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Media Lab Bayern Newsletter
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22. February 2021
Best Cases, Mentor Insights, Start up Knowledge

Publishing a local newsletter as a creator

Photo: unsplash.com/@brucemars

Text: Thierry Backes

Local journalism can open many doors to journalists who want to get their start in the creator economy in 2021. But how do you develop a niche product? Check out our ten-step introduction.

In a previous blog post, (available in german) I addressed the appeal of the creator economy to journalists in Germany. Those who decide to pursue a career as a creator no longer work for a major media brand, but in their own name. They generally reach out to a smaller, more engaged target audience, charge their followers money (for a newsletter or similar), sell ads and/or earn money with talks, presentations and consultancy services. I’ve spoken to and learned from over two dozen colleagues and media professionals during R&D Fellowship at Media Lab Bayern:  

  1. The new tools offered by the creator economy make it easier than ever for journalists to launch their own publications, even without any technical expertise.
  2. The vast majority of journalists don’t view themselves as entrepreneurs. They instead tend to prefer fixed employment and don’t strive to be creators.
  3. Starting a business on the side can be a great—arguably the best—way to join the creator economy.
  4. However, only a small number of creators are able to live solely on the money provided by their users. They therefore need to diversify their earnings.
 

After publishing my post, I heard the same questions time and again: Which niches hold the most potential? How exactly can I develop my own product? How can I then earn money with it? In this post, I hope the answer these questions and go through an example of how you can create your own product. Sit back and relax. It's time to delve into the matter at hand...

The future lies in niche newsletters

There are an almost countless number of niches that journalists can tap into with their own product—from online lifestyle magazines for Afro-German women to a newsletter on the Seattle Seahawks. Highly specialized industries that employ a large number of people yet are plagued by a lack of reliable, substantial information can be particularly attractive in this respect. Heinz-Roger Dohms and Christian Kirchner from finanz-szene.de have been sending an ad-financed newsletter on the banking and FinTech industries to over 30,000 subscribers since 2017. This concept can also be copied by many other industries in the industrial and service sector, with companies such as Tagesspiegel and Handelsblatt already succeeding in filling gaps in the market with high-priced products.

Creators may find it conducive to extend their paid content to companies who will purchase entire subscription packages for their employees in addition to private individuals. The Social Media Watchblog has pursued this B2B strategy and enjoyed high revenues with over 50 institutional customers. A company subscription merely constitutes a manageable annual expense for companies, whereas for creators, it can make a major contribution to planning certainty.

Many regional publishers have become more vulnerable

In my opinion, local journalism offers another exciting area for creators. However, to this day, many regional publishers continue to rely on print titles for the vast majority of their revenues, something which is increasingly and ever more quickly crumbling. They have put off investing in (good) digital products for far too long, meaning that the digital services available in some places are restricted to an ePaper, i.e., a PDF version of the paper. Certain publishers have introduced paywalls, and 85% of them now view the importance of paid content as strategically high, and even existential in some cases. The question remains whether this will suffice to offset the declining ad and subscription revenues for print titles in the medium term.

Countless local editorial teams have gradually thinned out in a shrinking process drawn out over years. The quality of their content suffers with every press release, which lands on the page virtually unedited, and with every report that is half-heartedly researched and edited due to a lack of time. After all, the pages need to be filled with something. Many regional publishers may be able to fund an expensive cover, but it isn’t on a par with the quality of the products offered by Spiegel, Frankfurter Allgemeine, Süddeutscher Zeitung or specialist niche publications. To put it bluntly, the all-in-one business model that successfully generated extremely high yields for publishers for decades simply doesn’t work any more.

Many regional publishers have become more vulnerable. They aren’t able to offer the digital products their users want to receive. Or at least not the ones they're willing to pay for. There’s simply a lack of money, time and expertise to come up with innovations. Over time, a vacuum has been created, which journalists can now penetrate cost-effectively with the new opportunities offered by the creator economy and a product tailored to the specific needs of their target audience. (At this point, I would like to once again emphasize that there are also regional publishers in Germany who have developed great digital products and are poised for a successful future.)

