Most articles on the state of journalism these days take two distinct forms: either a legacy outlet is contracting and laying off writers, or a hotshot upstart is taking in cash for an optimistic new journo-venture. There isn’t much in between.
Journalism as an industry is at a weird crossroads of concurrent contractions and expansion, growth and shrinking opportunities. On one hand, even the New York Times’s profits continue to fall, and The New Republic is only the latest heritage property to essentially go extinct in its traditional form. On the other hand, journalism ventures like Vox (of Vox Media) and 538 and Grantland (of ESPN/Disney) have lured millions from investment rounds or in-house support, with full-time staffs and rising-star journalists like Ezra Klein and Nate Silver at their helms.
Operating within this wider context are several local journalism outlets in various stages of the startup phase. Legacy outlets in the area, such as the McClatchy-owned Raleigh News & Observer and Charlotte Observer, or Paxton Media Group’s The Herald-Sun in Durham, have seen contractions and layoffs on pace with local papers nationwide. Filling that vacuum in the media space, or perhaps just adding to it, are new startups in the area aiming to offer a different take on journalism and storytelling.
Scalawag, a print-plus-web magazine based in Durham, just wrapped up a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter that raised over $31,000. Launching in coming months, it promises a “new magazine for Southern politics and culture” and plans a quarterly print edition with supplemental material online.
Bit+Grain, launched in March, publishes culture-themed work once a week, every Wednesday releasing an eclectic longform piece accompanied by multimedia photography and design. The website was started by three 2011 UNC graduates with backgrounds in folklore, design and nonprofit administration.
Raleigh & Company, a web-only outfit at RaleighCo.com, launched a year ago this past week. The author you’re reading here is one of the editors and a member of the co-op of local professional writers and radio personalities that make up their contributors. Raleigh & Company has everything from beat coverage of local sports teams to business journalism to cultural commentary and podcasting from radio talent in the area.
All three offer a different take on what media could look like as we plow ahead into the 21st century. And ExitEvent, as a young niche publication itself, is interested in how upstart journos are shaping the industry and working to find the best mix of revenue and content in the online new media world.
“Filling in the gap”
The Columbia Journalism Review recently published a piece on the rise of national journalism startups, arguing that their very existence is a critique of the current state of the press. Some even offer a manifesto explaining how they’re bringing something to current media that's not already in the landscape.
Regardless of their mission, the motivation is certainly to provide coverage or a voice that might be lacking.
At least that’s a theme I noticed when I asked these new local startups about their inspiration for taking on the enormous task of developing a sustainable media outlet: They simply thought there were more stories that needed to be told.
“We want to fill the gap being left out there,” says Jesse Williams, a co-founder of Scalawag Magazine (pictured above with co-founder Sarah Bufkin). “We’re going to do the deep, detailed long form and high-quality political commentary that’s missing.”
One thing sites like Scalawag can do is provide colorful commentary with a contextual background that legacy sites haven’t been providing at the local level (or haven’t been able to due to budget issues).
The word that usually comes up with startup internet journalists is “context.” Most new media ventures claim to eschew the curtness of traditional reporting for a more well-rounded approach, either with deeper journalism reinforced with data and nuanced fact-finding (such as 538.com), or contextualized explanatory journalism with detailed historical background (such as Vox.com).
Along those lines, Bit+Grain’s first story, on North Carolina’s long history with March Madness and college basketball, has a depth and roundness that is not often found in the AP wire or even a local Sunday paper. This isn’t by accident, the magazine’s founders hoped to “document and record the complicated and interesting people [in North Carolina]” — a goal not necessarily loftier than any existing media outlet’s, but certainly different in style, flavor and complexity.
“Complicated” is perhaps the key term to what Bit+Grain can offer in this way, as layered subjects are difficult for many legacy outlets to tackle with the immediacy demanded of 21st century news. It’s easy to see from a quick glance at Bit+Grain’s published work that it is producing stories one likely wouldn’t find in a more traditional outlet: such as a photo-heavy piece on one of North Carolina’s famous strip malls, a multimedia piece involving the unlikely friendship of an NC State professor and a Vietnamese chef, and a local Mardi Gras celebration documented with audio, illustrations, photos and words.
When discussing the breadth of Bit+Grain’s mission, co-founder Sandra Davidson speaks of “exploring the history of North Carolina’s culture” with quotes on how the state’s tumultuous social history “trends toward divisive” and is “historically antagonistic” — giving clues to the angle of the storytelling: a deeper and more colorful approach to telling the difficult narratives that many traditional outlets can’t explore so easily.
Web cultivating Niche Audiences
“Our culture is moving toward niche interest—this is something people want and need,” Baxter Miller, head of design for Bit+Grain, says of diversification in online media.
The internet hasn’t just allowed for niche audiences to form and find one another, it’s actually cultivated that desire for niche interests. Those with varied passions not only know they can find what they want out there on the web, now they expect it.
Local outlets are starting to take advantage of that in the same ways that national websites have in the recent decade, offering local alternatives, or to “#ReadLocal,” as Jen Baker of Raleigh & Company puts it. One of R&Co’s mantras is that it isn’t the topic of content that sets us apart, but who is writing it, and where that person comes from — we’re writers in your own back yard.
Raleigh & Company has seen success giving local readers coverage of national, but still niche, subjects such as the B-level comedy scene and Marvel and DC comic book films — two topics usually reserved for national-only pundits and opinions.
Scalawag offers a “decidedly Left-leaning tone” admits Williams, but in a uniquely high-quality longform format in contrast to most hit-and-run political coverage these days.
Bit+Grain presents a multimedia approach, heavy on visuals, that is sure to elicit a response from designers and visually artistic readers, with a level of photography usually reserved for anthropological or scientific publications.
