NewsTilt Was An Obvious Disaster From the Beginning

Categories: Media
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Oh, the humanity...
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.

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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.

Out 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.

In response, 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 experienced reporters."

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 news.
 

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