By Kavita Chandran

“One has to bring in logical thinking while being passionate,” said Koreel Lahiri, Director of Media Development Investment Fund (South Asia). Lahiri has more than 15 years of experience in media investing and has served in senior investment, strategy and operational roles in various large Indian media organisations.

“How do you extend your business? Who is your audience? Is your content something people will pay for? You need to keep asking these questions and challenging assumptions using data,” Lahiri  said during a virtual panel discussion at the Asian Media Leaders Summit hosted by WAN-IFRA and the Google News Initiative. “Are you barking up the wrong tree as a business model?”

Bhanupriya Rao, the founder of BehanBox, a media startup in India that reports on issues around women and gender diversity, reiterated the importance of news entrepreneurs being product thinkers.

“How do you convert what you think is an existing gap in news coverage … and how do you convince funders and investors that there is an audience for it? That needs a fundamental change within your own mindset and within your own operation into thinking about your journalism as a product,” said Rao at the online summit.

Despite challenges, startups keep popping up

Even as conventional media outlets struggle to survive in an era of social media advertising, influencer revenue and savvy digital marketing, defiant media startups keep popping up around the world on the belief that people will always want news. Some even have news automation algorithms powered by Blockchain and Artificial Intelligence.

Yet, media startups are finding it hard to raise capital as funding declines. Not only do they have to be prepared for shrinking ad revenue but also combat fake news, misinformation and disinformation, and grow a clientele that’s getting increasingly fatigued with negative news. 

According to the 2021 Digital News report by the Reuters Institute, just 25% of news consumers prefer to start their news journeys with a website or app. Those aged 18–24, also referred to as Generation Z, have an even weaker connection with websites and apps and are almost twice as likely to prefer to access news via social media, aggregators, or mobile alerts.

So, the key questions are: how well are news startups working on their storytelling technique and design to target future news consumers who believe in authenticity and impact, have shorter attention spans and use social media as their news source?

“When we started looking at our audience using our data, we realised that we are looking at an audience of 18-25,” said Rao, who had initially pegged her audience as urban women over 25 years of age who enjoy in-depth long-form stories.

“What we understood is that our audience was not only looking at us for information, they were wanting to do something actionable with it – either having difficult conversations with their families, or in this highly polarised environment, making the change themselves,” Rao said.

‘A problem-solving approach’

Small news organisations are also getting support from programmes such as the Google News Initiative (GNI) that run labs to help journalism startups better understand their audiences, create higher quality content and navigate the pitfalls of monetisation. Rao’s BehanBox is one such startup that has received GNI support.

“GNI’s design thinking approach for media startups is a problem-solving approach aimed at helping business growth through coaching, mentoring and product development,” said Filip Shen, the APAC News Startups and Programs Lead for Google and a panellist on the WAN-IFRA forum.   

“Through design thinking, we have been able to find new audiences, understand what they want, and also look at different products that can bring us more sustainable revenues,” Rao said. “The biggest revelation was the audience told us they wanted to pay for our product.”

Being creative in your offering, having a strong ecosystem and finding a niche that differentiates you as a news startup is crucial, especially at a time when consumers can find innumerable ways to access general news in multiple outlets, free of cost.

“How do you change your game while staying in the non-entertainment factual space is where the answer lies,” said Lahiri.

About the writer: Kavita Chandran is a journalism trainer, author, and professor of journalism & communications at Murdoch University, and runs a media startup in Singapore. She is a  former journalist with Reuters, Bloomberg and CNBC. 

Edited by Debbie Goh. Debbie is a journalism professor at the California University of Pennsylvania. Before joining academe, she was a journalist with The Straits Times, Singapore.

Main image credit: StartupStockPhotos from Pixabay

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