New media companies now serve local niches, particularly in the US. Today, publications tend to rely on membership models (e.g., The Oaklandside, Lookout Santa Cruz) and paid (Charlotte Ledger, to some extent: The Mill in Manchester) or ad-financed newsletters (6amcity and soon Axios Local). Münster-based RUMS is a great example of how to achieve success with a paid newsletter; racking up 1,500 paying subscribers within its first year as a company.

Launch your own local product

I was a local reporter at Münchner Merkur, Abendzeitung, Süddeutsche Zeitung for years, and also worked in product development at SZ. During my time as an R&D fellow at Media Lab Bayern and at the Executive Program in News Innovation and Leadership at CUNY, I closely followed the creator economy. I want to use my experience and knowledge in the following post to help journalists launch their own local products in ten steps. I will primarily focus on giving practical tips and help journalists ask the right questions at the right time during the product development phase.

Step 1: Make sure you know what entering the creator economy will entail for you.

Martin Fehrensen, founder of the Social Media Watchblog commented in a thread on Twitter about “how much self-exploitation is required to get things moving”. He developed his product for “six years alongside his full-time job at ZDF and bento with endless overtime in the mornings and evenings throughout the week. [...] Taking the leap into the creator economy requires an enormous amount of preparation.” Ralf Heimann, Editor-in-Chief at RUMS in Münster claims: “In principle, working on your own project establishes the ideal grounds for overworking yourself. Even a 60-hour work week feels good, unfortunately.” Both highlight a number of valid points, which is why I would encourage aspiring creators to start their own publication alongside their job to determine whether it works for the target audience—and for you. Regardless of whether you go all in or start your project alongside your job, you won’t get very far without the right mindset (and, as perhaps goes without saying, the necessary drive).

You should be able to answer the following questions if you want to make money as a creator:

  • Do you want to devote months or perhaps even years, a large amount of time and energy to developing a local product?
  • Can you imagine working alone or as part of a small team?
  • Do you want to and can you afford to earn a low amount during the development phase? (You probably won’t be able to afford that dream villa in France, even in the medium term.)

Step 2: Identifying your target audience.

Let’s assume that you live in a large German town with 300,000 inhabitants and a population with an education level slightly above the national average. A long-established local publisher only offers a free ePaper in digital format and an automated, lackluster newsletter with teasers to its own pages; the majority of articles are also behind a hard paywall. You also notice that the newspaper reports with a strong bias and important issues are barely addressed. This provides the ideal launchpad for your concept. But who do you actually want to address? In the interests of keeping things simple, let's say you want to reach out to 30 to 50-year-olds who are likely to have attained a higher education level, subscribed to a local paper in the days before the internet and have a minimal amount of free time due to children and their career. We’ll rule out younger people who tend to not be so interested in local news (and/or don’t want to pay for it) and the older generation, who are familiar with the print publication and want to continue reading it. Statistical data from the town has helped us to determine that the core target audience consists of around 15,000 to 30,000 people.

It’s not easy to define how big a core target audience should be, as significantly smaller, highly interested user groups may also take a shine to certain niche products. In the majority of cases, it's not possible to say how big the target audience really is because there aren't exactly any official statistics on the number of cosplayers in Bielefeld, for example. I typically find the rule of thumb published by membership model specialist provider Steady in 2018 helpful during the planing phase to ascertain the potential of a publication: “5 percent of people who are, in principle, interested in your publication will pay you an average of 5 euros each month if you ask them 5 times.” By that logic, if you want to earn 5,000 euros, you’ll need to have 1,000 paying subscribers (or members), or 20,000 individuals interested in signing up. No easy feat by any measure. But think about it: Direct earnings from membership fees should only make up a part of your revenue structure in the future.

In larger cities, it can often be useful to create a product for a certain district or neighborhood, like the Tagesspiegel in Berlin. The Nordkurier in Neubrandenburg has recently launched a newsletter for people who’ve moved away from the area in order to make sure they don’t forget their roots. Students and people who've moved to an area may also be lucrative target audiences. The more time you invest in thinking about who you want your product to appeal to, the better you’ll be able to research and meet the needs of your target audience. Things worth finding out:

  • Who do you want to develop a product for?
  • Is the target audience concise enough, i.e., easy to define?
  • Is the target audience large enough to generate at least a portion of your earnings in the future?

