New Media Upstarts Relying on Journalism for a Change

Behind the launches of potential industry game-changers Capital New York, TBD.com and Yahoo's Upshot

New websites are launched every day — most, it would appear, involving photos of cats in compromising situations. Sites with real impact potential pop up less often.

Yet three recent digital media launches — Capital New York, D.C.-focused TBD.com and Yahoo’s Upshot, each rolled out within the span of a month — have the potential to change the game by putting journalism first.

And each started by hiring some of the Web’s top editorial talent away from established players well ahead of their launch date.

The founders of Capital New York, New York Observer editors Tom McGeveran and Josh Benson, left the salmon-colored paper late last year to work on launching a sort-of digital culture sheet not unlike the Observer.

Capital opened for business in July with the tagline “This is How New York Works.” It’s already established itself as a must-read for its “contain magazine-quality journalism in a continuous format.”

The pair was able to lure Business Insider media editor Gillian Reagan as its founding editor, and tap into their former pool of Observer contacts as contributors.

Albritton Communications, which owns Politico and several Washington area propertiess, took a similar tact with TBD. Jim Brady, the former executive editor of the WashingtonPost.com, hired Erik Wemple, well-regarded former editor of the Washington City Paper, as TBD’s editor. TBD launched on August 9.

After coming over from Talking Points Memo, Yahoo News editor Andrew Golis was able to assemble a stable of bloggy thoroughbreds, including John Cook, Gawker’s investigative reporter; Michael Calderone, a veteran of the New York Observer and Politico; former Gawker editor/writer Brett Michael Dykes; former Newsweek correspondent Holly Bailey as senior political reporter; and former New York writer Chris Lehmann as its managing editor.

“We wanted to get a team of aggressive, Web-native reporters who could break news,” Golis told TheWrap.

(Golis hinted as much in January in a note soliciting Web talent on his personal blog: “As many of you know, I was recently hired by Yahoo News to build a network of news blogs. I’m looking to build a team of voracious news consumers with an eye for a good story angle and the ability to write in tight, engaging prose.”)

He added that the “excitement of a startup with (Yahoo’s) incredible resources, and the ability to reach a sheer audience of that size and scale” was a distinct advantage in attracting new media talent. (With roughly 42 million unique monthly visitors, Yahoo News is among the top three highest trafficked news sites on the Internet.)

The idea for the Upshot, Yahoo said, was to create an engaging channel of original news and leverage the portal’s massive audience the way Yahoo Sports first did.

“Yahoo Sports put the toe in the water with original content,” Yahoo News vice president Mark Walker said. “It became apparent that mere aggregation is not enough of a differential in the competitive marketplace. A layer of original content on top of the aggregation, which I think we pretty much perfected [with Yahoo Sports] is a powerful combination for advertisers.”

"Our goal is to be blunt narrators of the day's news,” Golis wrote in a blog post announcing the launch. To cut through the noise and misinformation and get to the heart of what's important and why."

For TBD, original reporting is important, too, but smart aggregation is a big part of the play.

With its “All Over Washington” tagline, the site draws from more than 400 local news sources, leveraging Albritton’s TV stations. “We have 12 trained meteorologists on staff,” TBD managing editor Volpe said. TBD employs about 30 editorial staffers, and about 50 overall. “We have editors combing all of these sites. It’s human aggregation — not automated.”

TBD is also geocoding every piece of its content, targeting relevant information to make it more useful for local readers. (The Upshot is also using the algorithms and research technology developed by Yahoo to analyze what stories drive the most traffic and user engagement – a concept that was championed with Yahoo’s $100 million acquisition of Associated Content earlier this year; Capital New York, on the other hand, has already been lauded for “not [being] in the dirty business of chasing page views.”)

TBD is also tapping into the community in a big way. TBD has assembled a local blog network — 140 strong — and often invites users to “complete this story.”

“This is where we see local news going,” Volpe said.

But TBD is also, smartly, managing expectations, downplaying its threat-level to Brady’s former site, WashingtonPost.com. “At the Post, there’s sort of this expectation to be everything to everyone,” Volpe said. “The are a lot things that they do very well, but a lot of things we can do better. We don’t have to be everything to everyone.”

“We didn’t plan to take over the world,” Volpe added. “We want to build an audience, organically, over time.”

The Upshot is also strategically vague on defining success in the startup stage.

“The goal is really establishing the Upshot a news presence, with credible and consistently challenging information, leveraged by Yahoo’s built-in reach, to sell to advertisers,” Walker said. “The ability to drive traffic with original reporting is going to be the key for us.”

“We’re already getting inbound links from every major news site in the country,” Golis added. “And for us, that’s huge.”