clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Can Tech Startups Do Journalism?

Editorial enterprises like MEL, Real Life, and Van Winkle’s could be the future of publishing—or they could be the next phase of Silicon Valley’s media takeover

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In June 2015, a new, hyperspecific website named Van Winkle’s went live. It was billed as an online destination for “all aspects of sleep and various nocturnal adventures” by its editorial director, Elizabeth Spiers, formerly an editor at Gawker and the Observer. In its first week, the site’s pieces included a listicle about dream sequence clichés and a 2,800-word feature on the rise of benzodiazepine prescriptions. Its editor-in-chief, Jeff Koyen, heralded it as “the first editorial venture of its kind.” What he meant by that had as much to do with its niche subject matter as it did its funding source: Van Winkle’s was not a traditionally independent journalistic venture, but the latest product of mattress startup Casper.

“We have a long-term vision for Casper to become the dedicated brand for all things sleep, and part of owning that category is owning the best content related to it,” Casper CEO Philip Krim told The Wall Street Journal at the time, speaking pure startup. He later added: “The mandate is to create awesome content and that’s it.”

It would make sense that Krim — who had raised $15 million in funding for his company — saw inherent value in encouraging the online conversation about sleep, a topic that’s far more interesting than mattresses. The implicit idea behind Van Winkle’s was inception: People who read about sleep would then care about sleep, and eventually feel inspired to spend more money on sleep-related products. Casper drew up a budget for an editorial team that included consulting from Spiers, a small operation headed up by Koyen, a full-time staff writer, and freelance work. When it debuted, Van Winkle’s went one step further to distance itself from the influences of Big Sleep, drawing a line between Casper’s business goals and Van Winkle’s content.

“I set up clear rules,” Koyen, who previously worked for Digiday, told me. “This was the only way I was going to take the job. We never covered mattresses, good or bad. We just blacklisted it. That went the same for anything coming down their product line.”

In its efforts to stake out some editorial integrity, Van Winkle’s wedged itself into a space between journalism and sponsored content, which the American Press Institute defines as material that “takes the same form and qualities of a publisher’s original content” and “serves useful or entertaining information as a way of favorably influencing the perception of the sponsor brand.” In practice, both Spiers and Koyen say that Van Winkle’s story assignments, fact checking, and editing functioned without interference from Casper’s business side. The site once ran a 6,000-plus-word investigation into ties between sleep deprivation and PTSD in the military. The only way a reader who stumbled on the site could be led to was if she scrolled down the page and clicked a subtle line of text that says “Published by Casper,” along with the company site’s URL. It was real — if selective — journalism, even if it was funded by a brand, Spiers said.

“I think we’re kind of past the point where anybody would look at it and be like: ‘Oh, well, that story’s fantastic but I hate it because it’s being sponsored by a brand,’” Spiers said. “That’s kind of irrational given that most media is ad supported. This is just a more direct way of creating ad-supported media.”

Not to mention that Koyen saw it as a rare and exciting opportunity to support good writing in an ailing industry.

“It was my job to Robin Hood that money out of their hands and into journalists’ hands,” Koyen said. “We ran as a completely autonomous editorial unit that did really great work.”

In the last few years, fledgling startups have sought to widen their influence, sharpen their brands, and research their target customer demographics by launching well-intentioned publications of their own. And just as so many internet companies have found success removing the middleman to deliver direct-to-consumer products, their foray into media has eliminated many traditional journalistic practices and safeguards.

