Remember that time I told you about the new hyper-local news app launching in cities around the world? Or the platform for audience engagement that spun out from WBEZ’s Curious City? Or the first news product rolled out by Advance Digital’s in-house media incubator?
Well, it’s time for an update! Last month, as a final act before departing MediaShift to focus on a book project (stay tuned for more!), I checked in with several of the digital media startups and experiments that I covered this year and asked the folks at each one to share the biggest lesson they’ve learned this year, how they’ve succeeded (and failed), and what advice they’d give to prospective digital media entrepreneurs.
Here’s what I found out.
In March, I wrote about a startup called Hearken and its plan to spread the public-powered journalism model that co-founder Jennifer Brandel helped pioneer at WBEZ.
Inspired by WBEZ’s Curious City, Hearken helps newsrooms involve their audiences in the process of story selection and reporting. Using Hearken’s platform, journalists can solicit story ideas in the form of questions and put their favorites up for an audience vote. The winning questions are then assigned to a reporter, and, in some cases, the question-asker gets a chance to assist in the investigation.
Hearken is now being used in nearly 60 newsrooms worldwide, and the company is starting to explore other markets, including museum experiences and conferences (last month’s ONA conference, for example, used Hearken to gather questions and feedback on sessions). Here are Brandel’s responses to my questions:
Lesson learned: “In order to be effective, you need to keep saying the same things over and over and over and over again. Someone may hear your message once and be intrigued, but they’re busy, and they don’t necessarily have time to act on new information. So showing up everywhere we can and really focusing on a coherent message on all channels, as often as we can, is the foundation for ushering change. It’s not sexy.”
Biggest success and failure: “Our biggest success is taking our model from three newsrooms to nearly 60 — and doing that across countries and languages. Our partners have been producing some of their top stories of the year with our model and technology, and we’re seeing all kinds of cool uses for it (like election coverage Q+A). Our biggest failure overall has been spreading ourselves very thin. We’re trying to to find the balance of leaning in hard without burning out.”
Advice for digital media entrepreneurs: “Change to the industry is inevitable. We can either design it thoughtfully and intentionally, or let it happen. The opportunities right now are huge and crucial. No matter what you try, and no matter whether it works or not, you’re contributing to a kind of scientific body that we need to strengthen and continue in order to survive. Now is the time for lots of experiments, and hopefully you make some happen and share what you learn.”
The hyper-local news app Ripple News has now launched in 21 cities around the world, established 100 media partnerships, and finalized a pair of high-profile distribution partnerships that will be announced later this month (the details are currently under embargo). Here’s what I wrote about Ripple News in May:
“The source of enthusiasm for Ripple is two-fold: First, by combining geo-mapping technology with a voting system that allows stories to “ripple out” to a wider audience, Ripple creates an opportunity to produce hyper-local news at scale — a big step toward business viability.
Second, unlike the algorithmic and aggregation-based hyper-local sites that have been largely unsuccessful, Ripple accounts for the importance of on-the-ground community engagement. Most notably, Ripple is powered by human contributors who live in the cities they’re covering, and those contributors do actual reporting rather than web aggregation — an approach that West Seattle Blog and other hyper-local news outlets have shown is crucial.”
I also noted Ripple News’s prospects as a distribution partner for existing media outlets:
“In addition to cultivating a network of original contributors, Ripple has partnered with local news outlets to distribute their content through the app. The ability to tag this content by location and to push it out to specific groups of readers could be a huge boon for civic journalism — as well as an attractive feature for local advertisers.
Eventually, Hovaghimian and his team may have to decide whether Ripple can survive as a stand-alone news platform, or whether it should be primarily a distribution and engagement tool for established outlets. But for now, Ripple is straddling both roles…”
So how are things going? So far, it’s a mixed bag. Founder and CEO Razmig Hovaghimian says the company has created over a thousand original stories and signed up over 100 media partners, including its newest partners Al Jazeera, The Atlantic’s CityLab, TimeOut and Voice Media Group.
