The Art and Science of Hiring for Media Startups

    by Rafat Ali
    July 24, 2013
    The team at Skift, the NYC-based startup (founded by the author, fourth from left) focused on global travel industry intelligence.

    Starting up a news site has become the easiest thing in the world over the last decade, but building a long-lasting media company from scratch is among the hardest tasks in startupland. Having worked on a couple of these myself, I’ve always believed one of the most underrated barriers to entry for a media startup is sensibility.

    Image courtesy of the European Parliament and used here under the Creative Commons license.

    Image courtesy of the European Parliament and used here under the Creative Commons license.

    "No journalism circle-jerk or moralizing media people. Get the basics of reporting right — keep the 'future of journalism' prognosticators out."

    Building the right kind of sensibility means building the right kind of brand that resonates. In a crowded media sector these days, the white space to create anything unique is non-existent, or at best narrow, which is why content-based startups take a longer time to gestate and build up.


    Hiring and building a team present peculiar challenges for a media startup compared to any other kind of software or consumer product startup. Cultural fit becomes the driving criteria above almost any other criteria, particularly at the early stage.

    Having been a student of media and media startups all my life — and now a year into building my second — I’ve learned a bunch of lessons along the way on building the right kind of teams in lean content-driven environments.

    Different stages in a company require different strategies, and for this article I am focusing on the early stage, where the focus is on building editorial, product and distribution. Call it my year-one guide to hiring in a media startup.


    General culture and companywide skills

    • Bringing negative energy into the company is not worth any kind of talent. This is true for co-founders, employees and even investors. Because in a daily ideas-driven startup, the flow of energy back and forth matters a lot more; any negative people in the company suck up all available energy in the company. This may sound esoteric and hard to quantify, but if you’ve done this long enough, you know this matters.
    • The product in a media startup changes every day, unlike any other product startup. The front entrance of your flagship product changes many times a day, and the people you hire need to understand the manic-ness that goes into doing this day in, day out.
    • Product thinking: Typically media startups have been stuck in “post thinking,” as in a blog post, a story post, etc. In a multi-platform environment, product-led thinking that continually tweaks to keep the brand fresh in digital becomes the driving force. Iterate, test and build — a thinking in mainstream consumer startups, has to come to media startups as well. Hire people who get it.
    • Visual and multi-platform thinking: Anyone you hire — from editor to developer to social media manager to sales to business development — has to understand the visual nature of media these days, especially in a social media-driven, multi-platform world. This is easier said than done, but people with varied and non-traditional career paths tend to get this the most.
    • Living in a Google Analytics stream: Or in other words, data thinking. These days, data skills for anyone you hire across any function in the company — from editorial intern to social media manager to founders — is not an optional skill. That’s true for any startup, but for media startups that live and die in Google Analytics (and most use that at early stage, because it is free), it means making sure everyone in the company understands it, uses it, and makes decisions that are informed from it. Baking it in at the hiring stage will ensure you make it pervasive across the company as it scales.

    Editorial team

    • The 4 S’s of Content: Be Smart, Sharp, Surgical and Strategic. With a small team in the beginning, can the editorial talent you hire be nimble enough to understand this, and execute against it?
    • Because part of the talent you will hire will likely have come from existing old-school media companies, one of the things you are looking for is how much can they unlearn what they’ve learned before. Especially if the editorial product and the voice you are trying to create is something the industry has not seen before.
    • This is my personal favorite: No journalism circle-jerk or moralizing media people. Get the basics of reporting right — keep the “future of journalism” prognosticators out.
    • Related to above: Avoid scenesters, above all else. Media tends to attract a lot of those because it comes with the high profile of a byline and public presence. These days with the amplification of social, people love the idea of working in high-profile places and would do anything to flatter you. It will take some trial and error, but you’ll learn the necessary skill of avoiding these people.
    • Curation thinking: This is another critical hiring and company culture parameter. No media startup can survive doing just original content, it has to be a mix, of original, of curated or aggregated, of licensed if that is an option. It means hiring people who have the ability to mix content types, and not be moral about it. You’ll be surprised at how many journalists look down upon curation. In a small team, curation thinking also means learning to do a lot more with a lot less.


    • This is hard in the best of times, and for media startups that may not seemingly be solving rocket-science tech problems, your options of how and what to attract developers with are lower. In most cases, media startups are about execution, and that requires a slightly different kind of developer than a software or product company would need.
    • Look to the pool of journalists turned developers, or dual majors in journalism and computer science, of which there is an increasing pool. They generally tend to get ignored by other high-profile consumer startups, and present an attractive pool to target for hiring.
    • This is especially true if you are trying to create media-derived data products, and there are a lot of cross-dependencies that somebody with the media background would understand better than a regular developer.
    • Developers with media background tend to understand presentation of data and information in right formats.

    Cross-functional agile product manager

    • Agile development, a methodology that came out of the software world, is increasingly being implemented across other parts of companies as well, especially as a buzzword by marketers. For a media startup, agile would translate into building quick, fast and dirty, with few resources, whether it is edit, business, sales, and of course tech development. That means a cross-functional product manager who is almost a junior COO, working with founders to keep everything running and launching on time, amidst the requisite amount of chaos.

    Content marketing & partnerships

    • The social media editor is dead, the engagement manager has arrived. Call it whatever you want, beyond the buzzwords it means marketing your content is a full-time function, and is multivariate, multi-service and multi-platform. The skills required then become a lot more complex than just someone who tweets and “engages” with community. It is a mix of being natively good at social, the ability to focus on various social networks in different ways that those platforms require, in different formats of media. It means seeding various sites, forums and platforms beyond social; it also means part traditional business development functions of maintaining and seeding existing content partnerships.


    • The first sales hire at any media startup is a crucial and scary step. Hiring someone who can just sell banner and boxes, even if lots of them, won’t cut it. The first sales hire has to be strategic enough to think big picture, understand what the nascent brand stands for, and be on top of emerging trends in content market, native advertising and digital branding. And as digital has enabled the rise of early adopters, fanboys and prosumers across various industries, a sales hire should typically have both B2B and B2C experience to understand how companies market to various constituencies in different ways.


    This is an early stage template. Beyond year two and beyond seed stage, the hiring guidelines and skill sets needed will evolve as product, business and strategy evolves — even if philosophies and operating principles stay rooted in founders vision.

    (I have used the words “news,” “media” and “content” interchangeably here, to cast a wider net. Don’t get tripped up in the semantics of the words — larger lessons apply to any kind of content-driven startup.)

    Rafat Ali is the CEO and founder of Skift, the NYC-based startup focused on global travel industry intelligence: News, info, data and analysis on airlines, hotels, tourism, cruises, startups, tech and more. You can follow Skift here on LinkedIn, or Twitter or Facebook. Previously, he was the founder of paidContent, which he sold to Guardian Media Group in 2008.

    This story originally appeared on LinkedIn Today.

    Tagged: developers editorial hiring marketing media skift startups

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