The startup publication boom has moved dizzyingly fast, a testament to both the potential and disposability of a well-funded editorial vision. In 2014, the e-book subscription service Oyster launched a website that fashioned itself after classic literary periodicals both in aesthetic and name, and featured writing from well-known writers like The Awl’s Choire Sicha. Its editorial director, Kevin Nguyen, even formed an author advisory board (made up of writers Megan Abbott, Lauren Oliver, and Roxane Gay) that was reportedly intended to “discuss the future of digital publishing.” Less than a year later, Google acqui-hired most of the company’s employees, Oyster “sunsetted” (translation: closed) its service, and the enjoyable Oyster Review was no more. In November 2015, the razor-delivery startup Dollar Shave Club — which was acquired by Unilever a year later — launched its men’s lifestyle destination, MEL, as a twice-a-week newsletter. It has grown into an online magazine on Medium (The Ringer’s former publishing platform) that’s helmed by a handful of crafty, energetic editors and writers. The project has run everything from weed-infused-food reviews to a male supermodel’s first-person account of escaping a vegetarian cult. With the help of Snapchat last year, a sociologist named Nathan Jurgenson, who had formerly worked as a researcher for the company, introduced Real Life. The scholarly website publishes observant “essays, arguments, and narratives about living with technology,” with esoteric headlines like “Object Lessons” or “Fiber Optics.” Its original editorial staff included Sarah Nicole Prickett and New Inquiry editor Rob Horning.

Meanwhile, other startups are taking content into their own hands, using editorial formats as direct brand extensions. Earlier this year, Airbnb teamed with Hearst to launch a magazine whose coverage is shaped by anonymous user data collected by the company. This spring, menstrual-disc startup Flex sent customers a surprise in the mail with The Fixx, a handbook-sized publication that focuses on women’s lifestyle, health, and body positivity. In a letter at the front of the book, the company’s CEO introduced herself as the magazine’s editor-in-chief. In addition to its travel podcast, Airplane Mode, the luggage startup Away has started a quarterly travel magazine called Here. You can get an issue for $10, or with the purchase of a suitcase. The founders of retail startup Of a Kind — which was purchased by Bed Bath & Beyond in 2015 — regularly host well-known writers like Jon Caramanica or Sloane Crosley on their podcast and publish a weekly recommendations newsletter that includes at least one product from its site. Gwyneth Paltrow’s self-proclaimed “contextual commerce platform,” Goop, partnered with Condé Nast to launch a print magazine of the same name this month. The Wing, a women-only coworking space cofounded by Audrey Gelman, is fielding submissions for its forthcoming female-focused magazine, No Man’s Land. The biannual print publication will be headed by Deidre Dyer, a former Fader style editor who now freelances as a branded content creator, and managed by Who? Weekly podcaster Lindsey Weber, formerly of MEL and Vulture.

Alyssa Bereznak

In many ways, this is just startup culture catching up to traditional brand management. The symbiotic relationship between lifestyle coverage and its sponsors is as old as service journalism itself. Culture coverage is regularly supported by film and television advertising; legacy fashion magazines have long granted editorial favors to their advertisers; and the existence of trade publications like Car and Driver and The Hollywood Reporter depend on the survival of the industries they cover. The millennial media behemoth Vice operates a publishing platform, a TV channel, and an advertising agency; the influential music magazine The Fader is owned jointly with the creative agency Cornerstone. (HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.) Brands themselves regularly create or subsidize entire publications: Before Silicon Valley used the internet to sell adulthood starter kits, airlines were publishing their own in-flight magazines and businesses like American Express were launching exclusive publications for their fanciest card holders. For every modern-day clothing retailer like Urban Outfitters, Madewell, or Nasty Gal, there is also a correlating fashion blog. And that is before we get to the aforementioned sponsored content, which can be found in every major media publication, from Business Insider to The New York Times.

By association, ventures like MEL, Van Winkle’s, and Real Life all carry with them the same optimistic attitude, nimble work structures, and goals to aggressively disrupt an industry that come with the territory of being a startup. But they are most unique in that there’s no longer even a smoke-and-mirrors pretense that capital-J journalism is separate from a brand’s financial influence. At the same time, the editorial staffers that are employed and paid by Dollar Shave Club, Casper, and Snapchat assert that their new funding structures still allow them to operate both separately from and in conjunction with the interests of their brands. Meaning: They believe they can positively contribute to the aura of their parent company without being compromised in their editorial pursuits. True to the spirit of Silicon Valley, the integrity of these publications depends less on their structure than on the self-policing principles of their employees.

“Editorial independence” is a relative term, applied differently by the editor of Real Life than it is by the editor of Here. In a way, these tech-media ventures are a natural conclusion to — and even a more honest expression of — the labyrinth of compromises that is lifestyle journalism. They also, like all tech-funded media companies, have the potential to obviate the need for the media itself. What might currently appear to be a startup’s vanity project may very well represent the future of lifestyle content, for better or worse.