But in cities like Boston, only a handful of stories have been published on the city feed — and only two in the last three weeks. Meanwhile, even in Ripple News’s more active cities, like San Francisco, most of the content is from professional partners like KQED and SFGate, not from community correspondents. In fact, several of the “featured correspondents” listed on its website haven’t published stories since the summer.
That would appear to be a sign that Ripple News’s long-term prospects are more as a content distribution partner than as a content creator — and the partnership announcements later this month should offer more clarity on the company’s direction. Here’s what CEO Razmig Hovaghimian had to say about the company’s first five months:
Lesson learned: “The importance of over-communicating! In May, we launched with a group of official partners and linked to a broader group of content partners through their Twitter handles and RSS. Our sole goal was to amplify the reach of their content, but I didn’t get it right at launch. We published all our content, be it from an official partner or not, in full (instead of 300 words max). Some thought we were copying and pasting their content, and we absolutely were not doing that. I listened, apologized, and started writing and calling up media companies, and we fixed the problem literally within a few hours. I was happy that we got a second chance to make our case…
To recap, we set out to solve a tough problem, that of hyperlocal content discovery, in every city. We felt it’s an important mission, and we wanted to amplify important stories down to the neighborhood level. Since launch, it has frankly been six months of steep learning, fine-tuning, and thinking of new ways to attack this very real problem through great content, technology and community.”
Biggest success and failure: “I’ll answer them in reverse, given the over-communication point I shared above. By the second day after launch, I was wishing I had more time to reach out to potential media partners, so that I could explain our model and how we wished to work with them. It was heartening to hear our existing partners stand by us and say they believed in our vision, tell us to fix things quickly, to own our mistakes, and to keep building even faster.
The biggest success this year has been the Hoodline acquisition, which we announced in August. It was an absolute no-brainer partnership. When we set out to build Ripple News, Hoodline was an inspiration, and we thought, what if there were a Hoodline in every city? It’s a brilliant and inspiring team, and we’re learning from them every day. Together, we’re working to take local news and content discovery global. We’ve built a strong San Francisco audience, reaching nearly half the city-wide readership.”
Advice for digital media entrepreneurs: “Well, startups are just crazy. The hardest part is surrounding yourself with a team that can cultivate a strong culture, and that builds with a sense of ownership and urgency. I would simply start and build with a phenomenal team that will win or die solving a meaningful problem. It better be fun, too.”
The Coral Project
The Coral Project, a collaboration of the Mozilla Foundation, the New York Times and the Washington Post to help publishers create stronger communities around their journalism, was just getting started in January when I profiled their early development work on Trust, a tool designed “to bring productive conversation to comments sections by giving news organizations better tools for sorting, rating and prioritizing audience contributions.”
The Trust tool is currently in a closed beta test, but last month The Coral Project publicly released another product, Ask, which “allows journalists to build callouts, manage submissions and create galleries in smarter, more flexible ways,” writes community lead Sydette Harry.
In addition to its flashy new website, The Coral Project recently launched a Comments Lab — to allow people to play with and share different comment box configurations — and is now working on a multi-newsroom survey of commenter behavior, conducted in collaboration with the Engaging News Project. Meanwhile, integration engineer Jeff Nelson is working with newsrooms to install Coral’s products on their servers — a huge asset for any open-source software initiative.
Harry sent along these responses on behalf of The Coral Project team:
Lesson learned: “Journalism is still one of the most important functions of a democratic society. Communities form around news, but where they are and how they operate changes all the time. If journalists and news organizations don’t engage with, and be part of, these communities in a sustainable way that focuses on building relationships, then maybe journalism won’t remain as prominent or as important in the future. Everyone agrees this is important, but nobody has it figured out.”
