Y Combinator’s “request for startups” in journalism

I’m fascinated by this: Paul Graham’s startup-seeding outfit, Y Combinator, has announced that, with each new funding cycle, it’s now going to issue a sort of open call for submissions in a particular area. The general idea is what interested TechCrunch in writing the story up. But what caught my eye was the substance of the first request: “The Future of Journalism.”

The reason newspapers and magazines are dying is that what they do is no longer related to how they make money from it. In fact, most journalists probably don’t even realize that definition of journalism they take for granted was not something that sprang fully-formed from the head of Zeus, but is rather a direct though somewhat atrophied consequence of a very successful 20th century business model.

What would a content site look like if you started from how to make money–as print media once did–instead of taking a particular form of journalism as a given and treating how to make money from it as an afterthought?

Bingo! To me, this passage crystallizes the problem with so much of the “how do we get consumers to pay?” headscratching that is consuming media pros today. The death spiral of the old business model for news has some more twists and turns before the beast expires, but it is irreversible. The old bundle of information services and advertising that supported print journalism is gone, Humpty-Dumpty style, and nobody’s going to glue it back together. A deeper rethinking is needed, and those of us who want to see journalism thrive ought to be working hard to come up with answers to Graham’s question.

Graham envisions small teams that encompass writing, programming and design skills; in the Y Combinator model, they get a (very) small investment upfront, some bureaucratic assistance and some networking help. That’s one way of seeding lots of experiments. But I think Graham’s stark framing of the problem is as valuable as the bits of cash he’s spraying around; ambitious journalists and their programmer/designer friends don’t need to wait for Y Combinator to take up this challenge.

I have to admit that the phrase “treating how to make money from it as an afterthought” struck a nerve, because that really was how things were at the beginning at Salon and so many other journalism-oriented startups in the early years of the Web. This approach was understandable, and maybe excusable, in 1995; today, it’s a non-starter.

Graham’s challenge is elegantly simple: Instead of starting with the journalism and then puzzling out how to support it, start with the plan for revenue, then figure out what journalism might complement it. Recognize that the realm where innovation is most needed is the business side and how it relates to the journalism. Stop thinking of the two as a pair of unrelated entities lashed together, like some ungainly antique motorcycle/sidecar combo. Begin dreaming up, and testing out, approaches that provide a more organic connection between the reporting we need and the income that supports it.

This will sound alarms and seem heretical to all of us who grew up in the old “journalism on one side of a wall, business on the other” world. And yes, media businesses conceived along Graham’s lines will need not only a business plan but a plan for earning and keeping their readers’ trust.

I’m not too worried about that. It’s the easy problem, one that smart journalists already know how to handle. The business side, that’s the wicked problem. Ideas for solving it ought to make good starting points.

I’m grateful to Graham for boiling the issue down so neatly. And no, I don’t have any specific examples or ideas yet: if I did, I’d be assembling a team! But maybe you do.

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  1. Scott, I’m all in favor of making the munnies. Especially if it’s me that’s making it. But there’s a respectable Internet history of making great products first, and figuring out how to make money off of them later. Google is the prime example.

  2. Scott, you are absolutely right. My Blueprint for the Complete Community Connection envisions a new approach to revenue for community media: http://bit.ly/qzsKx

    Advertising should be one of many services we offer to businesses. But a newspaper company has the resources, the brand and the opportunity (if we act soon) to become the digital marketplace for its community.

  3. Scott Rosenberg

    Your blueprint is on the mark, Steve. Me, I’ve pretty much given up on the notion that (most) newspaper companies will seize this opportunity. Most are plotting ways of closing themselves off from their communities rather than serving them. But I hope I’m wrong!

  4. This is a statement of the obvious. All industries have a business side and a creative side – and the twain shall never meet.

    I always thought that Google was started by VCs to make money first? The first time I ever saw it was when a lawyer from WSGR showed it to me. They are a bit of a VC law firm that likes money and business and money first I am told.

    The question might be “do people care if they have journalism today or not?” If the answer is “no” then we get Google, Wikipedia, Twitter, Facebook, talk radio, blogs, Omnivores Dilemma, Tipping Point, Huffington, Drudge, Junk Science, etc., etc. If the answer is “yes,” well it does not seem that they do. Or, maybe they just don’t really need journalism with all the rest? Maybe the end of journalism is just supply and demand.

    Yes, the government subsidy model is the answer! Pay journalists to not journal – like farmers to not plant. Oh wait, that is what Nancy P wants to do . . . .

  5. Scott, I fear that you are right about newspapers seeking to close themselves off from communities, rather than connecting. But I’m not ready to give up trying yet.


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