Operational lessons for the industry
A wake-up call for journalism entrepreneurship
Self-funding is an option for few. Raleigh Convergence was largely self-funded, with no meaningful income from other sources for the first year. This was only possible because of a certain level of privilege.
To the detriment of would-be entrepreneurs, mythology around self-funding news orgs as a quick, cheap path to success overlooks real costs and undervalues founders’ time.
What was in my corner: I was able to launch without funding outside of personal savings. I have no student debt, a systemic issue for who gets to create the news recently written about from a reporter’s perspective at MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. I have a supportive partner with income and health insurance for our family.
Why it didn’t work: It could be easy to blame COVID’s economic impact, but there were a number of other issues.
- My experience is in operations, audience, content and events. I have no sales experience. Even when I hired a salesperson and had revenue ideas, I couldn’t give clear direction on how to sell it.
- I lived in Raleigh for a short time at launch. While I see the Triangle as my long-term home, I’d only moved to Raleigh 6 months before April 2019. I didn’t have name recognition with local audiences or relationships with potential clients or advertisers.
- Client relationships often take time. Raleigh Convergence’s biggest client secured an advertising package about 6 months after an initial meeting. I’d initially worked with the agency on a community support website during the early days of Covid.
- Raleigh Convergence’s audience was loyal, and the newsletter had an open rate of more than 50% in the final months. But only about 3% of newsletter subscribers were members. About 10% of newsletter subscribers as members would have made it sustainable.
- I spent more time on reaching potential reader audiences than I spent networking with business leaders, and I didn’t join the local chamber. In hindsight, that would have added legitimacy for potential clients about the business and built relationships in early days.
I learned that even with free programs and learning resources, operational funding is crucial in the early and sophomore years of a news organization for these reasons:
- Building an audience from scratch requires time, money or both.
- Traditional revenue sources of advertising, subscription or membership need a certain amount of audience, even when there’s someone selling the products.
- The expectation for reader revenue is differentiated content or service. Original reporting or content creation takes time away from operational efforts and vice versa.
Operational funding is a critical need to address. If it doesn’t change, we’ll continue to see media organizations dominated by those who can raise capital, who have access to funders or who have the capacity to work without income.
What we won’t see is historically marginalized communities or people who have been traditionally left out of the journalism industry.
My inability to make Raleigh Convergence sustainable, as someone with privilege and robust journalism, digital and operational experience, should be a wake-up call to funders and leaders of all types.