Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

Can NewsLabs Give Laid-Off Journalists Another Chance?

So you used to write stories for a newspaper and now you’re out of work? Odds are, you are going to have to find something else to do.

But some of you may be able to transform yourselves into one-person news factories, says Paul Biggar, who wants to make money while helping you do that.

Biggar is a co-founder of NewsLabs, a start-up that promises to create a business around the work of individual journalists. The idea is that the writer writes and NewsLabs does everything else: Ad sales, “community management,” promoting the work on Google, Facebook, Twitter et al, and so forth. In exchange, the company wants a 20 percent cut of all revenue.

In other words, Biggar and co-founder Nathan Chong want to become publishers with an all-freelance workforce.

NewsLabs just graduated from Y Combinator’s three-month bootcamp and has been working with a starter group of journalists for a couple months. So it’s still mostly theoretical at this point. My concern is that the help NewsLabs says it can offer doesn’t solve the real problem: The economics of Web publishing are brutal, and in most cases they only work on a Google- (GOOG) or Yahoo (YHOO)-size scale.

Biggar tells me that NewsLabs won’t solely be dependent on ad revenue, so that’s good. But all of the ancillary businesses that can support a Web-based journalist–conferences, job boards, and the like–also require either great scale or a very, very specialized niche. So Biggar and co-founder Nathan Chong have their work cut out for them.

Here’s Biggar’s extended pitch, via an interview I taped with him this week at Y Combinator’s Demo Day presentations:

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The problem with the Billionaire Savior phase of the newspaper collapse has always been that billionaires don’t tend to like the kind of authority-questioning journalism that upsets the status quo.

— Ryan Chittum, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review about the promise of Pierre Omidyar’s new media venture with Glenn Greenwald