Opinion

Six hot media startups to watch in 2016

When it comes to innovation in journalism, these companies are the true incubators

February 25, 2016 2:00AM ET

As a leading hyperglocal thinkfluencer and advocate for the dynamic new era of Journalism 3.0, I am often asked: What are the hot media properties to watch? Which innovators should we seek to emulate? And who is making the future, today?

In response to popular demand, here are six of my favorite media startups which I’ll be watching closely in 2016:

The Dodo
The dodo
Source: via GIPHY.

Started by famed investor Ken Lerer and his daughter Isabel, it has quickly become an “Uber, but for animal pictures.” In the words of TechCrunch, “its larger focus is hinted at by the name: the dodo – a bird whose extinction helped the world recognize how humans can impact our ecosystem, sometimes to devastating consequences.”

In just two-and-a-half years, the site has firmly established itself as a leader in the long-form menagerie space, bringing attention to animals, large and small, domestic and wild alike. Now booming at a (in my opinion, absurdly low) valuation of $40 million, it has attracted glowing profiles in outlets such as Business Insider and Gawker.

With a mission to be the “Best Workplace in the World,” staff get close mentoring from Ken Lerer, who checks every word of every story and is not afraid to give candid feedback — a perfect way for young journalists to learn the content ropes. I have strong faith that once The Dodo starts monetizing its traffic, it will quickly take flight and become a unicorn. 

The New Republic
The New Republic
Source: via GIPHY.

The oldest startup here, it went through a significant reboot with its March 2012 purchase by Chris Hughes, tech mogul and co-founder of Facebook. It has since innovated so quickly that it is about to be re-rebooting under even newer ownership (name TBD), a great example of the rapid iteration that is characteristic of the best startups.

Instead of the old questions about subjective, qualitative measures, Chris Hughes brought in Yahoo! wartime consigliere Guy Vidra to ask fresh questions, such as: How well did this piece travel? And does this meme even lift our metrics?

I’m excited to see the New New The New Republic, and hope they re-embrace Walter Lippmann’s original mission of nextifying the bewildered herd using hot takes.

Pando Daily
Pando Daily
Source: via GIPHY.

Another VC-backed startup, Bay Area-based Pando Daily (affectionately referred to simply as “Pando,” meaning, in Sanskrit, “We are the world, and we are the children”), the site has been going from strength to strength, even acquiring other fast-growing startups such as the Not Safe For Work (NSFW) corporation in Las Vegas.

It was founded by the “Queen of Silicon Valley,” Sarah Lacy, who has taken on such giants as Uber and Beachmint, and scaled the company up from two people in a San Francisco basement to a powerhouse with huge global staff. With a mission of “speaking new truth to the new power,” Lacey, and her faithful editorial assistant, British writer Paul Carr, are imposing figures on Twitter.

After the NSFW acquisition, the outlet expanded from its “TechCrunch Squared” focus on startups to a more hyperglocal perspective: It combined startup funding news with the latest developments from Kiev. I would argue that no other news outlet on the Internet does such a great job of covering the intersection of Ukrainian politics, New Jersey “pay to play” scandals and startup funding.

Now with more than 1,000 Pando Premium subscribers all around the net, 2016 should be a breakout year for this content provider.

Fusion
Fusion
Source: via GIPHY.

With an approach famously described as “post-text” by the site’s Chief Content Officer, Felix Salmon, whom many tip to replace the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman when Friedman retires from travel writing, Fusion is not just news, it’s News 2.0.

By jumping directly to a post-text paradigm, the publication handily bypasses tired legacy approaches such as pageviews, engagement and visitor numbers. Instead, it measures its audience using the new microgodin system: a combination of Klout plus a “secret sauce” algorithm known only inside the company. The company has clocked some impressive microgodin counts, with reports of more than 40 million peak microgodins in 2015.

The publication has a commitment to innovation in headlines and captions. For example: “WTF just happened in South Carovada?” — which helps it capture the attention of the younger ADD generation, and also makes its content optimal for cutting-edge new platforms like Snapchat, Peeple and Plurk.

Despite its impressive microgodin count, the company lost $60 million in 2013 and 2014, according to S-1 filings. To me, this is a sure sign that the company is not afraid to invest in content — a positive omen for the future.

Mic
Mic
Source: via GIPHY.

By focusing on the hottest group of consumers in history, millennials, the young team at the Mic (formerly known as Open Mic Night, before rebranding in 2014) has been on a tear recently.

One major innovation is its Headline 2.0 style. Recent examples include “TV star Matt McGorry shows that men can be feminists who love to vape, and we’re really thrilled about it” and “Pigs are now being genetically engineered to avoid infection, and they’re really happy about it” and “Cheese is a silent killer — so why aren’t we talking about it?”

Mic’s key innovation is to support the hectic schedule of today’s younger audience: The site enforces a strict publishing window which starts at 11 a.m., when millennials typically get up for breakfast, to 4 p.m., when most millennials are winding down for the day.

Raising a lean-and-mean $32 million in funding has allowed the site to stay very focused on its mission of being a phablet-first, post-news experience that truly lives up to its motto: “Unwonk Yourself.” My must-read.

Al Jazeera America ("AJAM")
AJAM
Source: via GIPHY.

With its origin as an innovative mash-up of aging Qataris and US millennials, the site, funded by the Emir of Qatar, quickly made its mark. It scooped up Current TV from Al Gore and his partners for the bargain price of $500 million. They then forged a different path from the rest of the industry, pulling their online video feed in favor of going cable-channel only — very unusual in today’s millennial-dominated world.

But who says that going retro can’t be innovative? Rather than leaping “over the top” to reach people, they picked a “through the wall” strategy, in what I feel is a very bold gambit to tempt Fox News’ 60-something-year-old viewers over to the AJAM camp. At the same time, the company has its eye on the long-term: positioning themselves to capture the millennial audience when it hits AARP age.

Time will tell whether this gambit succeeds, but I certainly applaud the Qataris for ignoring the naysayers and running straight through the wall. Definitely the top one to watch in 2016.

Prof. Jeff Jarvis is the world’s leading hyperglocal thinkfluencer and Journalism 3.0 advocate. He is cofounder of the Mogadishu:Reinvent unconference and CEO of Mogadishu Capital Partners LLC. He is not Jeff Jarvis.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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