If The Huffington Post co-founder Ken Lerer were to invest his own money these days, he says he’d invest in either the local web or real-time distribution. That’s exactly why he’s on the board of NY-based Betaworks, the company that brought the world Bit.ly, Outside.in and TweetDeck. Betaworks describes itself as “a new kind of media company.” And CEO John Borthwick joined Lerer yesterday to talk to students at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism about media startups and the future of the web.
By VADIM LAVRUSIK and SHANE SNOW
As I have mentioned in previous posts, Ken Lerer, co-founder of The Huffington Post, is teaching sessions to Columbia University Journalism Students on media entrepreneurship, often bringing in experts in the industry on various topics. Yesterday’s topic was on what journalists need to know about advertising online, and the guest was Jim Spanfeller, former CEO of Forbes.com. Also, if you’re interested, here is a post and live blog recap of last year’s talk on the same subject.
The discussion was enlightening, but we want to highlight three main points that were made by both Spanfeller and Lerer during the session:
At the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism we are lucky to have access to some great minds in the media industry, including Ken Lerer, the co-founder and chairman of The Huffington Post, who is teaching six sessions on media entrepreneurship. On Tuesday, Lerer used the first session to outline the five points he wants to focus on.
I think that all of these are quite important to the media industry moving forward and wanted to share them with you, along with a few others that he pointed out during the discussion with journalism students. However, starting an online journalism site is not easy, despite how-to guides making it seem that way sometimes. Most of these are trends that Lerer himself and others are seeing in online journalism. One reason being is that there may be some opportunity to add other topics. So, if you think there is something very important missing, please do share.
1. The Shift From Mainstream to Social Sites
This is pretty self explanatory. “Content companies have to get into the social business or fall by the way side,” Lerer said. He also talked a bit about how some news organizations are taking advantage of this by integrating social tools into their sites, such as Huffington Post using Facebook Connect. Read my recent post for Mashable on 7 Ways To Make News Sites More Social. I think this needs to not only go one step further, but perhaps there is a possibility that some of these social sites may eventually provide CMS for publishing.
2. Advertising Effectively
This is a bit of a difficult topic. How to fund the work that takes place in journalism is a much debated topic. However, Lerer said that he thinks advertising is the big money maker. It hasn’t quite caught on on the Web though, or at least people aren’t willing to pay as much for online ads. However, making money off social sites will be the next big business on the Web. You have to think of your future customers, Lerer said. Paywalls? Lerer thinks it is “insane” to fight the link community. He said that he think that news sites will end up offering some content free and require subscription to view certain parts content on the site.
3. Local Content
Lerer continues to be a firm believer that local will be the next big thing. It hasn’t advanced as quickly as some anticipated and there is no big business model for it yet. Yet Lerer is optimistic. “You’re going to see local explode,” he said. He said if he were starting another Web company, it would be something with local. The key is looking at a market and asking yourself what is missing or what could be covered better? What service can you provide that another site is not doing well on or doing at all?
Without community on a site, it is likely that will not be as successful as you would hope. Lerer said for a content site, community is hugely important and should not go overlooked. Some sites have great content, but little community and lose out on traffic as a result and in search rankings.
5. Citizen Journalism and User-generated content
Also, trying to figure out how the relationship between staff journalists and contributing citizen journalists should function is another thing to figure out. There are no clear-cut answers but I think that more journalists will first start out by contributing to a site as a citizen before getting hired on staff. The best will still rise to the top, if not more so than today.
So how does video fit in? Lerer said that he thinks video is the future of the Internet, or at least there will be a lot more of it on content sites in the future. There is a spectrum with Hulu on one end and YouTube on the other. One is high quality and longer pieces, but costs a lot to produce. The other is usually not as good of quality, but is usually very cheap to produce. The key is figuring out where the middle is.
7. Content is King
This goes to a point made earlier: What kind of content does a market area not have? Or perhaps you could do a better job producing that content and providing a place where the community is stronger or delivering it more efficiently. Whatever it is, Lerer said ultimately content is king.
Below are the other key points that will be outlined in future sessions, but ones that the discussion didn’t go into. I will make sure to touch on these more in the future:
- How to make traffic go viral (SEO, etc).
- Social and real-time distribution
- How to raise money to start you business
So what’s missing? Would love to hear it in the comments.