JA Interview: Fresh ideas for publishers from beyond the usual suspects. The promise of real-time storytelling to up community donation and profitability
Last week, Robert Burns Nixon, CFO of the San Francisco Fashion and Merchants Alliance, highlighted here several fashion industry best practices that might work well in publishing too. For example, getting direct feedback on concepts before going into full production, and holding trademarked events.
For more business insights from beyond the usual suspects, we invited AJ Leon, co-founder of Misfit, Inc. to, as Robert did, read the JA forums on local and niche news held earlier this year and respond. AJ offers insights where he sees promise for publishers to gain greater revenue, deepen connections and capitalize on the power of immediacy. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Misfit, Inc., started because it fulfilled a dream. AJ and Melissa Leon wanted to travel. They also wanted to do creative work for causes they support. So AJ left banking and Melissa left teaching. Slowly but steadily, they built a business that develops creative media campaigns all over the world. They are dipping into publishing now too, with a planned e-guide to renting out your home using Air BNB and a new multimedia arts journal. Before offering thoughts on business approaches he’s taken that might be useful to publishers, AJ found plenty to learn in the JA conversations on sustaining local and niche news.
AJ Leon, Misfit, Inc.: Both of those threads I thought were fascinating, because local news is not something that you hear about anymore. So people creating startups locally and trying to make money was something I found interesting. Michele McLellan tells the story of the Chicago News Co-op and how they failed because they weren’t tied into the local community. Contrast that with this East Village site that I follow religiously. They contacted my friend Joshua Davis, he’s an iPhoneographer, just a guy who went around creating beautiful photos of the East Village. And they reached out to him and always published his stuff.
That stood out to me. Also the guy who was talking about how [his local news site] had become profitable in the last two quarters and now they were turning into a co-op and they were going to sell subscriptions and shares to their core readers. I thought, man, what a great idea. If the East Village one needed money and was selling subscriptions and shares. I would do it.
News on local news
AJ’s favorite East Village news site is changing now that the New York Times ended its partnership with N.Y.U.’s journalism school. As the site seeks a new financial model, AJ may yet get a chance to subscribe.
Journalism Accelerator: How much do you think you’d pay for a subscription to the East Village site?
AJ Leon: Maybe $10 a month.
JA: A lot of local publishers are working to develop multiple streams of revenue. You run a business, you’ve worked in different industries. Can you share any insight on how to do that?
AJ Leon: It’s hard to say what translates to the news world but off the top of my head I think something that will probably be profitable is events. There’s so much online connection that there is this dire need and desire to connect face-to-face. I could see a local site or a niche site creating places people could come together. If I was in town and they did some sort of East Village get-together, just the local community, and there was a cover charge and they had a sponsor and all these things, that’s another source of revenue that they could easily drive.
JA: Why are you so loyal to the East Village?
AJ Leon: Because it’s an area that I identify with. If it were Manhattan, it’s not convenient enough. They’ve broken this down to the least common denominator that I care about, which is my neighborhood.
JA: Would you describe your business?
AJ Leon: We’re a creative agency, so we do web marketing for different types of clients. And inside of web marketing the services would be web design, marketing plans, content strategy, blah, blah. We will stay with somebody for a long time and try to do something significant. Twenty percent of our time from day one has been dedicated to non-profits, completely pro-bono. One of those recently was in Malawi where we worked with an organization called Water Aid to create an Instagram-powered blog through village journalists who we trained. The blog is the central piece of a campaign to raise money for this area. And we’ve already raised $1 million in 2.5 weeks, which is nuts.
JA: Is there anything in that experience that you think might be useful for someone working as a startup publisher?
AJ Leon: One of the things that was particularly attractive to people following this was the absolute real time nature of the storytelling. And that it was done on a familiar and beloved platform, Instagram. You know it’s real. You know some guy just published this from a phone in Africa. I think that is something that could translate to local news, having a combination of really polished articles and content alongside some type of real timeliness. You know it just happened 2 seconds ago if it goes live on Instagram.
In the last non-profit project we allowed people to join a village for a certain number of dollars a month and follow the journey of the village. There was a blog, but if they joined they got access to a private Facebook group where they could go deeper, get direct access to NGO workers and so forth. But we limited it to 100 people. It’s the oldest marketing trick in the book. You create scarcity and the value of whatever you’re offering goes up. I think a lot of people think “I want as many subscribers as possible.” But if you limit it, I wonder if people would want to be one of them. People worry too much about infinite scalability. I think artificial caps create value.
JA: One thing that came up in the JA forums on site sustainability was collaboration. You do a lot of partnering. Do you have any insights to build partnerships that can help everybody earn more money?
AJ Leon: There has to be something clear and definable that the other person gets. And, you want partnerships to be equitable, but typically if you’re initiating the partnership and give 51%, take 49%, then there’s a feeling of goodwill that you can’t possibly create in any other circumstance.
JA: Another thing that came up a lot was advertising. What role do you think ads play anymore, as something with value that ultimately gets consumers to connect with whoever is doing the advertising?
AJ Leon: Sadly it’s a huge part of a lot of people’s revenue model.
JA: Why do you say sadly?
AJ Leon: I think the unfortunate part is that most of the ads you see are just terrible. Banner ads and tile ads, and most people just ignore them. It’s got to be tough for both the advertiser and the publisher trying to figure it out. I think the publishers that work with the advertisers to create something interesting, like Microsoft BizSpark, which is about new businesses and new startups and sponsored by Microsoft but still relevant, that’s interesting.
JA: Trust is a huge part of the value that publishers and journalists have. This move toward sponsored content – useful, interesting, but ultimately, selling a product, it’s a trend we’re increasingly seeing. It makes some people in the journalism world really uncomfortable. How do you see it?
Instant, over time
Creative marketing company Misfit, Inc. focuses on long-term relationships with clients aiming to do “something significant”. One successful way Misfit connects causes with people is telling real time stories, while offering special access for more information.
AJ Leon: If it was a sponsored post on how tomatoes are really good for you and it was sponsored by tomato farmer, I might be a little wary. But if it’s done in a way that it’s not manipulating information like that Microsoft example, it doesn’t bother me. Those startups don’t mean anything to Microsoft. They are just paying for the ability for to me to hear about these people. Which I find interesting because I am in that space.
JA: What if it were the East Village site covering school district policies or elections?
AJ Leon: It depends how it’s done. It’s hard to write rules because a lot of it’s just intuitive. You know if you see it. You look at something and you know there’s something wrong there. If The Bean, the local franchise coffee shop, sponsored a series on the East Village site about something having to do with coffee, I wouldn’t necessarily distrust that.
JA: Is that because you like The Bean and support The Bean?
AJ Leon: I think it’s because I like and support The Bean and because The Bean is local.
JA: Thank you.
AJ Leon: It was a fun conversation. And both those threads were absolutely fascinating.
Have you been inspired with useful insight for journalism or publishing from someone in another industry? What did you learn, how did it work for you, and who or what led you to try it? Comment here to contribute your wisdom and help expand this living knowledge base.