“We win on how creative we are, how smart we are, and how irreverent,” MEL editor-in-chief Josh Schollmeyer said. “[MEL] is is not some sort of cynical ploy of convincing people to buy more razors. This is very much honoring a sensibility and ethos of both [Dollar Shave Club CEO] Mike Dubin and the brand.” In other words: Tech CEOs are the new media publishers.

Though most lifestyle-oriented brands like Goop are upfront about wanting to sell their products via editorial content — that’s the whole point — this new class seeks to assure their discerning readers of their independence. When it launched last summer, Real Life followed in the footsteps of Van Winkle’s by claiming editorial autonomy and acknowledging its conflict of interest. “Three years ago, Snapchat offered to support the work I do as a sociologist, primarily applying social theory to social media,” Jurgenson wrote in Real Life’s introductory note. “In these past three years, the company has also paid for the venue for a conference I co-founded and chair called Theorizing the Web, without asking for any editorial input or control. Snapchat is now funding Real Life, and we have editorial independence as well.” Jurgenson went on to suggest that replacing the need for traffic with a tech startup benefactor may improve the quality of Real Life’s work. “The support means we can focus on writers and writing rather than clicks and shares. At the same time, there are inherent complexities attached to being funded by a company in the field of what we’re publishing about, sometimes critically. But the content will have to speak for itself.”

When I spoke to Spiers about Van Winkle’s, she echoed a similar sentiment. “Casper didn’t have to monetize Van Winkle’s; it wasn’t like a stand-alone, ad-driven kind of property,” she said. “In that sense you could be a little bit more flexible about what you considered success. It’s like, do we need to build authority around a topic or do we need to just get as much traffic as possible?” What sets these publications apart from their more insidious media predecessors is their insistence that they can publish quality journalism because of their funding sources. The business-funded format makes them more honest.

“At previous places, I’ve done cologne packages where I was told going into it that we needed to include these three brands,” said Schollmeyer, who has worked for legacy magazines like Playboy, adding: “I don’t feel the same sort of pressures to make advertisers happy or get a bunch of garbage clicks in order to meet ad sales requirements of how many eyeballs need to see each page.”

But even if being backed by a business allows more time for editors to focus on high-quality stories, it may still require them to omit certain kinds of coverage. Van Winkle’s avoided writing about specific mattresses and bedding accessories. There are no razor reviews on MEL. And Real Life functions on a much higher plane than publications that might write a product comparison of Snapchat and Instagram Stories.

“We don’t really focus on original reporting, but instead mention products or companies as a way to get at larger social and cultural implications,” Real Life’s Jurgenson wrote to me in an email after declining an interview. “And those tend to avoid that kind of good-vs-bad framing. Being critical of social media, social photography, ephemerality etc. are well within the scope of what we do.” (The magazine has published stories that single out individual companies, but Snapchat hasn’t been one of them.)

On the other end of the startup-publishing spectrum is Here, a new project by the luggage company Away. The magazine’s editor, Ally Betker, did not explicitly address the issue of editorial independence in her inaugural letter, which included a first-person tale of roadtripping across the United States in a Volkswagen van and a story about an initiative in Nigeria that rehabilitates former Boko Haram members through boxing. She said she doesn’t think of the magazine as sponsored content, but because it frequently shares studio resources with the business side, her team often follows its lead.

“The magazine comes in suitcases,” she said. “I don’t think we’re trying to fool anyone here. But it’s also important that people know that it works both ways. Away is more than a luggage brand. They have opinions about travel, they have recommendations, and luggage is just one part of it.”

Away recently collaborated with Rashida Jones to design a line of pastel suitcases. For the product’s ad campaign, the company styled a photo shoot featuring the star posing with the luggage in Stockholm. Images from that shoot were also featured on the cover of and inside Here, but Betker omitted any shots of Jones with the product to avoid feeling too promotional. (Elsewhere in the magazine, different Away luggage appears in an editorial shoot in northern India alongside models.)