Step 3: Discovering the needs of your target audience.

This is perhaps the most important step on the path to your own publication. Journalists tend to think that they know the needs of their readers and users inside out. However, it doesn’t matter what you think your target audience wants. What truly matters is what they actually want. This especially applies in the creator economy with its focus on niches and special interests. Anyone who fails to take the community and their needs seriously won’t make it as a creator. Jeff Jarvis, professor at the CUNY Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, readily talks about journalism as a service in this context. When asked who has the best chance of making it as a creator, he responded “The ones who succeed the best are the ones who listen the most.”

It’s crucially important that you are able to understand the needs of your target audience before even thinking about developing a product. Wondering how to go about that? In my year at CUNY, I familiarized myself with the jobs-to-be-done framework as a useful approach. This method takes a close look at the users and asks: Which job does a customer want to actually achieve? What do they want to achieve? How can you help them achieve it with your product? In order to answer these questions, it can often to be conducive to conduct problem interviews with ten (or more) people from the target audience. During the interviews, you will look back on the past and ask: How have you previously kept up-to-date on local issues? Are you happy with this method? If not, why? In line with the pure doctrine, the following simple job statements can be extracted from the interviews:

If __________ (situation) occurs, I want __________ (motivation), so I can __________ (outcome).

In other words: When I check my emails in bed first thing in the morning, I want to find out what’s going on in my city so I can talk about it at work.

You may come across an entire series of jobs (or needs), including functional (“I want to be informed”), social (“I can get involved in the discussion”) and emotional ("I don’t want to miss anything”) ones. The value proposition canvas is a simple tool to compile all pains (obstacles for performing a job) and gains (positive experiences from performing a job) in a visually appealing form. You can make use of (virtual) post-it notes to enter them on the right in the template below:

Template: strategyzer.com

 

In my opinion, this method (click here for an introduction [only available in German]) is great for developing journalistic products. The major advantage for you: the needs of your users can be directly aligned with a product (product-market fit). Read step 4 to find a completed value proposition canvas for the fictional product we're developing in this post.

Let’s quickly summarize which questions should now have been answered:

  • What is the main requirement of your target audience?
  • Which other needs exist?
  • Which of these needs are not currently adequately covered by a competitor?

Step 4: User-centered design.

Now you know the needs of your users, it's time to unleash your creative side. Is a newsletter the right response to the jobs your target audience want to achieve? Would a podcast be better? Or perhaps a website? Which content is the target audience looking for? Is in-depth reporting the best approach, or would brief summaries for readers to digest on their phones when they’re lying in bed after waking up do the trick? What does the target audience maybe not require?

Focus on one main job during development and design your product around it: Which is the biggest need of your users—and how can you best satisfy it?

Here’s an example from SZ to illustrate this point: When we launched the portal “München bringt’s” at the end of March 2020 to compile corona-related products and services from local providers during the first lockdown, we reached over ten thousand users with our strong stream of information. However, we didn’t succeed in fulfilling the core job of many Munich residents (which was simply not possible to implement with such little notice), namely providing financial assistance to retailers (either by selling vouchers or ordering goods).

As highlighted here, you shouldn't leave the other needs of your target audience on the sidelines. Jot down all of your ideas in the value proposition canvas and check whether the needs of your target audience and your product match. As an example for a mid-sized German town, the answer may lie in an initially free, compact newsletter that's sent to the user’s inbox each morning and features reading material that keeps users informed on all key issues. I’ve outlined the main job in orange in the value proposition canvas; the draft project doesn't offer a solution to one of the needs (weather and transportation). But that’s OK! While we may be striving to achieve a 100% match between need and solution, this isn’t always entirely realistic.

Vorlage: strategyzer.com

Template: strategyzer.com

You should be able to answer the following questions at the end of this step:

  • What added value will you generate for your target audience?
  • Will you be able to satisfy the needs of your target audience?
  • Does your product align with the needs of your target audience as closely as possible?
  • Will your product meet the needs of your target audience better than comparable products on the market?

Step 5: Develop a prototype and validate your concept.

