Not many journalists would leave a high-profile job at one of America’s most storied newspapers to create their own startup.
But that’s exactly what former Wall Street Journal reporter Jessica Lessin did last year when she founded the tech news site The Information.
Lessin says that there’s so much that’s substitutable in today’s media environment, so she sought to create valuable, informative content that wasn’t just click bait.
"The impetus for starting The Information was this major opportunity I saw to build a new type of news organization," she says. "There’s this huge thirst for information among professionals and other types of readers who want more in-depth news that may not appeal to mass audiences."
Lessin isn’t alone in that thinking. In recent years, female journalists have launched media startups focused on turning traditional news models on their head: There’s Ebola Deeply, a single topic news site launched by ABC News and Bloomberg alum Lara Setrakian; Kara Swisher, who built All Things Digital into a powerhouse brand for Dow Jones, recently broke away from the company to launch a new site called Re/Code; Laura Lorek, a former San Antonio Express-News reporter, launched Silicon Hills News two years ago to focus on tech coverage in the San Antonio and Austin area; acclaimed sports journalist Selena Roberts left Sports Illustrated in 2011 and launched the sports site Roopstigo, which has transformed into a content studio for original storytelling.
Most of these media entrepreneurs are increasingly focused on specific niches, with the goal of doing one thing well rather than competing with a flurry of other sites. But they also have the unique challenge of trying to gain a foothold in two highly competitive industries—media and tech, where women are still underrepresented. According to a 2014 American Society of News Editors survey, women run only three of the country’s 25 largest media outlets. In tech, this trend is even more pronounced. According to a recent Babson College study, only about 3% of venture-funded companies had a female CEO.
However, as traditional media continues to contract, more journalists are making the leap into entrepreneurship, and many are launching startups that could eventually be a way forward for the news business.
These journalists have launched their own ventures for different reasons. Some say there’s still a glass ceiling in the media industry that’s hard to crack, while others contend there’s only so much innovation that can happen in a traditional newsroom.
"The newsroom system is almost like an apprentice system. They want you to put in years of work to rise to a higher level," says Lorek, who founded Silicon Hills News in 2011. "I don’t think it should be that way."
Lorek, 49, worked as a tech reporter for eight years at the San Antonio Express-News before creating her site. Though Silicon Hills News’s traffic numbers don’t rival sites like BuzzFeed or FiveThirtyEight, it is bringing in enough revenue through sponsorships and advertising for Lorek to run it full-time and pay two part-timers, she says.
Lorek says focusing on a niche in which she already had expertise has helped build her brand, especially in San Antonio and Austin’s rapidly growing tech community. She sees other journalists benefitting from this, as well.
"People who have specialized skills—such as in food, sports, business, or technology—they are going to do just as well in the coming years doing their own sites as they are working for a mainstream media publication."
"It’s a major opportunity on par with building a big organization like the Wall Street Journal or the Financial Times," says Lessin, who has a staff of eight full-timers, many of whom are former colleagues.
Lessin, 31, hopes to build The Information into a successful brand by relying on a model that traditional media has largely eschewed—subscriptions. It costs $399 a year to access The Information’s tech stories.
"Being a subscription business isn’t just about getting revenue on day one," she says. "It’s about finding a product that’s worth paying for and making all aspects of your organization focused on delivering that unique value."
Lessin has self-funded The Information, and other female media entrepreneurs also say they’ve bootstrapped their businesses. Lorek ran Silicon Hills News on a shoestring budget of $12,000 during her first year after getting funding from J-Lab, an incubator for news innovators that has given seed stage grants to female entrepreneurs.
Jan Schaffer, executive director of J-Lab, says some female entrepreneurs still face funding hurdles.
"They generally don’t have as much access to funding. Part of it is their network; part of it is that some of them are afraid to ask for money," she says. "They’re willing to put in the sweat equity, but some of their topics tend to skew toward social justice issues. They’re really covering things that no one else is covering, but some of these topics don’t scale."
That was Selena Roberts’s experience. She initially launched Roopstigo as a sports content site but later pivoted to a digital content network that relies on licensing fees instead of display ad revenue.
"Creating a website that only had original content wasn’t going to be sustainable without huge traffic numbers," she says. "We had meetings with investors and in every meeting that was the big issue. They wanted to invest in scale."
Roberts, 48, also says she often has great experiences when discussing content and storytelling, but that journalism heft sometimes doesn’t carry over to business.
"The thing that I didn’t expect is when you go in and talk to investors, I did sometimes feel when I had something to say in the meeting I was a little invisible," she says. "A female voice sometimes does not penetrate the credibility rank like a male voice does."
Melinda Wittstock, a serial media entrepreneur and news veteran who is currently the CEO of the social media intelligence platform Verifeed, says another issue for female entrepreneurs is that they don’t fit the typical pattern for investors.
"By and large they look for a young, male engineer," Wittstock says. "It’s an established pattern that to an investor de-risks the deal. Most women who are entrepreneurs, especially media entrepreneurs, have come at this from a different route to get to the same place. A lot of media entrepreneurs are usually not technical founders."
Even still, there’s room for these female-led ventures to be really disruptive. Despite its different revenue model, Lessin says The Information already has subscribers in 44 countries and is exceeding business expectations. She hopes her site can be an example for other media innovators.
"I’m a very big believer that there are going to be entrepreneurs who are building not just the next flash-in-the-pan news site, but the next news franchise with a model that sustains the kind of journalism that there’s a real craving for," she says.
Satta Sarmah is a freelance writer based in Orlando, Florida.