What sort of important decisions do you need to make regularly? And what is your decision-making process?
As co-founder and publisher, that means overseeing business development and having a collaborative approach to the journalism we do. So, taking a seat at editorial conferences and knowing what our editorial diary looks like in the next 12 months, developing funding streams to support that editorial work and very much having one foot in editorial while the other in diversifying the revenue coming in.
I match our editorial diary to the revenue streams that are available. That means trying to find funders who have the same vision we do and collaborating with organisations who see the importance of independent community media in Northern Ireland.
That has become a process of getting to know people, lots of community outreach and telling people what we do. But building trust is also really important; a major part of my work is assuring people we will not sensationalise their stories and that is important to cover the issues we do, like domestic violence. One of our editions featured the chief executive of the charity, Women's Aid, and we were impressed with their work and we wanted to get access to women to tell their stories. That took a lot of sensitivity and trust. We have become very good at developing that side of the business: finding funders that support the work we do.
What are the key challenges with running a media startup and VIEWdigital specifically? What is your problem-solving process?
Funding and innovation: our process is to keep our eye on the prize of producing good journalism. Any revenue and any financial support we can get to do that is valuable. We are in the business of making connections at the moment, we have been looking a lot to develop reader revenue. It is a lot of filling out forms.
We did a sprint with the GNI where we worked on multimedia products to incorporate podcasts and video stories. We produced prototypes and assessed what our audience thought about it. I have had the opportunity to go to workshops with European Journalism Centre on reader revenue. So I am constantly looking at which proportion of our audience is committed to financially support us.
Over the years we have developed a membership scheme, which is a work in progress and now we are looking at whether more innovative products can convert more readers, in addition to working with charities and fundraising.
There is an initiative at Belfast City Council looking for social enterprises and to understand the impact in the community with a view to funding, and they have funded us in the past. So we are engaging with them to develop an application that meets their criteria to support social enterprises in the city.
Finally, we have had funding from charities, which are usually for particular projects and editions of the magazine or videos. But what we would like to do in the future is more opportunities for core philanthropic funding. We were lucky that a philanthropist backed us for a few years. That funds jobs and helps us get on with making our business sustainable.
What are the key skills needed to do your job? How do you work on them?
I need to work on my leadership skills and my approach to innovation. That is the training I have had to concentrate on by being on programmes that teach it.
I have been lucky to be selected and tried to absorb all that information. It is so important to understand where revenue is coming in to support your journalism.
What is one skill people might not expect you to need when leading a startup?
At the very beginning, we grappled with the tech skills. We were at the fundamental change ten years ago looking around to see opportunities in digital. At that point, we were grappling with which magazine platforms to use and social media to distribute on - and that sounds old fashioned - but we were going through that process of learning about the digital media landscape.
Now, it is all about making the numbers work and making sure you have the audience engagement by doing journalism to make a difference to our community. That is how we will be judged in the future: have you made an impact?
What advice would you give to other journalists eyeing up a transition to leading a media startup?
Network, network, network. Connect to all the organisations out there and use the ones you have. We were there at the beginning when the Independent Community News Network was set up at Cardiff University, where I did my masters so I have always had that link. It was important for us to connect with them early on.
But also, do not pretend to have all the answers; none of us really do at this stage.
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