Despite all the detailed planning you’ve already done, breathing life into your own ideas and creating an initial prototype is a lengthy, and above all, journalistic task that I won’t discuss at length here. Key to your success is your willingness to discuss your prototype with around ten people from your target audience in order to validate your concept and to use the feedback to further develop your product. All too often, the ideas journalists initially believe are the best fail to make it through the validation process. It can be hard to accept this, but it’s a necessary step: Kill your darlings!

User interviews also serve another valuable purpose: The enable you to test the water and see how popular your product is. It's always useful to see whether users are willing to enter their email addresses to test the unfinished product (or get updates on the launch of the product). There’s a whole range of methods that can be used to obtain feedback during this step. It can often be useful to conduct face-to-face interviews for the launch of analog paper or digital prototypes, which can be facilitated with a certain amount of practice and tools such as Marvel or Figma. Digital prototypes can be shared on social media (e.g., in Facebook groups where people from the target audience interact), which also offers the advantage of informing even more people about your product before it launches.

You should now be able to answer the following questions:

  • How does your product work for your target audience?
  • What is your target audience already willing to pay for your product?

Step 6: Developing a product vision.

A product vision is a statement that summarizes the essence of your product in a few sentences. It conveys the promise you want to give to users. The product vision serves as a kind of guiding principle when you need to make key decisions. For example, the product vision for our newsletter could be as follows:

The all-you-need-to-know newsletter is a compact, weekday product for everyone in X who wants to know what’s going on in the town. It is sent to the reader's inbox at 6 am on the dot, is well structured and can be read within 10 minutes. The product primarily focuses on key news and contains links to related information. When it comes to major issues, the editorial team delves deeper into the topic and offers subscribers extra added value..

The product vision provides the basis for the mission statement, that creators like to use to review their product on their side. You should now have an answer to this question:

  • Do you have a clear understanding of what a product promise is?

Step 7: Contemplate how you want to make money.

This is a topic that you have most likely had in mind from the outset and justifiably so! In order to be successful in the creator economy, journalists need to think and act like entrepreneurs. At the same time, I think it's important to remain flexible in terms of concrete business plans as long as possible. Why exactly? When talking to creators and other startup founders, I always hear that the original plan ended up in the trash can pretty quickly. There’s even a term for this in the startup community: pivoting. Creators that initially plan on earning the lion's share of their income with membership fees may come to the conclusion after six months that they could earn significantly more money by doing talks. In a similar vein, creators that start a podcast and rely on ad marketing may need to rethink their strategy when Spotify instead of ad customers comes knocking on their door offering to stream their podcast exclusively. Changing your business plan in the early states is completely OK, even if the change is fundamental.

However, it won’t work if you don’t have a plan. Which is precisely where the big brother of the value proposition canvas steps in: the business model canvas (click here for a great introduction [only available in German]). The business model canvas is a visual tool used to structure business models by enabling key information from the value proposition canvas (target audience, product promises) to flow into the canvas along with ideas on how specifically the company wants to make money, what the relationship to customers looks like, which partners are important, what the cost structure looks like and what needs to be done on a daily basis to ensure core operations run smoothly. In our case, the business model canvas may look as follows:

 

Vorlage: strategyzer.com

Template: strategyzer.com

Needless to say, this doesn't replace the arduous task of writing a business plan, but it does help you to order your ideas and discuss them with colleagues. At the end of this process, you should be able to answer the following questions:

  • How do you intend on earning money during the launch stage?
  • What do you additionally require to make money?

Step 8: Establishing the setup for your launch.

At this point in time, you’re familiar with your target audience and their needs, you’ve developed a product that resonates will with the target audience, and you have an idea of how you will make money. Now it's time to contemplate which resources you need to make your product a hit. That's as far as the theory goes. In reality, you've probably known for a long time whether you’ll be launching your product on your own or with a small team, regardless of whether you’ll be working on it full-time or alongside your job. As might be expected, it all comes down to which product you're offering and which needs you’ll be able to satisfy.

Let’s be honest: It’s a classic chicken and egg problem. If you only focus on resources from the outset (particularly staff), you won’t succeed in developing the best product for your target audience. You need to make your plans fit for the real world if you want to create the perfect product. I personally tend to keep the issue of resources in my mind from the beginning, but send it to the back of my mind during the product development stage. At the end of the day, only products that are capable of satisfying needs better than those offered by competitors stand a chance of being a hit on the market. However, by this point, you need to have taken aspects such as staff and resources into consideration.

