Hidden in plain sight: 20+ examples of the future of news and information
The surprising thing about these examples is that they might not look like what you’d expect.
A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to be a fly on the wall at the annual Scripps Howard Journalism Entrepreneurship Institute. The institute is run by Dan Gillmor and Michelle Ferrier and is attended by university-level journalism professors from across the U.S. While there, I shared more than 20 examples of what I believe are signs of a growing movement of news and information startups.
(If you’re in a hurry, just jump to the list below.)
The surprising thing about these examples is that they might not look like what you’d expect. Many of these were new to the dozen or so professors in the room, and some were even new to media industry veterans like Michelle and Dan, which made me think that they should be shared these more widely, and outside of the corner of the Internet that obsesses about such things (you know who you are).
It’s worth noting that very few of the examples below are captured in existing databases — Michelle’s List, INN or LION’s membership directory, or the Membership Puzzle Project’s database (databases that collectively capture roughly 500 projects in the US and Canada) —because each of these databases has a very specific focus. (However, many are captured by industry publications like NiemanLab, Business of Content, Solutions Set, etc.)
The list below is just a small selection of examples — but there are dozens and dozens of great efforts that have yet to be catalogued or to have articles written about them.
We are off by a factor of 10 or more
The simple idea behind this essay is this: I believe that there are at least a thousand projects that should be on good list of journalism-driven startups — newsletters, podcasts, purely social media-centric publishers, event organizers, SMS or messaging-focused efforts, and more — all delivering news and information to help people live their lives better. They’re out there, just waiting to be found, and they probably don’t fit perfectly into what we’ve always thought of as “news.”
Some months back, I asked “How many of these micro news organizations would be needed to replace what’s been lost over the last decade?” Is it 3000 or 30,000? At the start of the institute, Dan proposed that we might need exponentially more small news organizations to make a dent.
The current efforts to invest $1 Billion into the local news ecosystem are a great start, and yet they don’t address the pipeline problem — if we only invest in the same people and models that exist today, we’ll have the same problems in a decade — and these investors are often seeing just the treetops, not what’s happening at the grassroots.
I believe that surfacing more examples like the ones below is a critical part of understanding the changing nature of news and information distribution and usage, as well as common patterns for size of operation and paths to financial sustainability.
Without further adieu, here are 20+ examples of the future of news and information across a variety of categories:
(Note: these descriptions are quick copy and pastes from the sites in question, or paraphrasing of articles written about them. There was no original reporting done here. I’ve tried to avoid copying without attribution and apologize in advance for any oversights.)
Examples of micro news organizations
Started in 2017 by Tasneem Raja. She is an award-winning journalist who has reported for NPR, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Mother Jones, and other national outlets. Raja recently said, “The Loop now has about 120 members and needs to reach 400 members to be sustainable.”
Also started in 2017 is Detour Detroit. Started by Ashley Woods, a former Detroit Free Press reporter. As of August 2018, Detour’s email audience had grown to 2,500 and more than 150 readers are now paying members of the newsletter.
Sarah Alvarez founded and runs Outlier Media, a journalism service that delivers data reporting and valuable information to low-income news consumers over SMS and message apps. She is a former lawyer and public radio reporter and was a 2015 John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University. Between 1,200 and 1,600 Detroiters have used Outlier to search for information on an address.
Santa Cruz Local
“Santa Cruz Local is a news startup producing audio shows and online magazine pieces about public policy in Santa Cruz County.” Started by a team that includes the former Santa Cruz Sentinel Managing Editor, Kara Meyberg Guzman. The site is pursuing foundation funding and listener support.
San Jose Spotlight
Launched in Jan 2019, the San José Spotlight is the city’s first nonprofit news organization dedicated to independent political and business reporting. The Spotlight has raised at least $125,000 from foundations and individuals. Staffed by roughly six people.
The River comes from a group of veteran journalists, editors and technologists. It covers Upstate New York, home to nearly 3.5 million people, spread across 25 cities and 235 municipalities. Started with a grant from Civil.
Since 2015, The Frisc has been “intensely devoted to San Francisco, documenting our city’s bewildering changes.” Staffed by two part-time reporters, The Frisc is working toward a hybrid non-profit and reader-supported model, with additional revenue coming from it’s publishing platform, Medium.
Still small, but no longer micro (Oh, Canada!)
Launched several years ago in Vancouver, BC, Canada, The Discourse now reports on a handful of communities across the country. In 2017, The Discourse successfully raised $350,000 CAD in a crowd equity campaign. In their most recent expansion campaign, they asked for 1000 readers to step up and support their work. Staff of roughly six.
The Tyee is one of the older “journalism startups” around (in fact, the founding editor cringes at the use of the term “startup” to describe The Tyee, which is now more than 15 years old). The Tyee was started in 2003 by a former editor of the Vancouver Sun. It has since grown to a newsroom of roughly eight people, plus a network of regular contributors. The Tyee first attempted crowdfunding in 2006, and is now increasingly reader supported. It is also a great example of a for-profit news organization that does award-winning public-service reporting and investigative journalism. It is often credited with coining the term “solutions journalism.” [Full disclosure: I spent almost a decade working at The Tyee.]
