Credit: Photo by David Marcu on Unsplash

The rise of newsletter platforms like Substack, Medium and Forbes' recently launched Journalist Entrepreneur have opened up avenues for journalists to build and monetise their own following. Add to that a range of membership and podcast platforms and journalists are not short on options to be truly independent and start their own publishing brand.

But it takes more than shiny tools to make publishing business sustainable; you need sharp commercial acumen and good planning skills too.

In a podcast with entrepreneurial journalist Isabelle Roughol, founder and host of the Borderline podcast and newsletter, shares her story into the world of 'indie journalism'.

Roughol had worked for LinkedIn for the past seven years in various editorial positions, with her last role being the international editor. She had taken her sabbatical leave at the start of 2020 in need of a breather, and in search of a new challenge. She founded Borderline six months later armed with the professional know-how she had amassed during her time at the company.

But it was not just her skills that helped her launch her new brand. She saw the gap in the market as no publisher caters specifically for people who live in a different country from where they were born. Roughol, originally from France, studied and lived in the USA before moving to the UK. This life experience helped her to understand and connect with the large community of immigrants worldwide.

Roughol shared some lessons that she has learned so far for those considering taking the plunge.

Take time to cleanse yourself of burnout

Before you even start, make sure you have the energy to commit to your project in the long-term. Roughol's sabbatical had afforded her enough time of rest and reflection to start from a clean slate.

"You really need to go for weeks and weeks of nothing happening, and then one morning you wake up and there's something that appeals again which is a very nice feeling when you're a creative person," she explains.

Diving into a project already burned out from your previous occupation is a sure-fire way to fail quickly so take care of your mental wellbeing first.

Discover your market

Working independently grants you total editorial control and freedom. But to stand out in the crowd, you must have a community in mind that your content speaks to.

"I don't know if I had pitched this to a traditional media outlet they would have responded to it, given how few immigrants there are in the media and how nationally focused most media are. This idea of this thing that crosses borders would be a bit alien to them," she says.

"I am no longer representing anyone but myself. But it has downsides, it's hard to work without someone to bounce ideas off of."

It might be even harder, she added, to do this for deeper, investigative reporting.

Work in whatever way makes sense to you

The other perk is setting your own hours. So, whether you are an early bird or a night owl, pull shifts around the clock at whatever hours best suit you.

"There's no-one telling me [my work hours aren't] right, but the thing that keeps you accountable is that you have to make the rent cheque at the end of the month."

Have realistic goals and expectations

It is easy to get caught up in the euphoria of the big success stories. In reality, growth and monetisation are painfully slow.

"It's going to be more work than you think, and it's going to grow more slowly than you think, especially podcasts - and newsletters too. But audience growth is so hard and saturated," she says

"And it's going to make less money than you think, you can't just open up a Patreon membership and think 'everyone thinks what I do is amazing'."

Roughol suggests you assign yearly goals around numbers of subscribers gained and in total. Then build a plan with a clear route about how to get there.

Think through your financial runway and alternative funding

There are no guarantees when it comes to building your own business. In the meantime, you have to live. From Roughol's experience, you should have at least one year's worth of cash on hand to keep you going.

In addition to Borderline, she does consultation work for clients as back-up income.

"I wish I could spend every minute of my day working on my own business, but if you want to keep the lights on, you also have to do other work for income, and that distracts you from your business," she explains.

"That means your growth is even slower, you are pushing back the date on which you can [concentrate on] your business, so it's always a balance."

Focus, focus, focus

Roughol also started a podcast for her French listeners, which she has always been eager to do. But as they account for a fraction of her audience, it is not a priority, attached as she is to it.

Products should always serve a purpose, she advises. Plenty of projects are "worthy", but not all play into the core business objectives. This is something Roughol learned during her time with LinkedIn. For her, the podcast is the main shop window - free at the point of access, and widely available - then newsletters and Patreon membership tools provide extra value or early access to content.

"Focus is the hardest and most important thing in business, especially when you are starting out and your resources are so limited."

Quickfire advice

Connect with industry peers. Other independent journalists are happy to offer visibility, exchange projects or do last-minute stand-in interviews when your guest cancels.

Make sure your initial posting schedule is manageable. A weekly podcast guest sounds like great fun, but how realistic will that be with all your other deliverables and amongst guest's tight schedules?

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