Six Journalism Startups and Analysis: Plus One Dead Startup Another Rises from the Dead

In the last few weeks there has been some interesting and exciting news in the journalism-startup world. I wanted to take some time to highlight new players and provide my own personal analysis.

Collaborative Storytelling – Three New Startups

Kommons.com

Kommons was founded by the young Cody Brown who busted into the conversation with some epic blog posts last fall. Cody and his co-founder taught themselves how to code (this is a bootstrapped operation) and iterated like mad. For that, my hat is off. Disclaimer: I’ve had the chance to chat with Cody a few times and find him to be a brilliant media thinker in part because he has no baggage from past experiences.

Similar to 10questions.com, Kommons is playing in a very interesting intellectual space. The ability to reach people in high positions of power has dropped to a Tweet. The ability to get a response from them has not. More accurately – the cost to merit their attention. This can be done, however, if enough people chime in as well. Since the collective cost of asking powerful people the same question has dropped to getting the attention of the masses, in theory, the most important questions will rise to the top and the public conversation will become richer.

Kommons reminds me a bit of Yoosk.com, a site I came across when I was editor at NewAssignment.net. I do believe, however, that it has some core strengths that will make it shine. First – it’s a growing community. To be a part of Kommons you have to be asked a question. Thus, the goal right now isn’t to pressure Sarah Palin to answer a question (at least, not yet), instead it will grow organically to include her eventually. This is how Twitter originally grew and Twitter is Kommons second strength – they are working off of a known vocabulary. The @’s need no explanation.

Another key point about this startup is that unlike some of the others the emphasis is not, under my intperretation, “journalism.” I think this is a strength. Kommons. Cody is avoiding ‘journalism’ baggage while still providing a community with tools that can serve its news and information needs. As I’ve said before – we may not call it ‘journalism’ in the future – but if it still meets the news and information needs of a community, more power to it.

My biggest complaint – nobody has asked me a question on Kommons yet :(

Storyful

It’s hard to come down with analysis either way on Storyful. They have a private alpha (I haven’t seen) and their about page gives only the vaguest of descriptions which make it sound like it could re-invent the wheel of GroundReport, NowPublic, GlobalPost or others.

My hope is that they break new ground with a feature and test a new method of collaborative storytelling. I bring up Storyful not so much to provide analysis on their product (which I haven’t seen) but to comment on the continued state of journalism startups occasionally reinventing the wheel. We do not have a Crunchbase of journalism. The “fog of war,” as my colleague Lisa Skube calls it, has us scrambling around with the potential of friendly fire. Again, I know nothing of Storyful beyond their about page and while I encourage participatory storytelling in any form including pro-am, which is how I interpret them, we need to make sure that new ground is forged.

Local East Village

Let’s start with a big disclaimer, I used to work for Jay Rosen and I still lovingly call him “Boss Rosen.” The second disclaimer is that when I look at Local East Village I can’t help but see the blossoming from an experience we were a part of called Assignment Zero which had postmortems from several angles (including my own).

I think the fruit of Assignment Zero’s perceived failure was a better understanding of what is needed to create what Rosen calls the “assignment desk.” It must be clearly articulated, focus on the story, allow for participation that lets people come and go quickly and freely. Most importantly the burden is on communication and how to streamline it. I love at the end of this video the description “is better than sending and receiving 25 emails for one assignment” because that’s what I did during Assignment Zero. Somehow I ended up at the center of communications and I would relay messages back and forth for all 90+ assignments. That this is built in WordPress is a HUGE boon. I think one might also see the intellectual roots of Spot.Us by examining the Assignment Desk. The two are somewhat similar, mine with an added focus of participation through funding.

New Business Models for Journalism – Three New Startups

Emphas.is

The quick explanation is that Emhpas.is (pronounced “emphasis”) is Spot.Us aimed at photographers.

In their words:

Crowd funding has already proven successful in other areas, and we believe photojournalism has a large and enthusiastic following that would be willing to contribute financially when given the right incentive. Emphas.is offers this incentive in the form of exclusive access to top photojournalists carefully selected by a board of reviewers composed of industry professionals.

Of course – I view this statement as a HUGE WIN for Spot.Us. Just two years ago I had to yell and scream about crowdfunding at the top of my lungs and still got strange looks. Now it’s an accepted norm. The more people that join the space, the better it is for all of us. Even if it means “competition,” I welcome folks like Emphas.is with open arms and hope they feel the same towards Spot.Us.

Spot.Us (pronounced “Spot Us” – let’s bury that one) is not centered around a specific medium. We’ve worked with photographers, videographers, radio and print. Hell, we’ve worked on strict database journalism projects like LittleSis.org.

That said, photographers do view themselves as a horse of a different color. Some outright hate Spot.Us because historically we’ve asked them to license their photographs under Creative Commons (we have made exceptions and are still willing to hear folks out). One thing I can tell you right now, however, is that we would never put our content behind a paywall, which is what emphas.is sounds like it intends to do.