To that end, Here exists as pure lifestyle branding, aiming to communicate the appealing aesthetic and attitude of a young Away-toting adventurer rather than a critical, journalistic analysis of the world. “It’s more like it’s my job to think about what the brand is doing and if there is an editorial component to anything that the brand does,” Betker said. But even if it doesn’t take the same measures to assert its independence as Van Winkle’s or Real Life, the effect is similar. People who flip through the magazine will think more about travel and maybe even consider investing in a suitcase (if they haven’t already).

Disclosure is a constant fixation of traditional journalism, made all the more important because of the influx of sponsored content that is designed to blend in. “That’s the key thing,” said Marlene Neill, an assistant professor who teaches advertising classes at Baylor University’s Journalism, Public Relations, and New Media department. “That they’re straightforward with where the content is coming from and who’s paying for it.”

Because of the contextual clues of its distribution, Here need not paste a bright-yellow “SPON-CON” sticker on its cover for fear people won’t know its origins; sites like Goop or Of a Kind exist clearly as retail-first destinations. But a publication like MEL is trickier, at least to the media community, because its motivations and source of funding are much less explicitly communicated and thus easy to gloss over. As a journalist, I consume what is probably an unhealthy amount of news each day and am extremely conscious of where it comes from. And yet, until I began writing this story, I was unaware that MEL was a product of the Dollar Shave Club, which as of last year is a part of the multibillion-dollar corporation Unilever. The site’s “About” page says that it was “founded in 2015 in L.A. by Dollar Shave Club,” but that page isn’t easily accessible from its homepage. When it first launched as a newsletter, The Wall Street Journal noted that its labeling was similarly sparse. “As it stands now, readers might be unclear about MEL’s backers,” it wrote. “The first newsletter contains no branding for Dollar Shave Club. A terms of use page says the site is ‘owned or controlled by Dollar Shave Club’ doing business as MEL Industries.”

According to Schollmeyer, whatever difficulty I had discerning MEL’s origins has more to do with Medium’s lack of customization tools — preventing identifying information in its design — than it does any effort to hide its ownership. He said that despite that initial lack of branding in the newsletters, the email newsletter’s sign-up page was clear about Dollar Shave Club’s involvement. (The site’s weekly emails still don’t contain any disclosures.) But for the most part, he said he’s uninterested in considering these contextual distinctions.

“We try to be really honest about what we do, about everything,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a secret who our funder is. It’s not where my focus is either.”

Despite its minimal disclosure, MEL’s content doesn’t read as if it were in the pocket of Big Razor. Like any men’s lifestyle magazine worth its weight, its writing is funny, original, and frequently about penises. Its material is much more focused on the shifting identity of the modern male than it is on selling grooming products. The New York Times called it a “rare men’s magazine that has taken upon itself to investigate masculinity, not enforce it.” The handful of stories I found on the site that are related to shaving are trend pieces about what men are doing with their pubic and chest hair, which is fair game in a magazine read by men who probably have hair. (Dollar Shave Club relegates more obviously promotional how-to-groom content to its on-site publication, called Bathroom Minutes, which is also headed up by Schollmeyer.) The current and former MEL employees I interviewed said that the magazine’s staff has never appeared to do the bidding of Dollar Shave Club’s marketing team.

“It’s very separate,” said Zak Stone, a founding editor of MEL who now contributes on a freelance basis. “Compared to working at normal editorial publications, both legacy ones and startup-y ones, there was way more interference from the business side of things from those traditional publications than at this one. It is, and continues to be, very chill. There aren’t people on the business side sending angry emails saying, ‘How dare you talk about something like anal bleaching.’”

But in the capital-driven tech industry, the whole reason a startup exists is to get acquired or go public. Those changes typically introduce new leadership, and new leadership can change its mind anytime a company might be ailing. Without a public statement asserting a site’s editorial independence or mission, there’s no way for readers to know whether the intentions of the pieces they’re reading have changed behind the scenes — or if, perhaps more commonly, the project has been completely downsized for the sake of a budget. And as sites like these multiply and make their way into readers’ social news feeds, their opaque intentions and shifting goals may be even harder to track. As Koyen put it: “Most people aren’t looking at the About page to see who’s publishing what. People don’t care. They just want 500 words to read.”

