22 July 2015 / By Natasha Lomas. techcrunch.com
Every city, every town, every little geeky topic, every area of the news could potentially have an audience.
Former Economist journalist Daniel Tudor is one half of the founding team behind London-based crowdfunded journalism startup Byline, along with CEO Seung-yoon Lee.
“Journalism is clearly in big trouble. The business of the news media. And we think we have a model that has potential and could really help certain forms of journalism — niche topics, local journalism, investigative journalism, impassioned campaign-type journalism, war reporting perhaps even,” says Tudor, laying out the Byline pitch, after I ask whether it’s building the future of journalism.
In essence the Byline mission aims to support and foster the opposite of clickbait, listicles, sponsored content, native ads — the “crap”, as he terms it, which the current ad-supported media business models have spawned. And continue to spawn.
Byline launched an MVP back in April, with a handful of handpicked journalists pitching readers for funding via the platform. It’s just now launching its beta proper. Monthly unique visitors are around 300,000 at this early stage, according to Tudor. The team has raised $850,000 in seed funding, led by Korean Internet and messaging company Daum Kakao founder Jae-woong Lee, and investor Nicolas Berggruen.
Writing for Byline’s platform remains invite only at this point — with more than 20 writers and outlets signed up so far, including the likes of Julie Bindel, Norman Finkelstein and Alex Andreou. Tudor’s focus for recruiting writers has been those who are strong on particular topic — with the wider push being to crowdfund topic-based journalism (it’s not, obviously, a platform for breaking news or general news journalism): so Andreou, for instance, writes on the Greek crisis. And Bindel covers feminist issues.
“Stuff that we think is both fundable and interesting, effectively,” is how Tudor sums up the content focus at this stage — given Byline is still approaching journalists itself. He gives the example of Bindel as a writer who divides opinion. “Just from a perspective of adding something new to the conversation it’s worthwhile having someone like that around anyway, also it is quite fundable because there are people who really like her,” he says.
“Having a very well-defined topic is important, when it comes to people who write. So rather than a journalists who’s very general… we just want somebody who will focus on topic X because we find that unless you’re a very famous journalist then people are more interested in that topic.”
The longer term vision is to open Byline up to any writers to scale the platform (although it may stagger that by first allowing Byline journalists to invite other journalists), but likely not til early next year. The business model will be to take a 15 per cent commission on funding achieved through the platform. Again it’s waiting before flicking that switch, as the team works to see whether it can build something sustainable.
Byline offers two types of crowdfunding: exclusive projects, where the journalist pitches a discrete project that will be delivered if it gets funded (much like Kickstarter); and columns, where the journalist is supported to write ongoing articles on a particular topic by an ongoing subscription from the people who want to read their articles. There’s no set or fixed amount readers have to donate. And there’s no set time period for their subscription. But the idea is to be able to offer what could amount to a regular wage for freelancers, says Tudor.
Early funding successes Byline points to include Andreou’s coverage of the Greek crisis reaching £1,000 monthly subscription within two weeks of launch; Finkelstein raising $30,000 within 10 days for a series of articles on Amnesty International and their role in the Israel-Palestine conflict; and Bindel raising £6,500+ to investigate the global sex trade.
“If you can get a few hundred people paying a small amount of money each month then they can effectively live from what they’re doing… or make a good second income,” adds Tudor. “When you’ve got local news or niche topics that can scale because every city, every town, or every little geeky topic, or every area of the news could potentially have an audience like that — a few hundred people who are prepared to pay for something, rather than the Buzzfeed way of ‘we need 10 million people to click on these cute pictures of bunny rabbits’.”
It’s not the only startup playing in this area of course — there’s also YC-backed Beacon, along with others like Spot.us, not to mention general crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo. There’s also Blendle, chasing a pay-as-you-go model that uncouples published journalists from publications by getting readers to pay for only the articles they read (although that model supports existing publishers, rather than backing individual writers). Media remains a massive market — mobile devices are, after all, media consumption tools — so there’s scope for a multiplicity of approaches to get traction here.
A key part of Byline’s push involves fostering more collaboration between writers and readers on the platform. It has a private area where funders can connect with the writers they are paying, for instance — asking them questions and even potentially contributing information for stories.
“We have just brought in communication tools between journalists and the readers — kind of like a Facebook feed. Let’s say I’ve paid some money to support a journalist’s project I then get to communicate [with them directly]… in a supporter’s cafe area,” says Tudor.
“You can kind of go beyond crowdfunding in a way,” he adds. “Often you’ll get very geeky people who are very obsessed with a particular subject and they’re actually contributing information to the journalist as well. So not only are they paying… they can also give information to the journalist — or the journalist can tell them something they perhaps wouldn’t feel comfortable saying publicly.”
It’s a further blurring of the line between reader and journalist — but one which feels inevitable in an era of social media-enabled self-publication and smartphone-powered citizen journalism.
Byline’s team wants the platform to become a destination for readers, in and of itself, not just a crowdfunding website — which Tudor argues sets it apart from Beacon. “Discoverability is a big thing. If you look at Beacon what they were doing most of the time is paywalling. And there’s a sense where… it’s a place to crowdfund — it’s not really a place where you’d go ‘oh, I’ll go to Beacon and see what people are writing about’,” he adds. “We’re very much trying to be a place where people just go to read interesting stuff as well.”
More curation and personalization of the homepage to build a more attractive front page for readers is on Byline’s to-do list at this point, as well as adding key missing features like search and sectioning to help readers navigate and drill down. The overall aim with the platform’s look and feel will be to move towards something like Medium, says Tudor, with algorithms taking most of the strain when it comes to curating and personalizing what visitors see.
“In terms of the algorithm, we’ll be building in an element of giving people something that will piss them off as well — so we know what your preferences are, but sometimes we’re going to give you something that you’ll disagree with,” he says, discussing how the algorithms will shape viewers experience of the platform.
“One idea we sometimes throw around is that you could apply filters that you can track the bias of certain media organizations and you can apply a filter based on that to Byline — so you could say ‘Fox-ify the news’, i.e. pick articles that would look like they would fit on Fox News. And then you’d see a homepage full of that. There are lots of things we can do,” he adds.