Let’s start with the topic of staff. In February, Axios Local will be launching a new daily newsletter in Denver and has hired two full-time editors for this purpose; they will receive support from the Axios headquarters when it comes to editing and graphics. Above all, headquarters will be responsible for all marketing campaigns and will help to organize events. If you decide to take the leap to work on your project full-time and publish a weekday newsletter, you should look for at least one person to accompany you on the journey, ideally someone with a background in journalism to provide you with constructive feedback. In the best case, they can take care of issues the publisher usually manages. Colleagues Marvin Schade and Matthias Bannert came up with a great structure for their startup Medieninsider. If you only want to devote a percentage of your working hours to the project, it's best to establish a team of freelancers who want to get involved in the project with the same amount of enthusiasm. This is precisely the route Münster-based RUMS went down.

The topic of finances is often a tough one. During the first few months, your earnings will most likely be minimal. If you aren’t able to rely on funding from a philanthropic donor (which is sometimes an option!) and don’t manage to find any foundation willing to fund your project (e.g., the Schöpflin Foundation, which promotes non-profit journalism), you can always apply for a place in an incubator scheme (e.g., at Media Lab Bayern or the Journalism Lab offered by the State Institute for Media North Rhine-Westphalia). If you're lucky enough to receive a spot, you won’t just learn a lot, you’ll also receive a small grant to support you in the initial stages (these schemes tend to primarily provide grants during the prototyping stage, i.e., the first steps explained above).

As a creator, you’re at an advantage. Cutting-edge publication tools from Substack, Revue, Steady and a whole host of other providers are often free to start with; you’ll only be charged fees and chip away at a percentage of the revenue once users start paying you. It’s worth taking the time to consider which provider is best for your product (I can’t recommend any one provider for your individual needs). Make sure you also keep an eye on the long-term perspective: It might be easy enough to transfer customer email addresses to a new provider, but it's often a different story with payment information. Something to avoid at all costs: Asking hundreds of subscribers to re-enter their payment information on another site a few months after launching your product.

You should now be able to answer the following questions:

  • Which environment are you launching your product in?
  • Have you got a plan for how you plan on surviving the first few months without any significant earnings?
  • Which tool(s) do you plan on using?

Step 9: Contemplating a growth strategy.

As Silicon Valley teaches us on a regular basis, growth is the only decisive factor in the first few months of a startup. Ideally, creators need to develop a strong presence on social media and build a fan base (or community) that they can rely on when they launch their own product. Clio Chang shines a light on the importance of a strong following in her highly informative essay “The Substackerati”. According to the essay, when Substack wants to ascertain whether someone will be successful with a paid newsletter on the platform, it takes the creator's Baschez score (named after formed Substack employee Nathan Baschez), which analyzes the Twitter interactions of an account with its followers, to calculate the chances of success.

In contrast to many of their counterparts in the US, local journalists in Germany tend to only have a minimal following on social media, and some don’t even have a Twitter account. Their product starts from the ground up and first need to grow, grow and grow. Put simply: marketing is key. When researching the creator economy, I discovered that even in 2021, journalists remain apprehensive about promoting their own work. Self-marketing is simply an awkward alien concept to many, which is an issue. Anyone who wants to achieve success as a creator needs to not only vouch for their own product; they need to actively promote it and find ways to encourage others to get the word out. Ideally before the launch. The questions is how?

In an episode of “Was mit Medien” (minute 50:01 onwards), Dani Woytewicz, Format Developer for the WDR content network “funk”, advocates the development of a reach and distribution strategy prior to launch and provides countless handy tips. She advises listeners to identify influencer accounts among the target audience and to use these accounts as multipliers because they find the new product great (seeding). According to Woytewicz, it's best to involve influencers as early as possible when developing a product and ask them for feedback (check out this example from BR). To begin with, they need to be sent enhanced written content and images to optimally get across their message. Influencers could be used for guest posts (which they link to in their own channels), or you could make an appearance in their products and market your product if the target audiences overlap (cross-promotions). Utilize your fan base by asking them to refer your newsletter; this will allow your product both to grow and increase its reach.

