Why two entrepreneurs are opening media outlets during a pandemic

The founders of Berkeleyside’s Oakland newsroom and SparkYQL on why this moment is as much an opportunity as it is a challenge.

A headshot of H.G. Watson. H.G. Watson  - June 2, 2020

Welcome to the first issue of the Indie Publisher, the newsletter that demystifies news entrepreneurship! If you’re getting this, you’ve either subscribed — THANK YOU — or it was forwarded to you, in which case, you can subscribe right here.

Truth be told, I’ve been feeling a bit queasy every time I check media Twitter — a symptom of finding out yet another news outlet is laying off my friends and colleagues.

So, for today’s newsletter, I wanted to write something that made me feel better. I spoke with two media entrepreneurs who are starting media outlets — right now. Here’s why they don’t think that’s such a crazy idea. 

This spring, Berkeleyside, a local news outlet based in Berkeley CA, was supposed to be opening a new newsroom in Oakland. But then, a pandemic happened. Ad revenue dropped. You might assume that would have delayed Berkeleyside’s plans.

But it didn’t. A rush of support from the community has kept the outlet’s revenue consistent, and the launch of the Oakland site on track.

“In early 2019, Berkeleyside had about 2,100 members,” says Lance Knobel, co-founder and CEO of the outlet. It took the team about a year to grow the membership — in which members donate on a sliding scale to support the outlet — to 2,900.

In just the last month, Berkeleyside added another 800 members. Berkeleyside also launched a major gifts campaign, targeting core supporters and being upfront about the fact that the organization would need support if it was to get through this time. The combination, Knobel says, has more than made up for the loss of ad revenue.

“[Readers] are looking to us and to other local news sites, wherever people may live, for information that is truly vital to their health and their well-being,” says Knobel.

It’s not without good reason, then, that the team is optimistic about pushing forward into Oakland, where they’re now aiming to have the newsroom — all working from home, of course — up and running by June. “But I’m sure people for the most part will think, ‘great, I’m so glad you’re covering Oakland. I want to support that,’” says Knobel.

Melissa Villeneuve has been dreaming of starting her own media outlet since journalism school — and she’s not letting something little like a pandemic stop her.         

She was already well on her way to getting Spark YQL — Lethbridge’s first independent news outlet — up and running by the time it became clear that social distancing was going to be a part of our lives for a good long while. Yet, Villeneuve decided to push forward. “I felt that right now people need information more than ever, obviously, and especially in our own community,“ she says.

Readers get a weekly newsletter on Friday which includes an original feature and links to resources or events in the community. This is how Villeneuve wants to introduce her readers to slow journalism — reporting that goes in depth and takes a bit more time than a news brief.

Her original plan was to launch a crowdfunding campaign to support Spark YQL. She’s put that on hold, understanding that for many, money might be tight. But Villeneuve also believes now is a crucial time to start developing a relationship with readers that will one day also help financially support her business. 

“I’m hoping that for my subscribers that have jumped on so far that this will give them a chance to really get to know me as a person, as well as the journalism that I’m trying to provide,” she says. “Hopefully in the future, they will see value in that and be willing to join a membership model.”
*Villeneuve participated in the Indie News Challenge offered by Indiegraf and is in the Indiegraf network.

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