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How to Build a Media Company


Years ago, Jasmine Brand wanted to stand out at red carpet events, so she settled on a tactic used by Hollywood stars: She transformed her hair. She dyed it a blazing hot pink to catch the attention of the people she wanted to interview for her recently created entertainment news blog.

The Jasmine Brand started in 2010, during a boom in black celebrity blogs. Outlets like Crunk & Disorderly, The YBF, Necole Bitchie, Concrete Loop, Media Take Out, Straight From the A and Sandra Rose pioneered digital spaces that prioritized news and gossip about well-known black celebrities — BeyoncĂ©, Will Smith, Tiger Woods — as well as “blackfamous” stars either unknown to or disregarded by their print predecessors and white peers.

“I always knew I wanted to shed more light on black celebrities because they didn’t get the same kind of exposure,” Ms. Brand, 35, said. “I also figured I could be objective and neutral and give a newsy point of view, but still talk about celebs that my audience cares about.”

Now, a decade later, The Jasmine Brand has outlived most of those same websites that inspired her own, having grown from a one-woman passion project into an operation that, according to Ms. Brand, garners up to 195,000 page views daily and 2.1 million unique visitors monthly.

The Jasmine Brand has freelance writers and contributors who find scoops and write stories. Although some stories are sourced from social media posts or aggregated, it’s the website’s reporting on everything from “Love and Hip Hop” casting to messy divorces that has bolstered the brand’s reputation, making it a source for outlets like “The Wendy Williams Show,” Page Six and the nationally syndicated radio show “The Breakfast Club.”

“I usually source them because they seem to be pretty accurate with a lot of the things that they post,” said Charlamagne tha God, a host of “The Breakfast Club.”

“Her stories are different,” said Angela Yee, another host of “The Breakfast Club.” Ms. Yee has developed a close friendship with Ms. Brand over the years and said she checks The Jasmine Brand every day. “I tend to find things that aren’t as widely distributed on all the other websites.” She also appreciates how the the Jasmine Brand’s editorial voice tends to be either “unbiased” or have more of a “positive slant.”

Dissatisfied with a well-paid corporate marketing director job in Washington, D.C., Ms. Brand, then 25, wanted a hobby that allowed her to write. She had a degree in mass communication and was an avid reader of celebrity news sites. Ms. Brand was also the go-to source for the latest celebrity stories among her friends.

Her daily schedule consisted of blogging before and after work, during lunch hours at a nearby Starbucks and on the weekends, writing up to six to eight stories a day. This lasted until someone at her company discovered a blog post that Ms. Brand had published about Kim Kardashian West. She was informed that the blog was a potential conflict of interest to clients — so she quit and decided to pursue The Jasmine Brand full-time.

Over the next two years, she sourced, reported on and published most of the daily content herself, earning only a few hundred dollars a month through advertising revenue based on rates Ms. Brand determined by combining her upcoming bills.

Being a self-funded entrepreneur with no business background soon caught up to her, and Ms. Brand was forced to drain her 401(k) and savings to cover her living expenses. Her luxury car was repossessed, and she was evicted from her apartment; she decided to move in with her mother.

In 2013, Mahir Fadle, an investor with a background in finance and computer science, offered investment and continued future funding. The two had been in touch for years, with Mr. Fadle acting as an informal adviser to the website.

“She used to tell me about how she’d get up super early and work before going to work and at lunch and then after work,” Mr. Fadle, 42, said. “And I’m an early riser, so I was like, ‘Is she really doing this? Let me go ahead and randomly text her at four in the morning.’” Ms. Brand would always text him back a few minutes later. “I was like, ‘Oh, she’s serious,’” he said.

The two ultimately agreed on a 50/50 financial partnership. Mr. Fadle, 42, would not specify how much he has invested, but said it was enough to cover expanding into the Los Angeles market (The Jasmine Brand also has offices in Atlanta and New York), as well as hiring freelance writers, editors, correspondents and videographers; increasing the advertising budget; and obtaining office space and equipment.

The business model is advertising — display ads, video ads and social media ads coming through both agencies and direct brand buys. “The more traffic we have, the more ads we can display, the more profitable we become,” Mr. Fadle said.

They have applied cost-efficient alternatives to traditional media practices — sometimes sidestepping photo agencies by working directly with freelance photographers to license images. Mr. Fadle said the website saw a significant profit increase in less than a year.

“A lot of people think that if you have this huge office, a big staff and all these accessories, it looks sexy and you’re successful,” he said. “It just comes down to how you look at your books and how you budget.”

Having a popular newsletter also helps. Ms. Brand started the daily “e-bulletin” shortly after creating the website, abandoned it once her workload grew as a solo entrepreneur, then restarted it in 2013 on Mr. Fadle’s recommendation. It now has more than 263,000 subscribers.

The website’s traffic eclipses the newsletter’s, yet the emails, which simply list the day’s top 25 stories, have proven to be a “game changer,” Ms. Brand said. She said that these emails “land” in the inboxes of high-profile celebrities, agents, editors and other industry powerhouses and foster valuable brand recognition. (Some editors, including several at The New York Times, find The Jasmine Brand in their inbox without having ever signed up.)

“Everyone knows the newsletter before they know the site,” Mr. Fadle said.

“It is different now,” Ms. Brand said, about the current black celebrity news landscape. “I think we are one of the few sites that are still around from that era. But I understand when it’s time to move on, try something else and go to your next chapter.”

She said her daily look at Hollywood’s behind-the-scenes “ugliness” has jaded her outlook on celebrities, but she preserves her passion for movies with weekly trips to local cinemas, preferring sweatpants and matinee showings over red carpet attire and premieres.

“We’ve seen a lot of sites come and go during this time. And we’ve seen sites get really hot and then fall off,” Ms. Yee said, when asked about Ms. Brand’s decade-long run. “Longevity is a big deal. That’s definitely a testament to Jasmine’s professionalism.”

Today, mindful of their audience’s maturation and evolving interests, The Jasmine Brand team plans on debuting at least two spinoff sites, one focusing on health and the other on lifestyle; there are also plans for a makeup line in the coming year.

Ultimately, Ms. Brand wants to land exclusive casting announcements, publishing trailers and on-set images. That’s a path to becoming a trade publication along the lines of Deadline and Variety, albeit more cognizant of celebrities that her current audience cares about.

About that: She and her team reject labels like “urban” and “gossip site” that Ms. Brand said often relegates sites like The Jasmine Brand to “second-class” status. Instead she says the site’s defining characteristics are two rather unglamorous assets that have carried the brand this far: perseverance and consistency.



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