It may also be worth contemplating which other forms of media could be useful for the launch of your newsletter. Direct competition from the world of publishing may prove to be a thorn in your side, but it may be worth reaching out to that reporter who works for the public broadcaster that you remain in good contact with. It can also be conducive to consider analog marketing campaigns with stickers, flyers or a promotional stands at events (once COVID-19 subsides). Mull over which local Facebook groups may be interested in your product and which social media accounts you should create to advertise your product.

Unfortunately, there's no such thing as a universal formula for success. I’m currently helping two colleagues get their free newsletter off the ground. Both managed to accumulate a strong subscriber base within a few weeks, but have since only grown at a snail’s pace. If you hit this point, it's time to come up with something new, give it a go and explore new horizons.

Canadian entrepreneur Andrew Wilkinson began a fascinating experiment in 2019 by paying journalists to compile top news stories from his hometown Victoria on Vancouver Island in a compact newsletter. He invested 200,000 dollars in Facebook and Instagram ads to get followers. Now, his Capital Daily newsletter boasts over 45,000 readers and, according to his stats, is therefore more successful than The Times Colonist, which has been around for over a century. Ad customers are queuing up to get a feature in his newsletter. Needless to say, the project has already made a profit. (You can follow the entire story in this thread on Twitter.)

You should now have answers to the following questions:

  • What is the distribution strategy when the product is launched?
  • How do you plan to ensure continuous growth after the launch?

Step 10: Transforming your target audience into a community and earning your first pay check.

Time to finally hit the red button! Now you can focus on building your community. If you want to get subscribers of your free newsletter to pay for your product, a great product alone isn’t going to cut it. Your users need to share your vision for better journalism, feel they are taken seriously and part of your community—then they’ll invest in your product. I’m not interested in entering into an academic debate on the nuanced differences between subscription models (“I pay for content”) and membership models (“I pay to support something”). Personally, I don't believe that journalists will achieve success in a local niche if they just setup a paywall and say “It’s time to pay up”.

Extensive research conducted by the Membership Puzzle Project has highlighted the importance (also in financial terms) of involving readers and interacting with them on equal terms. (Numerous case studies have been undertaken all around the globe as part of the Membership Guide compiled on the basis of this project). In terms of the newsletter we’ve drafted here: encourage your readers to provide regular feedback and integrate this in your product development. Interact with your community on social media, respond to every message and stay visible as the “person behind the product” (if you aren’t already), including in local life. Get your readers involved in research, ask them for help, make them feel like part of your community from the very beginning or better still: part of your medium.

Even if the money you make through your community is only enough to finance part of your product, once you reach a certain point, you should take the leap and ask your readers for not just their moral, but also financial support towards your mission. It’s not always easy to tell when you've reached this point. Certain products first spend years concentrating on growth, whereas others, such as Lookout Santa Cruz or RUMS in Münster launched their membership or subscription campaign earlier than planned in response to the pandemic.

The path is usually the same: first grow and build a community, then ask for money. In this presentation, Lenny Rachitsky, the mind behind Lenny's Newsletter (“a weekly advice column about product, growth, working with humans, and anything else that stresses you out at the office” which is sent to over 5,000 subscribers) goes into detail about how he first created his product and then transformed it into a paid newsletter. Rachitsky also first decided to charge for his content once he’d established a loyal community, and he continues to send one free newsletter each month. In this post, he explains why he set the price at 15 dollars per month. What does Rachitsky view as most important during the transition from a free to paid product? A strong communication plan, continuing to offer great free content and setting the right price, which should always feel a little too high for the creator.

Now it's time to ask yourself the following questions:

  • How do you plan on building a community?
  • When will your community be big enough to introduce your membership or subscription model?
Text: Thierry Backes

Thierry Backes

Thierry Backes is a digital strategist at Süddeutsche Zeitung. He is a driving force for projects at the intersection between the editorial team and products, and enjoys nothing more than working as part of an interdisciplinary team. In 2020-2021, he completed the Executive Program in News Innovation and Leaders at the City University of New York.

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