Biggest success and failure: “We’ve built an amazing, diverse team that is invested in everything we do, and why we are doing it. But while we are doing so much great work, we need to do a better job at being open about what we’re doing. We want as many people as possible to feel invested in our work, beyond just our team, and to participate in what we’re doing. People have been wonderfully supportive, but we want to increase everyone’s investment in being part of our community.”
Advice for digital media entrepreneurs: “Think as hard about your community as you do about your product. And your community is not ‘them.’ If you are going to succeed, your community needs to include you.”
The Tylt, the first product built by Advance Digital’s in-house incubator, Alpha Group, lets social media users vote on hot-button issues in the news, from marijuana legalization (#MakeWeedLegal vs. #KeepWeed) to U.S. involvement in Syria (#InterveneInSyria vs. #StayOUTOfSyria). The Tylt then displays real-time voting results on its website, where it also gives a shout out to the “influencers” who are driving the conversation on social media.
When The Tylt launched in April, my review wasn’t exactly glowing: “If community participation is the problem,” I wrote, “The Tylt isn’t looking like the answer.” I was critical of The Tylt’s attempt to spark meaningful debate with either-or questions, and I lamented that its website didn’t pair questions with relevant content.
Five months later, I’m still not in love with The Tylt’s binary issue framings, nor do I think they’ve achieved the “interesting debates” that Alpha Group co-founder Michael Donoghue said he was aiming for. But if you accept The Tylt for what it is — a voting platform that allows social media users to sound off on issues they care about — there’s no doubt that the Advance Digital team is making progress.
For one, on the landing pages for each question, The Tylt now embeds links to related news stories. Sure, it’s likely that many users never visit these landing pages (the hashtags make it possible to vote without leaving Twitter and Facebook), but for people who want to learn more about the issues before voting, the links are a helpful resource.
As for reach, the platform is showing signs of improvement. Currently, The Tylt has about 50,000 followers on Twitter and 73,000 likes on Facebook, and its posts appear to be receiving more engagement than in April. Another good sign is that when local news partners have embedded the voting module into content on their sites, engagement metrics have improved significantly, says David Cohn, senior director at Advance Digital.
“Over the last five months we’ve assembled a talented team, grown our social footprint significantly, while maintaining excellent engagement, and built a growing community of people who use the Tylt regularly,” Cohn wrote in his response. “We’re getting ready now to launch upgrades to our social voting algorithm that ingests more signals from Facebook and Twitter to better determine how people feel about particular topics or opinions, which means our community will have more opportunities to have their opinions heard and counted.”
Lesson learned: “The most important thing is to have a core premise that you believe in. We are building our community and trying to work with them, which means that should be our singular focus. Whenever you launch a new product that goes against established norms, particularly in the media space, you’re subject to pundits who either don’t understand the nature of your idea or don’t want to see it succeed because it changes comfortable paradigms. We like to treat the opinions of our community members and regular users as the most valuable input we can get. It’s always important to keep them as your compass. If you listen to users, you can’t go wrong. Additionally, in testing content syndication to our local news partners, we’ve seen how having embedded voting modules included in stories can dramatically increase engagement on their sites, which is why we’re going to be making it available to more media companies soon.”
Biggest success and biggest failure: “Creating a media organization isn’t easy. It bakes for a long time, goes back and forth, requires you to look hard at assumptions and stay true to an original hypothesis. Our biggest success is that in launching, we’ve proven out the original hypothesis, that people have a desire to vote on stories that matter to them and will share those opinions socially in order to get more people to rally to one side or another. We’ve been really impressed with the network effect of opinions. Seeing influential people take notice of how our community feels on a particular topic is incredibly rewarding. Our biggest failure was initially ignoring some really valuable, passionate niche communities with our content. We started out writing to appeal to a broad audience but soon realized how eager niche audiences are to have their voices heard. Since then we’ve integrated that into our editorial approach and it has paid off.”
