Here’s why these media startups chose to launch while so many other outlets are going under
This was Glover’s plan back in February, before the coronavirus pandemic triggered the cancellation of professional sports and other live events. Instead of panicking, however, Glover saw an opportunity and seized it: He decided to fast-track Sportico’s launch and bump it up to Fourth of July.
“We saw an incredible thirst for information, a lot of parched mouths so to speak, in the sports world,” Glover told CNN Business. “All of the sudden there are no games to report on, no player movements and all of the things that normally make up all of the sports pages. The only thing going on was the business of it.”
The Oaklandside, Rest of World, The 19th and Discourse Blog, along with Sportico, are among the new publications making their debut during the pandemic. Leaders of these five publications told CNN Business that while the economic fallout from the pandemic has impacted some of their plans, their motivations to create new outlets for journalism have only grown stronger.
Finding coverage gaps
After living and working outside the US for nearly a decade, Schmidt said she was “frustrated” by a lack of reporting on the “extraordinary — good, bad, weird, wonderful — things” she saw.
“My cofounders at Cityside had been hearing for years and years about the enormous need for a similar, in some ways, but totally Oakland-based, Oakland-rooted publication,” said Tasneem Raja, The Oaklandside editor-in-chief. It secured funding in 2019.
Fast tracking plans
The Oakland team started reporting and publishing stories on Berkeleyside even before their own site’s unveiling. They also started a COVID-focused newsletter, which now has about 8,200 subscribers.
“The [newsletter’s] sign-up rate was remarkable, and the open rate was and has remained remarkable. This is not my first news startup,” said Raja, who just prior to The Oaklandside co-founded a nonprofit local news startup in East Texas.
“We quickly realized that [what we planned] probably wasn’t enough, especially once we realized women would be impacted by the pandemic very acutely,” Valdez said.
Rest of World, however, chose to delay its launch amid the pandemic. Founder Schmidt said that after closing the company’s New York office in early March, two weeks ahead of the planned launch, they pushed the date to May. By that time, Schmidt said she contracted the coronavirus and her executive editor Anup Kaphle had his first child.
“Not only were we suddenly in lockdown, so were all the journalists around the world we work with,” Schmidt told CNN Business. “We had to totally rethink how to assign stories, how to keep freelancers safe and how to report tech stories when almost all headlines in every country are focused on public health.”
The job market
“The industry right now is maybe the bleakest it’s ever been,” Chan said. “Even if we wanted to get another media job anywhere, there aren’t any, so we decided maybe the best bet is to invest in ourselves and create our own jobs.”
Discourse Blog started with former Splinter staffers posting stories on a WordPress site. A few weeks later, the team switched to Substack, a newsletter platform that allows for paid subscriptions. All eight founding members are co-owners and will split the revenue evenly.
“We’re not the next Dow Jones or anything or Condé Nast 2.0,” Chan said. “But maybe we can be this small sustainable thing that eventually supports just us.”
Sportico, The 19th and Rest of World have managed to fill many of their open positions, even as the pandemic forced other news organizations to lay off workers or furlough them. Schmidt said Rest of World’s recruiting process actually “sped up.”
“When we realized that there would be a huge number of new journalism school graduates looking for work, we spun up a paid fellowship program in six weeks and reviewed hundreds of applications,” Schmidt wrote in an email.
The Oaklandside took a different path and chose to cut back on hiring. While the outlet now has a team of seven, including a Report for America fellow, Raja said she decided to delay hiring for two positions: a public health and environmental impacts reporter and a city hall and policing reporter.
“The pandemic affected our revenue projections, so in March we ripped up our budget and redid our revenue projections,” Raja said. “We said the responsible way forward is to continue to grow but grow more slowly than we had originally planned.”
Glover of Sportico said the initial success metric he’s tracking for his site — which has been live for about a week — will be “qualitative, not quantitative.” Glover wants to produce sports stories that are read by commissioners, owners and C-level executives — an editorial goal that appears to be aligned with Penske’s Hollywood trade publications Variety and Deadline.
Valdez of The 19th said their goal is to drive the dialogue around women’s issues.
“It’s bringing conversations to the fore that might be happening in living rooms or between women,” Valdez said. “We do very much want people to know who we are and see us as a resource for stories that are important to them.”
“We’re not making huge, huge bucks,” Chan said. “But I hope the numbers we’re sharing and the progress we’ve made is compelling to people interested in breaking out of a corporate media job and doing their own thing.”