Catch-up with TechCentral’s Duncan McLeod, SA trailblazing entrepreneurial journalist

Duncan McLeod
Duncan McLeod

With newsrooms getting smaller and retrenchments hitting most of South Africa’s media houses, never has the time been better for entrepreneurial journalists to strike out on their own and build their own online businesses.

Falling circulation and squeezed revenues – especially for the print media – means that much of the traditional media is preoccupied with protecting their turf and traditional costs structures – and this spells opportunity for entrepreneurial hacks to  launch new niche digital news offerings.

Duncan McLeod is one the trailblazers in this area, having left the Financial Mail in 2009 to start TechCentral, a technology news website. Grubstreet caught up with him last week to find out how his business is growing and what lessons we can all learn from him.
[box type=”info”]SEE ALSO: Striking out alone: TechCentral’s Duncan McLeod talks to Grubstreet: October 2009 interview with McLeod when he launched[/box]
Grubstreet: When you started, you were already self-funded by sponsors that you’d signed up before you’d even launched the website. So how has it been since then? Have you being growing and growing or has it been a case of up and down?

McLeod: Touch wood, it’s been pretty good. We’ve managed to keep most of our inventory sold most of the time. And we’ve got good long-term advertising supporting us. The business is pretty stable.

 

Grubstreet: And you’ve taken one other staff member, haven’t you?

McLeod: Yes, Craig (Wilson) – he’s deputy editor. It’s just the two of us full time and we make use of freelancers here and there.

 

Grubstreet: OK. When you started TechCentral in 2009, tech still seemed quite niche but I think it’s far less so these days. I think there a great desire from all sorts of people today to understand technology.

McLeod: Ja, and we are a news title. If you compare us to broad sites like IOL or News24, we’re definitely a niche business site but we’re definitely not a tiny niche. I think it’s growing and there’s so much interest in it. I think the challenge is that there are so many websites out there, so you need to bring in a local flavour…

 

Grubstreet: Yes, I see. Your readers can just as easily get tech news from Mashable or TechCrunch.

McLeod: Yes, indeed.

 

Grubstreet: When you launched TechCentral you told me that one of the biggest challenges was getting your head around the admin and book keeping and the business side of things. Is that all pretty much sorted now?

McLeod: Well, I’ve got a good accountant. You do need someone reminding that this form must be filed by this date and this must be done at this time … If you’ve got an accountant, it’s not that much of a challenge.

 

Grubstreet: Your aim at launch was to start other websites besides TechCentral. If you have, I’ve missed out on that.

McLeod: We started a sports website, SportsCentral, as an experiment about a year ago.It hasn’t really performed to my expectations. It hasn’t gained traction.

 

Grubstreet: Sport must be a very different ball game to tech. There are a lot of players in that space.

McLeod: Yes, and it’s not a space I understand that well so it’s not as if I could really get involved and give direction because what I know about sport is scary. But it was really an experiment to see how the model might expand in that direction.

 

Grubstreet: That’s interesting because a lot of starting up online businesses is about learning – and some ideas work and some don’t work so well. What is the biggest business lesson you’ve learned, do you think, in the past two years?

McLeod: That probably my biggest failing is that I’m not business focused and, perhaps, the business would be stronger if I’d had an investor or someone focusing more on the business side of things. You know, I’m first and foremost a journalist and when I get up in the morning the first thing  I want to do is consume the news and write  more than I want to do administration or look at the books. So that’s probably an area we could  have been – and could be – stronger. Making sure that you don’t get into financial difficulty and that the cash flow is always there is very important. I think a lot of journalists go in and start their own thing and they don’t have a mind for numbers at all – and it can end up becoming very problematic.

 

Grubstreet: Ja, but that’s the thing about starting an online news operation, isn’t it? In the old traditional newsroom all you had to do was write stories and, in fact, it didn’t even matter if people weren’t reading them because you never knew one way of the other.  But if you running an online outfit, you are also the business manager and selling the advertising and sponsorships. How have you found drawing the line between selling advertising and editorial independence?

McLeod: It hasn’t really been a problem. I haven’t had any challenges around that but it’s written into our advertising sales contract so buying space on the website doesn’t entitle you to any editorial privileges. The distinction is clear in my head so it’s hasn’t really been an issue.

 

Grubstreet: I think we’re going to see an acceleration of online news sites start-ups in South Africa now because traditional newsrooms are shrinking and people are getting retrenched. That’s a good thing, don’t you think?

McLeod: Yes, it is a good thing. The industry is going through a very tough time and we have been sheltered to some extent in South Africa. We haven’t felt the full brunt of what’s happened in places like the US. But I don’t think there’s a lot of entrepreneurialism and innovation going on in journalism in South Africa. I think there’s so much you can do online…  If you look at the some of the things happening in the States around data journalism and multimedia and live streaming and that sort of thing… Part of the reason is our bandwidth situation (in SA) but that is really changing now.

[box]VITAL STATISTICS:
Founder: Duncan McLeod
Started: 2009
Web stats (November 2012) via Google Analytics:
Visits: 151 866
Page impressions: 262 778
Uniques: 88 344
Two-thirds of TechCentral’s visitors are from South Africa, which is significantly higher than competitor websites. This is important in reaching local advertisers.
Aim: To produce the highest quality technology journalism – news, analysis and opinion – in South Africa
Staff: McLeod and one other full-time staffer. Also make use of freelance writers and contributors
Start-up money: Self-funded
Had a business plan? Yes
Measure of success: Talked about in the industry
Top content tip: The disciplines of print journalism should apply online, too
Top business tip: Don’t overreach[/box]

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