Why laid off journalists should launch their own media companies

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One of the unfortunate realities of living in our current time period is that we get to witness media layoffs in real time. First come the initial reports announcing the layoff. Then journalists start posting tweets identifying themselves as its victims, often with some appeal to those who have the ability to hire them. And then we see the third and final wave of tweets from those who amplify the messages from their laid-off colleagues, usually with further encouragement to employers who may have job openings.

From there, one of three things happens: the journalists find new reporting jobs, they cobble together freelance work, or they enter a new field entirely.

But as someone who spends a lot of time thinking about entrepreneurial journalism, I’m always disappointed at the level of opportunity that’s squandered in these situations. The laid off journalists not only hold among them a substantial trove of institutional expertise and brain power, but they also have the sympathy and support of virtually every influential member of the journalism community, all of whom are poised to voice that support on social media. These are the perfect conditions for these laid-off journalists to announce a new, independent media venture.

In other words, by using the groundswell of goodwill that usually follows a mass layoff, journalists could probably drive an initial wave of paid subscriptions that would provide the crucial startup capital to get them going. From there, the reporters can embark on the hard work of luring away readers from the publisher that laid them off and converting them into paying subscribers.

In some cases, journalists are laid off via buyouts, which gives an enterprising group of reporters several months of runway capital to get their publication off the ground. For those who don’t receive severance, they wouldn’t be precluded from filing for unemployment or even looking for a new job, so the downside of such an experiment is low. In fact, continuing to actively publish within your beat will make you more attractive to potential employers.

I first started thinking in earnest about how this strategy would work back in early November, on the night that all of Deadspin’s writers resigned from their jobs. For months, Deadspin’s staff had brawled publicly with the management at G/O, and their mass resignation took the internet by storm, with thousands of Deadspin fans tweeting their support over a period of a few hours.

While watching all of this unfold, I decided to dash out a few tweets that theorized a way these writers could capitalize on all this attention. “If every single Deadspin writer announced they were launching a group Substack together and charging $5 a month, I bet those tweets would get thousands of retweets and at least 5,000 paying subscribers within the first 24 hours,” I wrote. “That would be an annual run rate of $300,000. And that would just be starter capital. Over the span of several months I bet they could get up to 17,000 paying subscribers, which would have an annual run rate of $1 million. And they'd get to keep all of that for themselves.”

I wasn’t the only person to have this thought, apparently. Someone who works at Substack -- which, for the uninitiated, provides an easy way to monetize newsletters with paid subscriptions -- posted a 10-part series of tweets detailing exactly how they would go about this. “Tell the world you’re doing a Kickstarter-style fundraiser within Substack and they can support you right now,” the tweet storm begins. “Set a target dollar amount for pre-committed subscriptions. Tell people you'll launch your publication if you cross it.” The journalists are then advised to post regular updates as they get closer and closer to their monetary goal. “Once deadline has passed, thank everyone, publish a recap,” it concludes. “If not successful, go back to start. If successful, proceed with wonderful new publication.”

It’s clear that Substack took its own hypothetical scenario seriously, because it recently rolled out a series of new features that would make it easier for someone to execute on its advice. Prior to these changes, the platform wasn’t well designed for a multi-author newsletter, but now, according to the official announcement, it’s optimized “to allow groups of writers to work together on publications.” New features include “multi-admin access to a publisher dashboard,” “support for multiple bylines in a publication,” and “author profile pages.”

What I found especially interesting about this announcement is that it coincided with the launch of a new Substack publication called Let’s Go Warriors. Most of its writers hail from a site called Golden State of Mind, which was run by Vox Media’s sports vertical SB Nation. Back in December, all of SB Nation’s California contractors were laid off, partly because of a new state law that placed restrictions on how publishers could employ freelancers.   

The writers behind Let’s Go Warriors published a post explaining the move to Substack. “[Substack] could handle all the tricky platform stuff, the hosting, the servers, and were willing to work with us to get the community features and ability to handle multiple authors,” they wrote. “We had all the content, and now we found a partner that was offering us a box to put it into.” Subscribing to Let’s Go Warriors will cost $50 a year and give readers access to subscriber-only content and comment threads. 

It’s too early to know how successful the new Let’s Go Warriors publication will be in terms of its ability to financially support its writers, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they end up pulling down greater take-home income than they did under Vox Media. And that’s the beauty of this model; by eliminating most of the middlemen and the expensive overhead associated with most traditional media companies, spin-off outlets like Let’s Go Warriors have a greater chance of sustainability.

And the platform you choose doesn’t have to be Substack. I could envision a group of journalists setting up a Medium publication and then monetizing behind its metered paywall. Or they could launch a Patreon. They could even create a Kickstarter account and attempt to raise an entire year’s worth of funds in one fell swoop through an NPR-style pledge drive.

The point is, the cost of experimenting with a group publication is virtually zero. If it doesn’t work, then you can proceed with the job hunt that you would have embarked on anyway. But if it does succeed, then you’ll suddenly find yourself with a sustainable business that offers greater job security than you ever had while working for someone else. So what do you have to lose? 

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.

Creative Commons image via Needpix