Howard Owens is a digital media pioneer. He started publishing local news online in 1995 when very few local news outlets had web sites. The header image on the site depicts the film camera he used early in his career and the press pass from his year on the staff of the Carlsbad Journal. For more on Howard's professional background, read his LinkedIn profile.
HowardOwens.com is the personal web site of Howard Owens and covers his range of interests -- political localism and libertarianism, music and personal interests, as well as his professional interests.
Howard is currently publisher of The Batavian and lives in Batavia, N.Y.
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It seems like paywalls are popping up all over the place these days. In recent months Lee, GateHouse and Gannett, for example, have all announced or are implementing paid subscriptions for digital content. Nobody is rooting for these newspapers to … Continue reading
One of the most interesting people I’ve met in the past few years is Wes Edens, CEO of Fortress Investments, a billionaire and world traveler originally from a small town in Montana.
Say what you will about Wes today, but you can’t argue with the fact he started with nothing and built himself a very prosperous company. That makes him, to a large degree, a man worth listening to.
When we met, he talked a lot about business — the importance of hiring the right people, not being afraid of change, not being afraid, period, and making your own observations.
Edens talked about the classic experiment of watching two teams of people pass a basketball and telling the audience to count how many times one team passes the ball. Invariably, many people miss the guy in the gorilla suit who walks through the players, stops, beats his chest, and then keeps walking.
The lesson Edens said he took away from this was, "make your own observations."
The smart business leader doesn’t do something because others are doing it or because some might criticize it.
His advice: observe the business environment and figure out what you think you should do and then do it. Trust your observations.
That little conversation played a big role in how I went about planning The Batavian and continues to drive what I do.
It isn’t my goal to live up to the expectations of the so-called — self-appointed or not — experts.
My goal is to make my own observations and then do what I think is right. If that means I fail, then at least I’m going to fail doing what I believe in rather than what somebody else thinks I should do.
And if I piss some people off along the way because I’m sticking to my own observations, well, I guess I just have to learn to live with it.
I have a plan. I’m going to keep after that plan, unless something happens to make it impossible, whether others understand it, agree with it, or not.
1. Be prepared for long hours. If you’re not prepared to work 14 to 16 hours per day, seven days a week, you’re not ready to start your own small business. You might not be able to put in that level of time commitment because you’re recently married, or working another job, or have kids, or just have too many other interests you want to pursue. I’ve known a lot of small business owners in my life, and most of them put in long hours even years after setting up shop, but all of them put in these kinds of hours when their businesses started. It’s not something that is unique to doing a local news start up.
2. Plan to keep your expenses to a minimum. Clayton Christensen, the world’s foremost authority on disruptive business strategies, says, "Be impatient for profits and patient for growth." The more expenses you take on, the harder it will be to obtain profitability. It should be your goal to achieve profitability within three to six months. The more people on your payroll — meaning the more partners you have, usually — the more revenue you need to generate. If you’re local start up consists of more than you and a partner, you’re probably over staffed. A spouse makes the best partner because then you really need to pay out only one salary.
3. Be prepared to be a jack of all trades. The skills needed to run a local news start up include, but not limited to, reporting, writing and editing news (plus photos and video), ad sales, ad graphics, marketing, community engagement (online and off), bookkeeping, some level of tech knowledge related to servers and content management systems,* the legal issues surrounding content publishing and business strategy and tactics. If you don’t personally have the skills, you need a partner who does. The skill sets of partners should complement each other so all bases are covered. It might be possible — if you have all these skills — to start a local news business as a solo operation, but as you begin to have success, you won’t be able to keep pace with the work demands. Finally, be a learner. You might have most of these skills, but you won’t have mastered them all. When I took over The Batavian, I realized that while I had some PhotoShop skills, there was a lot I didn’t know, so I bought books. I also studied advertising and revisited some of my sales training. I never assume I know all I need to know about what it takes to run my business.
4. Be able to think and plan strategically. Starting a local news business isn’t something you do just because you need a way to make a living, or just want to find a way to stay/be in journalism. If your goals are purely commercial, the crassness will show through and you will fail at finding opportunities to differentiate your business from your competitors. And no matter what your market, you will have competitors. You need to understand both the concept of competitive advantage and disruptive innovation. You need to know what advantages your business has over your competitors and how you are disrupting their tried-and-true business models. You need to understand why readers and advertisers will or do gravitate toward what you do.
5. Be prepared to have fun. To be successful, you must love what you’re doing. Running a start up business is hard, frustrating even some times depressing work. The news business is unique is that you will have hundreds of critics (which is also another reason why you need a clear vision about what you’re doing and why, so you can be confident of your course in the face of criticism). Your mistakes will be public. Your failures will be public. There will be times when readers publicly denounce you; and, for any of 100 different reasons that have nothing to do with your business, advertisers will quit you. There will also be days when you wish you didn’t have to work all day. You’ll miss your loved ones. You won’t be able to keep up with the latest movies, TV shows or music. You may not be able to go out of town for a friend’s wedding or a brother’s birthday. Starting a business is and must be the whole of your life. But you know what, running your own business is much better than working for The Man. And if you do it right, you will be treated in your community far better, with greater appreciation and adulation, than you ever received as a newspaper reporter, or any other salaried job. If you do it right, you will feel deep in your heart that you’re doing something meaningful and important, and that will carry you through any dark hours.
(Credit where credit’s due: Brad Flora’s post got me thinking along these lines).