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The Media Startup Getting 20 Year Olds To Talk About More Than Cat Pictures

Jan 6 2014, 7:56am CST | by

 
 
 

The newsroom of the future will probably resemble the three airy, wood-floored rooms PolicyMic rents in Midtown Manhattan. On the ninth floor of a nondescript office building, 14 editors and writers, all in their mid to late 20, are seated side by side at long desks, typing at Apple PCs. They occupy the larger of the three rooms–a smaller, glass-enclosed one is used as a conference room, while the third is let to an unrelated software startup to help keep the lights on. PolicyMic staffers spend their day keeping tabs on the news and what’s trending across social networks, then boil it all down in a way it believes earnest 20somethings will enjoy. At this moment, a story with the headline “8 Photos You Didn’t See From Obama’s Trip to South Africa” is the largest hit. The piece eventually reaches 6.6 million page views, a figure admirable by either traditional or new media standards.

“It is a listicle that actually matters,” explains Chris Altchek, the 26-year-old PolicyMic cofounder, using an industry term for a numerated roll of connected facts. Sometimes they’re illustrated with cat photos. “What we’ve seen is that the legacy organizations weren’t really serving anyone under 30.”

Knowing what Millennials want to read has three-year-old PolicyMic bringing in millions of monthly unique visitors, one of the most important metrics in gauging an online media company’s reach. In fact, PolicyMic hit a new record last month: 14.4 million unique visitors. Again, enviable numbers by the measure of any media business. What exactly is PolicyMic? Altchek describes his company as having a New York Times-like style and a prominent concern for important things. The headlines on the loosely culture-and-politics centered stories are often written with no small degree of hyperbole; for this reason, PolicyMic can seem a lot like a cross between magazine-cum-blog Slate and cat-picture-mad Buzzfeed. Had you visited PolicyMic recently, you would’ve found an evergreen profile of an upcoming comedian (“The Hilarious 23-Year-Old Comedian Completely Changing The Comedy Game”), quickly written aggregated blog posts (“The Brutal Gang Rape And Murder Of A Young Girl Has Rocked India. Again”) and social commentary (“Why Detroit Loses When Miley Cyrus Wins”). PolicyMic isn’t profitable, but it has secured roughly $4.7 million in funding, most notably from Lightspeed Venture Partners and the Knight Foundation.

PolicyMic is the latest destination to emerge within the ever-expanding universe of places like Upworthy, Buzzfeed and BusinessInsider, media companies making cheaply produced content without august headquarters or middle-aged reporters. Content from those sites is not particularly satisfying or filling. It’s less complex than confectionary. But what troubles institutions like The Times or The Washington Post, along with their corporate owners and investors, is that these inexpensive stories are massively popular. Buzzfeed saw more than 130 million unique visitors toward the end of last year, while NYTimes.com attracted only a fraction of that with 30 million or so; WashingtonPost.com experienced still fewer at 19 million. What might make PolicyMic truly unique–and a shooting star in that clouded universe–is by proving it can apply the low-cost techniques to tackling serious topics intelligently and substantively.

Substance is never something Altchek or his co-founder, Jake Horrowitz, 26, have lacked. After meeting and becoming friends at the Horace Mann School in New York, Altchek studied social studies at Harvard and landed a job as a Goldman Sachs analyst in its investment banking division. Horrowitz, meanwhile, attended Stanford, studied Middle Eastern history, then left for Beirut to work at a think-tank, the Carnegie Middle East Center. He later wrote for Change.org. The two stayed friendly, and after growing bored with their roles not long after graduation, in 2011, they left to do something else. Inspired by their own political debates (Altchek interned in the Bush White House and is more right of center, while Horrowitz leans left.), they decided to build a 21st-century soapbox.

A place where other young people could debate like they did. They would supply the stories and information to start those discussions. Altchek and Horrowitz started with two editors, two developers and a gaggle of unpaid interns. They worked on gaining traction–readers’ eyeballs. A lucky break happened in January 2011. A young writer in Tunisia struck up a relationship with PolicyMic, mostly  unsolicited, and sent an on-the-ground report complete with pictures. It blew up online, and gave PolicyMic an important dash of credibility and standing. Altchek and Horrowitz started pitching investors for seed funding in March, and eventually they took in $1.7 million. Another round last October yielded $3 million.

PolicyMic is almost certainly surviving on what its investors hand out. Revenue wasn’t the first priority of Altchek, who manages the business side as CEO. He focused on simply getting the website up and running. As a matter of fact, revenue dropped off altogether last October when Altchek switched gears and stopped taking display advertising. “BMV is never going to reach 20 year olds with a banner ad,” he says. PolicyMic is now experimenting with native advertising, storytelling ads from companies written in a newsy way and published along with content by PolicyMic journalists. Much of PolicyMic’s hiring in 2014 will go toward in-house writers and editors who’ll create those ads. They’ll help cement PolicyMic’s first real revenue opportunity.

To keep people coming back to see that advertising, PolicyMic is careful to have plenty of content, employing more than 2,000 contributing bloggers who write dozens of stories each day. And it’s careful to stoke conversation. There are constantly monitored Facebook and Twitter accounts, and 45% to 50% of PolicyMic’s traffic comes from social networks. Given social media’s importance, PolicyMic built software specifically to track in real-time how competitors’ stories are trending on Facebook and Twitter, so it too might tap into that interest. PolicyMic also works to keep people talking right on its Website. Readers can vote up a smart comment (like Reddit), and commenters receive “mics,” or points. The more you get, the more you can write on the site. In theory, this encourages civil conversations and discourages angry ones, since those would be less likely to curry favor among other readers.

Readers are the constant concern of Horrowitz in particular, whose title is editor in chief. He supervises the editorial staff along with PolicyMic’s very own social psychologist, who helps come up with headlines that click. Getting a bully-versus-bullied idea into the headline works well, and PolicyMic approached the Turkish demonstrations earlier this year in that fashion. Numbers (like 8, 28 and 46) get attention, too, so lists are frequently used. This can make some PolicyMic stories as thin as anything on Buzzfeed and BusinessInsider. Example: “11 Photos And Videos Show Just How Damn Cold It Is.”

There are enough pieces with both voice and understanding of subject and character for PolicyMic to offer a clear glimmer of promise as something other than a baby Buzzfeed. In addition to the profile of the up-and-coming comedian, other recent PolicyMic features included a story about the potential government revenue from marijuana taxes and one about the surprising amount of Chinese stereotypes that wind up in American videogames. All in all, PolicyMic seems closer than any of its competitors to finding the promised land for new media companies, a middle ground between deeply reported stories and listicles. Horrowitz isn’t shy about his hopes for PolicyMic (doubled traffic this year) or kicking the shins of his venerated competitors. “We want to be the voice of our generation,” he says. “PolicyMic is what the op-ed page should be at every major outlet.”

Reach Abram Brown at abrown@forbes.com.

Source: Forbes

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