The digital dream teams

It’s time to start acting and doing like the new generation of digital news start-ups, says Aron Pilhofer.

Cartoon by Judy Horacek

Horacek-fresh-air

It is a truism bordering on cliché to say the newspaper industry is in deep trouble – a decline driven largely by the steady erosion of the traditional ad-supported business model. The results have been predictable: job cuts, retrenchment and, occasionally, insolvency.Even The New York Times – with its global audience, loyal subscriber base and highly successful digital pay model – reported a US$9 million quarterly operating loss in October.

But as traditional news organisations retrench, a new generation of digital news start-ups has emerged hoping to fill those gaps or find new niches entirely. I had a chance to study a number of these start-ups in preparation for my new role at The Guardian. I was drawn in particular to a trio of newer entrants: Quartz, Vox Media and the Dutch site De Correspondent.

Although each is quite different in terms of content,audience and tone, they share key similarities that traditional publishers can learn from.

Quartz

Launched by Atlantic Media in 2012, Quartz is a blend of quick reads and in-depth pieces that are perfectly tuned to the needs of its target audience of digitally savvy readers of business news. As an upstart competing for attention in an already crowded niche, Quartz was conceived as a highly visual, built-for mobile site built around search and social.
Quartz is an impressively focused product, and that is due in large part to its structure. The newsroom is truly integrated, which is to say product, technology and editorial not only sit together but they all report to editor-in-chief Kevin Delaney. In this way, Quartz has eliminated the barriers that hold back traditional newsrooms without sacrificing editorial independence or standards.
The results speak for themselves: Quartz grew to more than 5 million monthly unique views in its first 10 months and is on pace for profitability next year. In a very short period, Quartz has attracted an audience of the sort of C-suite decision-makers advertisers covet, and the gaudy CPMs [cost per mille/thousand] to show for it.

Vox Media

Founded in 2011, Vox has launched or acquired a series of highly successful verticals, focused on food, technology, video games and fashion. The company’s growth of late has been explosive, now logging close to 80 million monthly uniques across its various brands. The company has attracted more than US$80 million in investments and CEO Jim Bankoff has said the company is on target to break even this year.
Like Quartz, Vox is a fully integrated, product-led operation, with no artificial barriers between editorial, product, technology and design. Each of its verticals has both product and editorial leads who work collaboratively to identify new opportunities, manage the technical backlog and own the vision for the site.
It was this that attracted Vox’s best-known writer, Ezra Klein, who left the Washington Post to start the explanatory journalism site vox.com this year.

Daily newspapers, he told The New York Times, are held back “not just by the technology, but by the culture of journalism.”
Vox is in every way a start-up, but it hasn’t forgotten its community roots. It was formed from (and still operates) SB Nation, a network of more than 300 fan-run blogs started back in 2002. Community was core to SB Nation’s success, and is still core to everything Vox does – from product design to business strategy to its technology stack.
In most newsrooms, comments and content are treated as very separate things. Chorus, Vox’s much heralded content management system, was built to handle both reader submissions and staff-written articles as first-class content. Reader comments or even longer submissions can be moderated easily and promoted into news feeds right along with staff stories. At a time when many traditional publishers are inexplicably moving away from comments and community, Vox is doubling down.

De Correspondent

Launched in 2013 by Rob Wijnberg, formerly editor-in-chief of the national print daily nrc.next in the Netherlands, De Correspondent is a crowdfunding success story. Wijnberg and his collaborators raised more than 1 million Euros from 15,000 individual donors to start De Correspondent as an ad-free, subscription-based site. A little more than a year later, they have more than 27,000 subscribers.
Like Vox and Quartz, De Correspondent is structured more like a Silicon Valley start-up than a traditional newsroom, with the lines between editorial, product and technology blurred completely. The result is, again, a very focused product.
De Correspondent has not achieved anywhere near the scale of Vox or Quartz, but it doesn’t seek to. If a traditional newspaper website is a supermarket – a little bit of everything – then De Correspondent is more a boutique, focusing on producing fewer, higher-value pieces of original, in-depth reporting.
Like Vox, a key part of De Correspondent’s strategy is community and conversation. Journalists are expected to report and write, but also to engage with readers post-publication. Each journalist has a space on the site – what Wijnberg calls a “garden” – that he or she is expected to “tend”.
Only subscribers can visit these gardens, where they can follow journalists, read their stories, and post and read comments. This makes the garden an unusually intimate space for conversation and a big part of why people subscribe.

Lessons for publishers?

Taken together, Vox, Quartz and De Correspondent represent a sort of new wave of digital native news organisations that have found a way to marry the culture and product focus of a tech start-up with values of a traditional newsroom. And all three are finding success doing it.

Could legacy news organisations emulate this model?
I believe they can. In fact, it’s already happening. A few years back, it took me nearly a year to convince the business side to embed an analytics specialist in the newsroom. Now, The Times has a masthead editor for audience development building – a person who was most recently working on the business side as a product manager.
At The Guardian we’re building a four-person analytics team in the newsroom and creating closer collaborations with product and technology. The Washington Post and many other news organisations are heading in the same direction, albeit slowly.
The question that should be weighing on every senior newsroom editor’s mind is: should we be moving faster? BuzzFeed is now bigger than The New York Times on the web, and an entire cadre of native digital start-ups is following close behind. I think we do. Because if traditional publishers want to compete with digital start-ups, we need to look and act a lot more like native digital start-ups. And we have to do it soon.

Aron Pilhofer is executive director of digital for The Guardian, and was one of the keynote speakers at Storyology. He tweets as @pilhofer
Judy Horacek is a freelance cartoonist based in Melbourne; horacek.com.au