What great startups can do for big news sites

At Alley Interactive, we work with a lot of media product startups. We build big websites for content publishers such as NYPost.comNewRepublic.com, and KFF.org, to mention a few. We’re the team that takes all the inputs — designs, integrations, CMS backend, hosting platform — and turns it into a live site. This is a fun (and sometimes scary) position to be in, because we get to act as a funnel for all the many features that go into making big news sites — and are responsible for sewing them all together. Part of this process is integrating the various providers and products that make up a whole website. We’ve seen a huge uptick in the number of these integrations since we started Alley Interactive, as real solutions for news media emerge. But because “how to make money with journalism” is a problem with such rapidly-changing solutions, many of these products come from startups. Sometimes they even come from very young startups who are stepping out onstage for the first time with our help.

For example, we launched The New Republic with SpokenLayer integration as a feature for paid subscribers. Ours was among the first SpokenLayer integrations, and we spent time with them working out their API integration. We love to be in this position because our portfolio of media clients has given us a ton of experience hammering out the differences between client expectations and implementation reality. SpokenLayer was part of the first class of Matter — so they definitely had a head start here.

The startups that have been most successful for our clients have one key thing in common — they increase the value of the relationship between the publisher and the reader. Whether it’s SpokenLayer adding value to The New Republic’s premium product or an ad tech company increasing the value of any given pageview, good site integrations build more valuable relationships. Plenty of “journalism startups” don’t fit this definition, and we’re not generally asked to implement them in our work for big media sites. We believe that solving problems for journalists themselves is a better fit for open-source software, and there are some really great products and programs out there which aim to meet a real need. But at big media companies, the budget often isn’t there unless a clear business case can be made.

Many big publications also want their tools to be entirely on-brand. So, for example, an interactive timeline tool with a great UI that journalists love probably won’t get used much unless it can be entirely skinned to match a publisher site, and take on custom ad slots, too. And even then, the burden of integration could be high enough that a custom tool might make more sense. Similarly, a custom CMS-as-a-service might gain some traction in self-publishing, but probably won’t get much attention from big outlets.

So, if you’re thinking about starting a company to serve online news media, consider these three points:

  • Are you only improving life for the reader? Then ask the reader to pay for it themselves (Instapaper Pro). This is tough, because your relationship with publishers can be really strained. (And don’t think you’re going to sell ads against somebody else’s content).
  • Are you only improving life for the journalist? If your target audience is independent journalists and small outfits, carry on. But if you want to reach large-scale publications, make it open source and give it away for free (Tabula). Better yet, bundle it as a plugin for a CMS used by many news outlets, like Drupal or WordPress and sell professional services for it (Edit Flow). 
  • Are you improving life for the publisher? This usually means that you’re improving their bottom line by making their product more attractive for consumption (by readers) or easier to sell. Double bonus: improve life for the reader, the journalist, and the publisher all at once. These are the hardest problems to solve.

The third category is where the magic happens for us. We see great opportunity in native advertising, for instance. Native advertising at its best opens the door to new and intriguing web designs without the conventional ad units that have dominated the Internet for nearly two decades. Quartz is a great example of the possibilities you can unlock here. Similarly, paywall solutions like Tinypass are attractive to some publishers, and a more efficient option for readers.

Similarly, we’d love to see more fresh, modern takes on user-generated content (UGC) platforms which incorporate more novel forms of engagement with stories. Taking Buzzfeed-style interactivity to anybody’s news site? Sold.

Also, as a startup, it’s important to carefully navigate the perception of being a “bundler” for any service other than ad buying, though, since most publishers want direct relationships with their readers. Similarly, resist scare tactics. Syndication schemes which require participation by every party can be particularly mob-like: “We hear that some of your competitors find that their SEO improves if they pay us to syndicate their content to other sites.” Few entrepreneurs are craven enough to start a whitewashed link exchange, but plenty of media startups are driven there by product development stalemate.

Finally, it’s crucial to find a place to grow your big idea, preferably with great advisors and some connections in this industry. News media has had a tough decade, and it’s rapidly changing — this is great news for well-connected startups because publishers and content producers are willing to try new things. But it’s bad news for unconnected startups — even ones with amazing products — because trust is crucial here. Matter, for one, provides the incubation that any startup needs, and also provides much-needed access to their media partners in SF and NYC.

We’re excited to see what the next generation of media startups can come up with — and we’re looking forward to rolling them out on our next big news site.