The Young Turks: Spearheading the independent journalism revolution

14 April 2011

Written by: Suzannah Macbeth

Business models and independent journalism are uneasy bedfellows. Business models make you think of dry and dusty boardrooms, while independent journalism invokes images of grass-roots activists out to change the world with cardboard soapboxes and a creaking PA.

But every journalistic platform – especially independent journalism, which is all over the internet and taking everyone by surprise with its newfound sleekness and consistency – needs a good business model to survive.

Without a dry and dusty backbone to hold up your business strategy, your business – no matter how electrifying – is fated to fail. Outdated and inflexible business models do not suit independent platforms, which must constantly adapt to changes in the media landscape and the challenges these bring. Likewise, business models must adapt to suit the parameters of the industry.

This modern and somewhat revolutionary outlook is one that progressive online political analysis show The Young Turks has embraced, and in doing so has proven to the journalism world that you don’t have to sell out to break out.

The Young Turks (TYT) was founded in 2002 by Turkish-American journalist Cenk Uygur — he’s a ‘Young Turk’, a term which refers to a ‘young progressive or insurgent member of an institution, movement, or political party’, but is also a play on Uygur’s country of birth.

He founded TYT in part as a protest against what he saw as the mainstream media relying too heavily on a business model which was itself reliant on the accessibility of political figures (resulting in a lack of impartiality and an unwillingness to challenge the status quo).

It seems that there’s a loyal and ever-growing liberal public out there who completely agrees with him: Uygur’s career has skyrocketed. Uygur has been picked up as a 6pm anchor for cable giant msnbc, who trusted him with their sole interview with Julian Assange in the middle of the WikiLeaks furore last December.

TYT itself has gone from strength to strength, starting off on syndicated radio and then moving online via their website and YouTube channel. After making the move, the show went from zero to 30,000 views within a month.

After 12 months, revenue reached US$250,000, and as of last September TYT raked in a whopping US$1 million in revenue. With 450,000 monthly users and just under half a billion hits in total, it’s impressive work for a simple, no-fuss show that to this day remains completely independent. So what’s their secret?

TYT co-host Ana Kasparian laughs down the line in a sunny Californian twang. ‘We really didn’t expect those [YouTube] video clips to blow up, but that’s essentially what happened, we became tremendously popular on YouTube and started building a large core online audience. And through YouTube we were able to attract and utilise advertisers and sponsors.’

The one condition they have, of course, is that said advertisers are in no way allowed to affect content. ‘If there was an advertiser who came to us and said, “Hey, we’re going to pay you a couple thousand dollars per advertisement per video but you guys have to stop bashing Sarah Palin,” we would never do that in a million years,’ explains Kasparian. ‘We do not want to be controlled by corporate interests, we want to truly be independent media. That’s the number one objective of our business model.’

It’s a noble ideology, and one they should be proud of, but though TYT has these lofty principles their business model remains firmly grounded.  To supplement online revenue, another important part of their model includes member subscription.

TYT has a membership option – if people want access to their podcasts and other portions of their show then they can pay US$10 per month and have all of that. They currently have around 2,100 subscriptions, and it’s important to note that membership really helped carry them over when they made the transition from radio to online. It was their main source of revenue until the YouTube explosion.

But it wasn’t always a smooth ride. ‘Definitely finding sources of revenue,’ says Kasparian emphatically when I ask her about the challenges of their business model. She says of mainstream media, ‘The one big advantage they have is the fact that they have corporate sponsorship. They have these big sponsors so they have a larger budget and are able to do things that TYT is unable to do.’

For instance, TYT has a lot of technical issues with the show, especially with Uygur currently based in New York for msnbc and the show based in Los Angeles, there has been issues with the conferencing technology. With mainstream media, there’s a tremendous amount of money and these factors are never a concern. So the challenge with remaining independent is finding a source of revenue that will not influence the content, but will also help achieve the goals of the show.

With operating costs of around US$40,000 per month, which covers eight employees and rent, TYT knows how to run on bare bones. There’s no makeup person, no fancy lunches. To see how lean TYT really is, compare them to cable news where an hour of product costs around US$300,000.

Its DIY-mentality is another thing that thoroughly appeals to its audience — which conveniently fall into that advertising-desirable 18-35 demographic. ‘The reason that we have such a young demographic is that we’re not afraid to take a fresh stance on the news,’ says Kasparian. ‘It’s very difficult to find media that uses the type of language we use, we’re very candid, we’re very open, we’re very honest with our audience and we’re not afraid to share our point of view.’

It’s a gamble that’s more than paid off for Uygur, Kasparian and crew.  And where will TYT evolve from here? ‘We want to become the first ever online news network,’ says Kasparian sincerely. ‘We want to be the number one source for news online.’

The revolution has already started – there’s the already highly-successful flagship political show, and over the last year they have launched movie review show What The Flick, as well as TYT Sports and TYT University, which focuses on higher education news. Something else they’re looking forward to is putting reporters in the field, starting off with several intern-style ‘student correspondent’ positions for TYT University.

The flagship show and its offshoots are beacons of encouragement to those involved in independent journalism. Their success proves that independent journalism, built from the ground up, can be successful.

With a fluid and adaptable business model that enabled TYT to move from radio to online with a minimum of risk, and a product that was not fancy but incredibly honest and filled to the brim with self-belief, in a very short time they have risen to become ‘the largest online news show in the world’.

By making show content non-negotiable with advertisers they’ve been able to remain true to the tenets of TYT. Not content with resting on their proverbial laurels, they’ve continued to branch out, take more risks and strike out confidently to make the dream of becoming ‘the first ever online news network’ a reality, without compromising their values.

The truly incredible thing is that they just might do it.  In a journalism world where corporate interests exercise almost complete control, that has to be something to smile about.

Renee Tibbs is a  Master of Global Communications student at La Trobe University and is a previous editor of upstart.