1 of 4 news start-ups flamed out
He is far from alone. One of every four news startups has failed, according to a survey I conducted of the 141 ventures listed in an online directory published by the Columbia Journalism Review since 2010.
The survey methodology was simple. I searched for every site listed in the CJR list and counted the number that either were defunct or had not posted any new content since 2014. Because CJR depends on news entrepreneurs themselves to list their efforts, not all start-ups – or eventual crackups – are included.
But the CJR sample is big and diverse enough to alarm those who hope grassroots journalism will replace the news-gathering resources that have been reduced over the years by newspapers and other local media. Since 2000, one out of three newsroom jobs has been nuked at the nation's newspapers, according a survey by the American Society of News Editors.
The idled projects on the CJR list range from A2 Politico, an Ann Arbor (MI) effort which evidently has not been updated since 2013, to Yadkin Valley (NC) Sports, whose web address leads to a placeholder site with no content whatsoever.
The toll also includes such high-profile, well-funded and ill-managed ventures as the Chicago News Cooperative and the Bay Citizen in Northern California. A late-breaking addition is the Bold Italic, a recently discontinued effort in San Francisco that had been funded by Gannett as a digital innovation laboratory.
Although my survey did not delve into the circumstances contributing to the demise of each of the various news ventures, the cause of death in most cases likely was the one cited by Boraks in the farewell message to his readers in North Carolina:
“We’ve been unable to sell enough advertising to local businesses to sustain the sites, to pay me and, lately, to pay our staff,” he wrote. “At the same time, voluntary support from readers – which has always been limited – has dropped off.”
Although it is painful to watch journalism entrepreneurs flame out, it is important to note that far more new businesses fail than succeed. Even in the technology world, where a handful of garage tinkerers indeed became billionaires, some 80% to 90% of all start-ups fail.
Failures occur in Silicon Valley in spite of the millions of dollars in reasonably patient venture funding that supports most nascent companies. Further, there is an abiding focus, if not to say frenzy, at nearly every start-up company on building the value of the enterprise as quickly as possible so it can go public or get bought by a sugar daddy like Google or Facebook.
Neither of the above conditions is present at most news ventures, where the founders are admirably intent on afflicting the comfortable and comforting afflicted but put scant attention into funding the next payroll.
As reported previously here, the Pew Research Center found that nearly a third of news start-ups spent less than 10% of their staff time on business development, while more than half said such activities occupied between 10% and 24% of their time. By contrast, 85% of the ventures said editorial tasks consumed at least half of their time.
Unless and until people conducting news ventures take the business of their businesses as seriously as they take their journalism, the failures will continue.
Saying he had struggled to save his news project from a number of near-death experiences over the years, Borak clearly was intent on building a sustainable business. The lack of support for his effort among readers and advertisers suggests that the most intractable problem for news ventures may be a hopeless reluctance in the marketplace for paying for what journalists do.
Even dedicated newsmen can’t afford to work for nothing. As rewarding and exhilarating as the experience was, Borak told his readers in his final missive, “We’re in debt, we’re exhausted and it’s time to go.”