The Startup Newsroom

A very satisfying picture of tree roots (Credit: Zach Reiner)

If you haven’t come across Grid, you should take a look. Not because of the kind of news it covers, or the stance it takes, but because of how it does so.

One of several new newsrooms that are popping up, it is taking a collaborative approach to create “the most complete stories”. Reporters, subject editors and data journalists all pitch in, cutting a story in different ways (whether that’s, say, macroeconomic, or scientific) to give readers as well-rounded a perspective as possible.

But while the mechanism it’s building feels relatively new, the foundations of Grid are not: it launched with a team of over 20 industry veterans — from the likes of Vox and ABC News — and with a good chunk of (sector-specific) venture capital behind them.

Media innovation has barely started

And that got me thinking: if media can evolve like other sectors, we must be pretty early doors in terms of innovation. Because so far, beyond the strides of the (heavily individual-based) creator economy, most media innovation has come from the industry itself.

This seems strange, because media is not like, for example, insurance, where barriers to entry are sky-high because of access to data and the ability to calibrate it. Nor is it akin to the legal industry, which is state-backed and near-on impossible to innovate across, beyond its consumer borderlands (wills, divorce, crowdfunding litigation).

Beyond the “early doors” point, I can only put this down to the obvious requirement to aggregate, analyse and disseminate information and knowledge being a tough thing to do consistently and repeatedly, and then at scale. Opex is high (you need a lot of human capital), and a media startup is hardly going to scale like a SaaS one.

Can we shortcut?

Why, then, don’t we leverage instances where information and knowledge are concentrated and untapped — capitalise on it where it already exists?

At HSG, this means seizing the opportunity to turn businesses into media companies. I’ve written about that before, but we’re creating content that doesn’t just grow users for our clients (mostly B2B SaaS, fintechs and VCs), but also builds an audience that includes people who will never be users. That’s the key: content as a demand tool and a value-add in itself.

This means we focus a lot on thought leadership, and the expertise of individuals in a business. We see them as an untapped resource — creators within a larger structure.

A neat description for all this is “startup newsroom”.

Conflicting interests & media integrity

A lot of people find this marginally alarming. Clearly, a company making small nuclear reactors is going to advocate for nuclear energy. Those in a SaaS company trying to crack payments for a given sector are going to have it in for Stripe… The whole point of decent reporting, of a decent newsroom, is that it has integrity. If someone’s trying to sell you something, or soapbox themselves, isn’t that fundamentally inimical?

I’m not sure it is — anymore.

Within the media, the line between editorial and sales has been blurring for years. That could be the out-and-out poor practice of telling a junior journalist to cover something or someone (or not) because they’ve bought advertising. Or, the increasingly sophisticated world of “in partnership with”: where hybridised reports combine, say, data from companies and storytelling from editorial teams, who charge the company for the privilege (which, in fairness, can produce some fantastic content).

Beyond that, individuals — whether professional creators or a founder who just can’t get off Twitter — blast out content all the time. We don’t get huffy about it because we can see who, and what, they are, and simply factor that in.

This is part of a bigger picture of consumer sophistication, as we become increasingly naturalised to our internet lives. We’re comfortable getting information and knowledge from a vast number of sources and, while “better at recognising fake news” might be a bit of a stretch, we are becoming more discerning. What’s more, the onward march of web3 (which may emerge fully via sheer brute force!) will likely mean a more advanced world wide web is more decentralised, and thus more visible.

Moving to “does what it says on the tin”

So why not just have editorial teams — newsrooms — in businesses and label them clearly and obviously? The issue with content teams as is is that they are typically a less transparent (and possibly therefore less effective) storytelling-come-legacy marketing hybrid.

Living in the technological era, we’re surrounded by these in-house creators: business-builders and knowledge workers brimming with deep expertise — both in their subject matter, and on building and running things — and who can form opinions and provide insights before they trickle elsewhere. Why would we not do more to capitalise on that?

A comfortable pit-stop might be to have journalists working openly with businesses to communicate their knowledge. The reputation dynamic is important here: yes, the journalist is getting paid, but they’ve also got to put their name to something, which counts for a lot. (At HSG, we call this journalism-as-a-service.)

Or, companies learn from the editorial approaches taken by the likes of Grid, implementing them, while building in public: “Here’s how we built a newsroom at our data startup”.

The ineluctable relationship between content & education

But why — really — would a business, especially a young one, bother thinning its resources to build an editorial function? An audience beyond users feels irrelevant when you’re simply trying to nail referenceable logos.

I think, however (and it’s a discussion I’d love to have if anyone’s keen) necessity is inevitable. Because, in a world of successful superapps and internet alternatives, where information asymmetries close and consumer potency continues to rise, every single company on earth will also need to be an education establishment.

Knowledge will flow seamlessly anyway, so the additive move will be to harness and monetise it. Working out how to do content really well — which means competing with incumbent media companies, not just your market peers — is therefore a precursor, and a prerequisite.

Using the expression “build in public” has prompted me to get down some of the things we’re testing & iterating on at HSG — like journalism-as-a-service, monetising single pieces of content and using GPT-3 to write. I’ll publish that in the next few days.

Oh, also, we’re hiring — perpetually — so please get in touch if you would like :)

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Founder of HSG Advisory, a content consultancy that builds media platforms for the world’s most exciting companies

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Harriet Green

Harriet Green

Founder of HSG Advisory, a content consultancy that builds media platforms for the world’s most exciting companies

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