Advice for digital media entrepreneurs: “Keep your head down and focus on what you are working on and why. Remember that a startup is a roller coaster ride — there are high highs and low lows — and as a team you need to be able to ride it all the way through. Teamwork is incredibly important. Nobody can do a big endeavor on their own. Know what your individual strengths and weaknesses are and be ready to tag your partners when they can do something you wouldn’t be able to. Remember, despite the highs/lows, there is important information coming to you from your community, and that is the most important.”
Global Reporting Centre
The Vancouver-based Global Reporting Centre, which was featured in July as part of MediaShift’s series on collaborative journalism, is continuing to make noise in its first year as an independent nonprofit (after previously operating as the International Reporting Program, a student-driven project at the University of British Columbia.)
In addition to racking up accolades for its project Out of the Shadows, the Centre is now working on a new project called Hidden Costs — an investigation into global supply chains — and experimenting with “empowerment journalism,” a type of journalism that gives local storytellers the means and platform to tell neglected stories from their own countries. GRC’s early forays into empowerment journalism include a crowd-sourced documentary project about the rise of xenophobia in Europe; an ongoing partnership with a group of Somali radio reporters who are wearing body cameras to document their daily reporting from their points of view; and a crowdsourced web platform for indigenous storytellers throughout North America and Australia.
GRC founder and executive director Peter Klein says the Centre is also conducting a survey of “fixers,” with the goal of developing best practice guidelines for global reporting, and piloting a global journalism education consortium called the Global Reporting Program. “Add to that the weekly public events we’ve been hosting,” Klein told me via email, “and we are super busy.” Here are Klein’s responses:
Lesson learned: “As a producer at 60 Minutes, I spent a lot of time chasing dodgy business people and convincing reluctant politicians to let me into their offices, but nothing prepared me for the challenges of fundraising. Philanthropists are understandably guarded, since everyone is coming to them with their hands out. At first, I felt like I was imposing on foundations and individuals, but then I started to take a more journalistic approach. When I go to a source, I convince them to go public because it’s ultimately in their own interest — not because they’re doing any favor for me. Likewise, with philanthropists, they feel strongly about certain issues and want those issues to get attention. We have the academic, reporting and storytelling skills, as well as the media contacts, to do deep dives into important neglected global issues. The only thing missing is money, so if we can bring funders into the process, we can provide them with opportunities to spend their philanthropy dollars efficiently and effectively.”
Biggest success and failure: “Since we are affiliated with a university, we have been able to bring leading academics into our orbit, which has deepened both our reporting and our identification of topics on which to report. They have also given us an entry point into academic funding, which is increasingly prioritizing “knowledge translation” (a fancy word for journalism). So we have been able to fund some of our research and reporting initiatives through the kinds of academic grants that journalists typically do not pursue, and we have been extremely fortunate to have the backing of the University of British Columbia, which has given us both funding and in-kind support. But the affiliation with a university has been a double-edged experience. We don’t conform to the typical media entrepreneurial model, so some potential donors have seen us as a bad fit. Some might see us as already having funding from the university, meaning we don’t need more (which couldn’t be further from the truth!). Others might assume we are focused primarily on academic research or teaching, which is also wrong. We are a journalism organization, run by journalists around the world, with the goal of innovating and practicing global journalism.”
Advice for digital media entrepreneurs: “I’ve discovered it’s critically important to sharpen the story about what your organization is and how it stands out in the increasingly-crowded media landscape. Whether an organization is for-profit or non-profit, the competition for funding and market share is fierce, and your goals have to be articulated clearly to get any attention. Also, when it comes to fundraising, there’s a fine line between giving up too quickly and being overly aggressive. I’m still searching for that sweet spot.”
Ben DeJarnette is the outgoing associate editor at MediaShift. He is also a freelance contributor for Pacific Standard, InvestigateWest, Men’s Journal, Runner’s World, Oregon Quarterly and others. He’s on Twitter @BenDJduck.