Rosenberg on Y Combinator’s Call for Journalism Startups


Yesterday I interviewed Scott Rosenberg at length for the Rumpus, and we spent a lot of time talking about the news industry and how it relates to online publishing, with special reference to blogging.

At one point he said (to paraphrase) “the news business has been in decline since the early 80s, and though it has accelerated in recent years, the decline itself is not a new thing.”

So it was interesting to read his thoughts about Y Combinator’s recent call for journalism startups. (Y Combinator is a venture firm that funds early-stage startups in software and web services with relatively tiny amounts of money). The call begins, “Newspapers and magazines are in trouble. We think they will mostly die, because we think we know what will replace them, and it is too far from their current model for them to reach it in time.”

A little farther down, the company observes:

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 the 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?

Rosenberg reacts (in part):

I have to admit that [this last phrase] 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.

[Y Combinator partner Paul 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.

Emphasis mine. (I also want to note that the call is unsigned, but it does sound an awful lot like Graham’s voice, so Rosenberg’s assumption is probably sound.)

Jeremy Hatch is a writer, musician, and professional bookseller leading a cheerful, aimless life in San Francisco. He is the Junior Literary Editor of the Rumpus and has a blog which he updates once in a while. More from this author →