If this lack of disclosure becomes the norm, it could open the floodgates for a new breed of sponsored content and, as a side effect, dry up funding structures that support ambitious journalism. This blurring of boundaries also means that startup-world darlings are the employers of writers who, in an alternate scenario, might otherwise be their critics. Silicon Valley may be home to creative benefactors who have the means to reshape the media industry but — as is typically the case in a culture that frequently aims to “move fast and break things” — it may not fully grasp the long-term consequences of its influence.

The Van Winkle’s that launched two years no longer exists. Krim’s original goal for it to publish more than 10 original pieces per day has been pared down to three to four stories a week. And the “in-depth features, hard-hitting investigative reports, columns, explainers, and product reviews” that were promised are now mostly limited to sleep research reports, conversations about sleep health with professionals, and the occasional musician-curated bedtime playlist. The varied bylines that appeared during Koyen’s time there have mostly been replaced by the name Theresa Fisher, the site’s main writer and editor. Even with all those changes, Fisher said the site remains editorially autonomous.

“We’re still just as committed to producing originally reported stories,” she told me in an email. “But we’ve decided to double down on quality versus quantity.”

As for the original editorial team, Spiers stopped advising Casper in May 2016 after it became clear that the original conception of the publication had run its natural course. “I think they got what they wanted out of it,” she said. “It wasn’t supposed to be enormous amounts of reach, but it sort of established that they had some authority in the sleep space. Sometimes you meet the objectives and it doesn’t make sense to keep expanding.” Spiers has since launched a virtual-reality-focused creative and research firm, the Insurrection. Last year, to expand the business’s reach, she also created her very own VR-specific publication, There Is Only R. She sees it as a way to learn about the industry she’s hoping to profit from. “We sort of used it to educate ourselves about what was happening in the industry and to build relationships,” she said. “People started to associate us with the VR industry itself.”

Koyen also departed Van Winkle’s, and because of a nondisclosure agreement he signed with Casper, he couldn’t comment on why he left. But he offered a general assessment of the funding model that Casper and others are testing.

“It’s probably a fucked experiment,” he told me. “I think we might look back on this and think, ‘Wow, remember that brand publishing thing, when people thought it was gonna be cool and independent? Huh, now it’s sort of just a corporate shilling.’”

Van Winkle’s and Oyster are the downside of startup publishing — examples of how brand-backed publications with ambitious goals can meet an abrupt or prolonged demise. Here offers the rosiest outlook: a very pretty print publication distributed in an era when that medium has been declared all but dead. (Even if it is peppered with the product of the company that’s funding it.) The still-operational Real Life and MEL occupy an uncertain middle ground, which very well may be a model for the future media landscape. “We set out to be the 21st-century men’s lifestyle publication, and that’s really what we’re looking to be,” Schollmeyer said. “I came from Playboy; I loved Esquire. They’re brands that have been around for 70 years. That’s my expectation.” In many ways it’s just the circle of media life, transferred — again — to Silicon Valley: Some experiments will peter out, others will sustain with a built-in customer base, some might even catch on as an example to follow. But there always have been, and always will be, complications posed by new benefactors.

“I’ve been in media for a decade now,” said one writer who has written for startup publications and asked not to named. “I’m always wary of everything collapsing into shit, so I know it’s Kool-Aid-drinky of me to say that I’m kind of optimistic these days. But I like what we’re doing and often barely remember who’s ultimately in charge. I guess that’s a Brave New World vs. 1984 problem and, like, a false sense of security, but you could do a lot worse in this industry.”

The Press Box

The Ezra Klein Heat Check, Peter King’s Exit, Vice’s Implosion, and the Allure of the First-Person Essay

The Bill Simmons Podcast

Best In-Person NBA Stars, Trickiest Playoff Teams, Jaylen Brown on Trial, and the Hottest Take With Ryen Russillo

The Fozcast

Freddie Ljungberg on Being an Invincible, Iconic Ads, and Arsenal’s Title Chances!

View all stories in Media