All three are no doubt catering to (and taking advantage of) local readers interested in a more conscious and multifaceted outlook on journalism and historical narration.
The web, a double-edged sword
Technology and the web is the main driving force behind nearly all of this change, of course.
Online media has notoriously sped the news into hyperdrive, and Facebook’s “Instant Articles” are the new boogeyman of journalists and editors everywhere, but ironically, the technology on the web has allowed new startups to expand what they’re able to deliver and produce, allowing for a certain permanence of longform and multimedia work. Always blamed for ending traditional journalism, the internet has concurrently produced the 2015-era technology of responsive websites and HD screens that allows for incredibly deep and immersive journalism.
Bit+Grain and Raleigh & Company, while still at the mercy of the web in many ways, are no doubt taking advantage of what the online world has to offer here in terms of storytelling. Both utilize feature—and what’s often called “snowfall”—layouts that can create a powerful type of narration and contextualization.
With unlimited space on the screen, designers and writers can create layouts—often heavy on whitespace—that focus on the topic at hand, instead of smothering the reader with advertisements and click bait. In fact, the longform format—once seen dead with the advent of BuzzFeed just a few years ago—is making a mini-comeback and it’s no surprise that longform and feature layouts are all major aspects of what organizations like Scalawag, Bit+Grain and Raleigh & Company are offering.
Print isn’t dead, but it’s different
As newspapers are cutting down on print circulation, startups like Scalawag are simply changing how they approach printing the written word.
Instead of daily or weekly publications, Scalawag will publish four times a year, describing its finished product as “a beautiful print magazine filled with top-notch writing: long-form journalism, incisive commentary, and personal stories.” Selling subscriptions will be its main source of revenue.
Bit+Grain, though an online entity, also has print ambitions as a potential source of income, discussing a periodical print edition of select stories. This is a model Grantland has used — pubishing “Best of” articles with accompanying illustration for print books that can act as collectors items.
Scalawag’s online content would likely contain a watered down version of the print content, with the digital versions being released at later dates, giving the print copy an exclusive or premium feel.
In this way, print could be moving from a mass form, to more of a premium, high-end market, much like how CD albums or vinyl music represent a rarity or gift item in the era of digital music. In Miller’s words, print symbolizes something “worth saving.”
It’s difficult for any media entity to make money in the current advertising climate, and startup enterprises are becoming increasingly creative in raising funds.
Bit+Grain is looking to employ a three-pronged attack of sponsored articles, pop-up events showcasing local artists and musicians, and a forthcoming online store at BitandGrain.com titled the “Old North Purveyor” which will act as an online gift shop of local wares and artisanal goodies produced by locals, with some proceeds supporting Bit+Grain. Each article is currently sponsored with a native advertiser—usually locally-made brands or items.
Raleigh & Company has seen on and off success selling online banner advertising the old fashioned way—mostly with local companies and organizations, often involving some means of trade as way to communicate value. We plan to sell exclusive, locally-made t-shirts as a way to raise funds.
Scalawag hopes to grow mostly through subscriptions, with online advertising a potential revenue source ready to be tapped. The crowdfunding campaign has gotten that effort off the ground.
Crowdsourcing presents its own problems of course. No journalism entity is going to be successful if it can’t promise readers some semblance of independence from its revenue sources, and asking for donations can at least appear to be a slippery slope.
Davidson says this is one reason Bit+Grain has skipped crowdfunding for the time being, but she leaves the door open, adding that if her team pursues it, they would make sure they “did it the right way.”
Williams says Scalawag promises total transparency to donors. It’s a 501(c)3, and has a full editorial board completely independent from the business side of things.
Neither of the three organizations has a sustainable model in practice yet, and their hard work now in the early stages is very much a gamble that may or may not pay off.
The goal of any publication in 2015 should simply be to survive at a sustainable rate, and that sentiment figures prominently in the stated goals of all three upstart outlets profiled here. Each wants to be able to pay writers a competitive wage, and hopes to be around as long as possible.
Bit+Grain is not paying writers but is working toward that goal. Davidson says her team has had no problem finding writers—many reach out to create work for the site and pitch stories.They’ll simply have to hustle to make it work until they begin to cross into the black.
Scalawag—notable for the Kickstarter investment—is paying writers, though their rate is lower than some legacy outlets, according to Williams. “We’ve had writers say no to our rates,” he says.
Raleigh & Company has used a bit of a hybrid model, paying (relatively low) rates to some writers when ad sales are flowing, and delivering value to writers such as with trade and gift cards from local businesses, or simply by providing press passes to writers who would not otherwise be able to cover particular topics or organizations, essentially offering access as pay. The majority of the writing on the site since its birth has been unpaid.
Raleigh & Company has also been in the unique position of publishing professional writers who—counterintuitively maybe—prefer to occasionally write unpaid, as it allows them to write outside normal editorial control they may find restricting.
Becoming profitable is near the top of the list for each outlet, but it was obvious speaking with teams from all three that creating fantastic work is the paramount reason for being. And in some ways, they’ve already seen success in that context.
Though Scalawag Magazine hasn’t published its first piece, Bit+Grain has already shown success with their one-native-advertiser-per-article model in its first few weeks. Raleigh & Company’s work has been showcased in popular media commentary like Sports Illustrated’s Media Circus, Jim Romenesko’s blog, Gawker Media websites, and the site can more or less can be credited with launching Bojangles “Cheddar Bo” biscuit to a nationwide audience.
One thing for certain is that neither organization is in its final form, and all of them know it.
“Keeping an open mind” to all kinds of opportunities, both creatively and financially, is how Ryan Stancil of Bit+Grain puts it. That might be the best way for any new media startup to approach today's landscape, as they attempt to add to it, stay flexible, and simply hope they’re around to see what comes next.