From my understanding only people who contribute will gain access to the content from photographers. I assume content will be teased out elsewhere. If not, I highly question the enthusiasm of people to support photographers whose content they haven’t seen. The assumption that folks will pony up funds for photographs they haven’t seen might be based on a romantic vision of photography which is dripping throughout the site. I love photojournalism as much as the next person, but that’s NOT who the site should rest its laurels on. If it’s not in the public interest or perceived as something that can’t be gotten elsewhere, it will be an uphill climb. I think the folks at Emphas.is know this, so I imagine they have some idea of how to deal with the paywall/audience attraction problem.

I will also be curious to see how they work with news publications. On the one hand there is talk of a paywall, on the other hand there are endorsements from folks at Time Magazine saying they “welcome the opportunity to work” with their producers. Well, that would require publishing their work at which point folks paying to get beyond the paywall might feel like all they are doing is subsidizing Time Magazines photography. If Emphas.is doesn’t work with major publications they’ll have a harder time finding the top notch photographers they are looking for. This is what makes Spot.Us interesting in my perspective – we are a three-sided marketplace. I can’t tell if Emphas.is is trying to have a triangle marketplace with a paywall or not.

But the next startup in this space is decidedly NOT a three way market.

Ebyline

Freelancing is an antiquated system. It is a process that happens behind closed doors and is one-to-one communication. What I like about Ebyline is that it’s trying to modernize the process of freelancing.

Certainly there are inefficiencies in the freelance process today. Beyond only being able to pitch so many editors at a time, the dirty secret of journalism is that it’s an insider’s game – you need to know somebody to get any attention.

Ebyline takes a swipe at this by allowing eager publishers to find new talent, but it fundamentally doesn’t challenge the question that decisions about content should include the public. Ebyline is a B2B play. It will remain opaque to the public. One person with a budget makes the call.

It is not participatory.

You can’t necessarily knock Ebyline for this. That is by design. Like I said earlier, they are purposefully not a three-sided market. They are decidedly two-sided and I believe there is much ground that can be gained in figuring out how to make that marketplace more efficient. More power to them.

My personal bias towards making journalism more participatory and transparent however is why Spot.Us pivots around public participation. That could be its strength, it could turn out to be a weakness – which is why I’m glad Ebyline is trying the B2B version.

ThankThis.com

I came across ThankThis.com and have had a back and forth with the founder. There is even the possiblitity I will join as an advisor (no papers signed yet so no “official” disclosure as of writing this).

What I love about ThankThis is the idea that advertising can be transparent and participatory. I first wrote about this idea in April and we launched our first attempt at “community-focused sponsorships” in May. In the coming months we hope to have new sponsors and opportunities where community members conciously engage with an advertisement because they will see a direct benefit.

The idea behind ThankThis.com is similar to “community-focused sponsorship.” Bring some transparency and participation to advertising. At it’s best advertising is not something we must be adversarial with. Coupons are a perfect example of adverts we welcome with open arms. Now look at Groupon, one of the fastest growing companies on the planet, and tell me that advertising isn’t ripe space to be reinvented.

With ThankThis.com you can click a button, engage with an advertiser and then give your credits to the cause of your choice. Meanwhile the publisher also gets a cut.

I’m bias (this is similar to Spot.Us’ sponsorship model), so I think this is brilliant. The challenge from my perspective is that the founder is a bit of an outsider to the publishing industry. Similar to Kachingle, which CJR profiled recently, it’s a chicken and egg game. Spot.Us suffers from this as well but we actually decided to pick; the egg. Our focus has been on independent reporters and news organizations. We would be happy to work with larger publishers and recently put up a pitch from Mother Jones, arguably the biggest we’ve worked with since the NY Times, but our core is around small folks. If we can prove the model for them – we can scale around it. If not, we wouldn’t have worked for bigger publishers anyway.

Another strength of ThankThis, from what I can tell at least, is that not only don’t you have to pay money out of your own pocket (paywall/micro-payments) you don’t even have to join anything. Right now to participate in a Spot.Us ‘community-focused sponsorship’ you have to join our site. This is because we do more than just sell advertisements. But registration is a mental barrier. ThankThis has the potential to get around it which would increase the percentage of participation. If they can find a way to make sure that one person doesn’t drain an advertisers account (cookies) then what do they care if you register? (This is all assumption, I have no idea if they will/won’t have registration. But as a potential future adviser, I’d question it for them).

ThankThis.com hasn’t launched in full and whether or not I “officially” become an advisor I will support their mission.

News From The Dead

I wrote this post because I saw all these startups come out in the last 2-3 weeks. I wish them ALL well. Seriously. Even those which could be seen as “competition” like emphas.is I welcome with open arms. But we need a more robust conversation to keep track of these things. Not too long ago I wrote five lessons learned from NewsTilt’s close. When this happened Paul Biggar emailed and told me he would have a personal blog post out soon. Well here it is. And with it some analysis from Lois Beckett at SF Weekly, GigaOm and probably others.

No matter what you think – it takes guts and a reflective personality to try and grasp and articualte ones own failings. I hope Paul recognizes that this is a service to other entrepreneurs (journalism or no).

Back From The Dead

I also found out that The Printed Blog, which was closed last year, has re-opened in the last month. They have a new vision and revenue model. Whereas before their aim was to play the role of newspaper, providing up to date content funded by advertising The Printed Blog is looking to be a niche interest weekly magazine that people will subscribe.

It looks to me like they are taking some ques from LongShot Magazine and others which also share revenues from sales with the contributors.

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