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The News Lens

How Independent Media Around The World Can Flourish

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Independent media has historically faced an uphill slog. Before the Internet, organizations had to deal with printing costs and very limited distribution networks. Web 2.0 gave them new outlets, but did not necessarily help publications grow readership or attract sponsors.

As smartphone penetration rates around the world increase, however, and platforms like videos become more accessible for creators and viewers alike, independent publications now have fresh opportunities to change the news industry.

Marcus Brauchli and Sasa Vucinic are two media veterans who believe in the potential of independent publications around the world. Brauchli’s background includes top editing positions at the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, while Vucinic helped launch the non-profit Media Development Investment Fund (MDIF) and is also the founder and CEO of Indie Voices, a crowdfunding site for media projects around the world. I spoke to them last week at the Taipei offices of The News Lens, where they are angel investors as well as advisors.

The two plan to find more independent media organizations throughout the world that combine strong perspectives with solid business models.

Though they don’t plan to focus exclusively on digital publications or startups, Brauchli and Vucinic are especially keen on media companies that have figured out how to use technology to scale up quickly without having to sacrifice their editorial integrity and are willing to find new ways to engage with readers.

As investors, the two say they want to provide capital “without editorial strings attached.”

“Our intention is to create the absolutely ideal media investor that no one should be afraid of,” says Brauchli. “Our intention is to invest in media companies that are interested in high quality news, that are not manipulated, that do not belong to any specific political parties, that belong only to themselves and their own sound thinking.”

Disrupting traditional media around the world

Another of Vucinic and Brauchli’s goals is to help independent media organizations around the world connect and learn from one another.

“It’s a great time for independent media because technology reduces the entry barrier,” says Vucinic. “It makes it a phenomenal time for media in general. It’s David versus Goliath, and David is always a little smarter, more nimble, more fast.”

“It’s the classic disruptive play,” Brauchli adds. “The media has tended to be big, expensive, with all kinds of legacy costs, and the opportunity afforded by technology is to come in–inexpensive, fast, agile, and independent–and present an alternative approach to an audience that is maybe tired of the old style and are looking for new voices that are independent and truthful to help them understand the world.”

He points to Facebook’s $19 billion acquisition of WhatsApp as a “transaction that to some degree suggests the nature of the global technology media market, which is that what works in one place may also drive change in another place.”

“There’s a great opportunity for us to spend time in developing markets and understand what people are doing there, because there are people in the U.S. who may at times be myopic about the importance and centrality of the U.S. in the evolution of media,” says Brauchli.

“There are smart, creative, innovative people everywhere around the world, and they are constantly coming up with fresh ideas and perspectives.”

Using tech to create new outlets

The News Lens launched just last summer, but has quickly developed a reputation as a trusted source for information in Taiwan’s crowded media landscape.

Co-founded by Joey Chung and Mario Yang, the site uses multiple channels and organic marketing through social media to build readership without sacrificing the quality of their content, which combines news aggregation and original analysis.

For example, The News Lens, which launched with a mobile-optimized site, recently started producing videos with 90-second news summaries that play on screens in high-traffic areas like shopping centers and will eventually be shown on TV networks, too.

The company also recently struck a deal with one of Taiwan’s largest taxi groups to play videos on in-car monitors and is even talking with 7-Eleven about placing news snippets on their coffee cups. The latter idea is particularly savvy because Taiwan has the world’s highest concentration of convenience stores and 7-Eleven is the leading chain.

“When we look at media companies, we are looking at people who understand the importance and centrality of mobile, social, and video, and who are open to whatever technological possibilities might emerge,” says Brauchli. “Because the truth is, most new players can leapfrog the newer, existing legacy players.”

Long-term sustainability

Vucinic and Brauchli say another area where independent media organizations have the potential to innovate is monetization. For example, online publications can explore a freemium model that targets their core readership and allows them develop without having to worry about adjusting their editorial policy to suit corporate owners or advertisers.

While the two look for companies that are commercially-focused and have the potential to be profitable, they don’t demand short-term financial results.

“Reliable, high-quality information creates a good business in the long term. We are not interested in a quick buck or quick investment,” says Vucinic.

Ultimately, the most important thing for any media company to figure out is how to adapt to the demands of their growing readership while maintaining a strong and consistent editorial vision.

“Anyone who is doing news today has to have a very focused sense of who they are serving,” says Brauchli. “You need to know who your audience is or they don’t know who you are.”

Image by Flickr user Andy Beatty under a CC BY 2.0 license.