Back in 2013, reporter Jesse Brown left the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and started freelancing. In addition to paid freelance work, he produced regular pilot episodes of a media criticism podcast called CANADALAND (picture On The Media, but for Canada). Fast forward to 2019 and CANADALAND generates more than $320,000 USD in direct support from readers and listeners (minus Patreon fees), as well as a similar amount of revenue from podcast sponsors. As I’ve written previously, it’s basically the listener supported public-radio model.
Doing something right…
A newsletter that performs both aggregation and commentary (basically, human algorithmic filtering) for a handful of delightful daily reads. The author has stated that he scans 1000 items a day and curates it down to just a few worth reading. The Browser currently has more than 10,000 paying subscribers. A subscription is now $49/year. You can do the math.
Chapo Trap House
Chapo Trap House is an American politics and humor podcast founded in March 2016. The podcast became known for its leftist commentary in the run-up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Chapo Trap House is currently the top-earning creator on Patreon with 28,000 paying members that generate $129,000 USD month (or ~$1.5 million a year) in revenue for the producers.
(Personal note: I believe Chapo is an excellent example of finding an audience that was very likely not paying for any news or information products before, i.e., there was little-to-no political commentary that spoke to this audience before. That’s a whole essay of its own to come!)
Local news: the networked models
Village Media operates twenty-one hyper-local news sites throughout Canada. Those sites generate more than 44 million monthly page views. They sites currently have roughly 60,000 email subscribers. The business model is a mix of revenue from local display ads, classifieds, voluntary payments, and ad exchanges. Village Media has stated that they can generate a 20% operating margin on local news sites once they’re mature. (Great interview with them by Simon Owens.)
TAPinto is a network of more than 80 franchised, online local news sites in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Florida. Those sites are reported to have connected with more than 8 million readers in the last year. TAPinto provides a central infrastructure for their franchisees. (Great interview with them by Simon Owens.)
Examples of vertical, or “single subject” news efforts
The Logic was launched less than a year ago in Toronto by former Global News and Boston Globe exec, David Skok. The focus of the reporting is the “innovation economy,” and they’ve broken several major stories that traditional media has followed. Staff of roughly six. A subscription is $299/year. They recently reporting that they’ll be taking growth investment from Postmedia, one of Canada’s national news chains.
Aging Media Network
Aging Media Network is “a constellation of sites that cover the businesses that service the aging population, from hospice care to senior housing.” Their revenue is split between display advertising, branded content, and paid research. (Great interview with them by Simon Owens.)
BoiseDev was created in 2013 as a series of tweets. The popularity of the tweets led to a newsletter in 2015, and the website launching in 2016. BoiseDev has grown to be the most laser-focused place to find development news and notes in the greater Boise area. Since 2018, it is the most-read business news source in the state. BoiseDev recently launched a “Timewall,” a new subscription service which gives readers community-orientated articles in advance.
WTF Just Happened Today
Started as a newsletter and blog to chronicle Trump’s first 100 days in office. Within the first few weeks, 48,000 people had subscribed to the newsletter. The site is reported to have more than 1500 paying members and generates somewhere in the neighborhood of $15,000 USD a month. (Great piece on Solution Set.)
Projects to watch
Sahan Journal wants to be a “one-stop shop” for immigrant news in Minnesota. The founder is a former staff writer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and for Minnesota Public Radio News. (More on Niemanlab.)
The View from Somewhere Podcast
A podcast about journalism with a purpose. The podcast will aim to “tell stories of journalists who have stood up for justice and resisted ‘objectivity.’” Raised more than $15,000 USD on Kickstarter.
The North Star
Launched in 2018 by journalist Shaun King, The North Star is a digital reinvention of the abolitionist paper started in 1847. The have reported support from more than 23,000 founding members and are currently running a campaign to reach 50,000 founding members.
A journalism startup is born every week
The list above, as mentioned, is just a sampling of the kinds of projects that I believe we need to be looking at for inspiration — and there are so many more. I would not be exaggerating to say that I hear from a journalist starting a new micro news organization every week (sometimes more than once a week, in fact), because of my focus on journalism entrepreneurship. I also read about at least one new journalism enterprise every week — for example, in the week I was at the institute, I read about a new project called El Paso Matters, and since then I’ve read about several more.
The seedlings of tomorrow’s news ecosystem
As I asked the people in the room at the institute: What would it take to uncover and document the rest of these examples — the seedlings of the news ecosystem of tomorrow?
What if we could find really interesting examples:
- Outside of the major cities?
- Outside of the English language?
- Outside of the usual suspects?
- Outside of what we currently think of as news or journalism?
I’ll conclude with this question: What examples have you seen that are not captured elsewhere? Feel free to get in touch directly, or to leave a note below.