Last May The Onion published a piece particularly drenched in insight, Social Media Rock Star Makes $28,000 Per Year. It’s funny ‘cause it’s true—there are literally millions of people killing it on social media that don’t have a dime to show for it. Most of the folks raking it in from all the back-and-forth on Twitter, Facebook and the like are a tiny group of Silicon Valley elites who work and invest in these multi-billion dollar enterprises. What if, we thought, we could turn this financial dictatorship on its head and put some cash into the pockets of the people creating the actual value.
We launched Newsana in April of 2013 with high hopes and lofty ambitions. We wanted to build the world’s first online community that could scale and maintain a high quality of participation simultaneously. We wanted to gather a big group of subject-specific experts who would collectively find the most important news stories of the day. By about November we realized this probably wasn’t going to happen the way we had hoped. While there is (and will remain) value in Newsana, it hasn’t evolved we had hoped. The burden we put on potential members, namely a lengthy application process, scared off a lot of potential members at the start. When we opened it up, the quality of content began to drop. I truly believe that it is possible to scale a high-quality community based around news, but we slowly realized we hadn’t yet found the golden goose.
At the same time, the revenue model we used to raise our first round of financing started to look, well, absurd. Huge changes in the digital advertising market (some of which happened before we launched, some after) meant we had to kiss that idea goodbye. Digital ad prices are in free fall and will continue to be. It’s a simple supply and demand problem—every day, tens of thousands of new sites go online, while the number of advertisers grows only slightly. You can still create a viable business around online ads, but you have to be producing the type of content that drives massive traffic. Top ten Justin Bieber moments work, higher quality analysis doesn’t, nor will it ever again.
So, alas, what were we to do? The core mission of Newsana has always been to provide readers with quality content, easing their information overload. But clearly the crowdsourcing model we developed has its flaws, as did our revenue mode. How could we kill both birds with one stone, I thought?
In the background of our everyday work, a number of other major structural changes were reshaping online journalism. The most important of these trends, as I seem them, are as follows:
1) Readers are slowly and reluctantly coming around to paying for high quality digital content;
2) The power of traditional brands is fast being eclipsed by the brand power of their superstar contributors, many of whom are leaving to create their own sites.
This last point here is particularly interesting. What if you didn’t need to be Nate Silver or Glenn Greenwald to have your own site? What if we could allow the best Newsana curators—and other social media superstars—to create and profit from their own little kingdom?
This way, our curators would be incentivized to keep the quality consistently high (unlike on Newsana currently) and, more importantly, they would finally start making some money from their huge online followings.
So, I locked myself in a basement for a few months, accompanied by only a few nibbles of food and a team of first-rate interns. How could we turn this premise into something viable? NewsanaPlus is the result.
NewsanaPlus is FAR from a finished product. It was built by stringing together a number of off-the-shelf solutions and required little-to-no actual coding by us. It is, in common start-up lingo, an MVP. Our goal with it is to prove two points:
A) Social media superstars want to personally profit by creating their own curated newsmagazines, and;
B) Most of our newsmagazines will get enough paid subscribers to make it worth our curators’ time and effort to create the newsmagazines in the first place.
If we can prove both are true, we’re in business. I firmly believe we have the beginnings of a truly disruptive business model. Take the middle-man out. Put the curator (or, in traditional news parlance, the editor) front and center. Make them the star and the main marketing force. Be 100% transparent and share revenue with those creating the real value. Scale up from there.
We’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a news curator and/or a subscriber to NewsanaPlus. What unifies both ends is the love of knowledge. You have to really, really, really care about a subject to spend time and money on it. It might not seem like a necessity to most, but for those of us that that ‘get’ it, it’s all that matters. It is because, in our hearts, we are news nerds. We are wonks.
Inspired by the #WeTheNorth campaign of the Toronto Raptors (yes I admit it), we wrote this up to summarize everything that NewsanaPlus means to us.
We are the wonks. We are the people that care. Some say we are nerds, outsiders. Let them say whatever they want. We are proud. Proud to have a higher calling. We study, we think, we plan. Ultimately, we know. We know, deep inside, every detail. We shape the future. And now we have a home. #WeTheWonks.
Are you a wonk? If so, welcome to our little family.
P.S. Hit me up with any followups at ben (at) newsana.com.