There's been a lot of discussion today about Paul Biggar's account of the demise of NewsTilt
, an online startup that aimed to save journalism by connecting journalists directly with readers. NewsTilt
would provide journalists with a web framework and help them to build community and promote their work, thus enabling individual reporters to haul in $30,000 to $70,000 a year from ad revenue
. That, at least, was the plan.
Two months after its April launch, in which it announced itself
as "the future platform of journalism," NewsTilt/NewsLabs had lost one of its founders, and then shut down completely
. Co-founder Nathan Chong said he would return the remaining startup funds to the project's investors--which turned out to be $20,000 of an initial $50,000 investment.
Now, Biggar, the former CEO, has released a nearly 7,000-word reflection
on exactly what went wrong, and why -- including the fact that he and
Chong "didn't really care about journalism, and weren't even avid news
readers," even as they were trying to reinvent the news industry.
of curiosity, I signed up for the NewsLabs Q&A e-mail list early
this spring. On the list, Biggar fielded questions from interested
journalists. It was immediately clear that the project was a mess,
fueled by vacuous thinking and the free-floating anxiety of
an industry in crisis.
In one characteristic exchange in early
March, a journalist suggested if the NewsLabs wanted to host
high-quality reporting, they would need editors.
Biggar wanted to know why another reporter couldn't just read over
stories. "What is special about an editor?" he wrote "(I'm asking this
sincerely, not as flamebait)." Later, he told the journalists on the
list that he had been informed that "editors are not needed by
When a member of the list questioned if
Biggar was really qualified to be running a journalism start-up, Biggar
wrote that there wasn't a lot of debate about the problem that NewsLabs
was trying to solve:
"The problem here is the existing monolithic
media structures, and the speed at which they move," he wrote. "The
solution (again, I've never heard dissent to this notion) is that
journalists are going to handle everything and become their own personal
brands online. When speaking to journalists about this there was
(surprisingly) little disagreement, but (unsurprisingly) a lot of
fear...so we set out to fix it."
But Biggar ran into trouble when
journalists on the list kept wanting him to recreate parts of that
"monolith," like editors and fact checkers.
So, he explained,
they were trying to figure out on the fly "what parts of what are being
asked for (in this case editors) are valuable parts of an efficient
machine honed and perfected over the last century, and which are relics
of a former era."
From a tech-start-up perspective
, the moral of Biggar's story is simple: Don't start a company in an industry you don't understand or care about.
But there's a more journalism-specific moral, too -- one that ties into this week's debate over journalism school curricula.
Biggar frames one of the Big Questions of today's journalism business
very nicely. On many fronts (objectivity, government funding), we're
constantly questioning what parts of the current machinery are
essential, and which are relics. But you should at least be able to differentiate what's essential from what isn't before you start talking about saving the
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