I don’t normally use myself as data but, in this particular case, I’m a suitable microcosm of what’s happening across the media industry.
Two years ago, I was a television correspondent covering the Middle East for ABC News and Bloomberg Television. Like most reporters these days, I was comfortably reporting for television, radio, print and digital platforms.
Although I had all those channels, I felt limited by traditional formats. When it came to in-depth coverage of a single issue, I felt that the full extent of knowledge was not being captured in the daily offerings of standard broadcast networks or print publishers. I felt it most acutely on the Syria story, where layers of complexity and consequence were underreported and increasingly vital to understanding the war in its totality.
My response was to set aside existing conventions and create my own model. I brought together a team and built a platform called Syria Deeply, which turned into a new media start-up known as News Deeply. By fusing journalism, technology and design, we created a paradigm that can now scale to cover a range of complex issues with greater depth and clarity. We mixed the journalistic craft with a lean start-up methodology, supplementing our core team and working with a network of reporters in and around Syria. As a result, we’ve been able to build high-quality content with a profitable business model. With what we learned from Syria Deeply we plan to launch Arctic Deeply next, featuring in-depth coverage of Arctic issues.
I cite our example not because it’s unique and special, but rather precisely because it’s not. We are part of a powerful trend: the ascendance of the start-up journalist – the journo-entrepreneurs – now shaping the media landscape. The start-up journalist phenomenon has been brewing for some time, but this is the moment when it’s approaching critical mass – with much more to come. Start-up news outlets are changing the state of the industry and setting new paradigms that traditional outlets have begun to follow. The start-ups are leading the way to the future of news.
That is the broader phenomenon I now study, as a fellow at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism. The most palpable example was The New York Times shifting its digital revenue model to include native advertising, also known as sponsored content, The practice involves using journalists to tell stories on behalf of a brand, then integrating that paid content into the publication itself. It has been a highly lucrative strategy for young publications like Buzzfeed; its founder says the eight-year old outlet is now turning a profit and surpassing 120 million monthly unique users.
Legacy institutions like The Times were slow to follow suit; for starters, it was a direct assault on the separation of editorial and business management operations that have existed from the beginning of modern media history, for the direct purpose of protecting the integrity and credibility of the news. For that reason, many legacy news operations have found it suspicious, even distasteful to blend advertising and editorial.
But it’s a new day. Market pressures are changing that framework and pushed The Times, among others, to embrace the practice that Buzzfeed pioneered.
We are now far enough into the digital publishing age that there are new incumbents, start-ups that have scaled up the maturity curve. Some are focused on a distinct methodology, like investigative reports (see ProPublica in the US and Mediapart in France). Others have a more broad-based, but younger appeal, like Buzzfeed, Vice News and Grantland. At the high-end of the new digital incumbents stands Politico – early to prove itself in the digital domain and successful enough to then launch an off-line publication, expanding into print.
Consumers are clearly embracing the start-up journalist. In one high-flying start, De Correspondent, a new publication based in Holland, was seed funded by $1.7 million in donations from the general public. Nearly 19,000 people contributed to their appeal.
As publishing goes vertical, news outlets dedicated to just one topic are proliferating. Well before we launched Syria Deeply as a single-subject news site, there was Tehran Bureau, covering Iran, Inside Climate News, covering the environment and HomicideWatch, covering crime in American cities. Individual journalists were striking out on their own to cover stories they felt were underreported in the news cycle. In doing so, they accelerated what’s been called the “unbundling” of news into distinct topical segments.
There, too, we’ve seen an impact on the industry – a migration of methodologies from the start-up field to the mainstream domain. In one clear example, the Bleacher Report, a news website founded by four friends in 2007, became the digital leader in hyper-local sports coverage. Instead of just covering major sports teams, they crowdsourced reports to cover practically every team in every town in America. Their wildly successful rise has led to a shift in how sports journalism is done. The industry leader, ESPN, seems to be mimicking their model, with correspondents deployed in more local markets.
“The industry is following us around,” King Kaufman, a journalist with the Bleacher Report, told me last year.
It may be just as well that they do. The start-up space is a jungle for R&D, full of nimble players and new formulas to sustain digital journalism. The industry can then adapt those formulas to suit its needs. The risk to The New York Times and other legacy players is that news innovation will move so fast it will leave them behind. To survive, they’ll need an optimal mix of old-world brand value and new-age publishing practices. Otherwise they’ll have less resilience and far less capital to work with, while competing in a dynamic digital domain.
Lara Setrakian is the Founder and Executive Editor of News Deeply. She is a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader and a Member of the Global Agenda Council on the United States.
Image: A volleyball match between Italy and Poland seen on a mobile phone at the London 2012 Olympic Games. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado