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The news startup scene is, thankfully, impressive. There are so many new startups that it becomes difficult to get a handle on the actual new companies being launched and what they hope to do.

Thus, here’s a brief guide outlining the four different kinds of news startups: content, curation, aggregation and social.

All are attracting investment — albeit for what I think are different reasons.

Content

Perhaps the most exciting for the news industry are startups focused on creating a wealth of original content. These sites actually have bonafide editorial staff.

There are so many examples that have gotten money — Buzzfeed with its $50 million funding round (with a total of $96 million raised); Ozy with $30 million from Axel Springer; Vox Media with another $61.1 million; and Vice with a ridiculous $580 million.

For whatever reason, venture capitalists are in the game for content: content is back and worth investing in. I’ve heard from each of the seven content startups I’ve spoken to that VCs finally believe that digital advertising may actually bring in money. But more often than not, some content sites are claiming that their underlying technology platform offers a competitive advantage that makes the company half tech and half media, such that the company no longer views itself as just content but product.

Curation

These startups are primarily geared toward repurposing content created by another news source. There is no original reporting taking place, but the content is indeed original. The startup is still creating original content though, actually crafting news content into original presentation.

For example, Circa offers — in chunks — up to 256-character summaries of news articles on your phone. There is an editorial team that is looking at wire services and other major news sites to gather both breaking news and explanatory content. This is then written up in an original way.

Other curation sites are focused on video. NowThis News used to offer original content, but executives made the decision that this simply wasn’t going to be as effective as taking content gathered elsewhere and shaping it up into bite-sized videos. The site now offers compelling, brief headlines to both serious news and unusual news like George W. Bush shared a bathroom with prostitutes.

A homegrown site to the Missouri School of Journalism, Newsy is also another curation site. Scripps recently bought Newsy for $35 million to help the company make the jump to more digital video.

My guess is that these sites are able to make the case to funders that they are not producing costly original content, and as a result, with a small staff can offer large amounts of daily content thanks to quality editing. And the hope, I think, is that with people surrounded by a plethora of options for news, each app will be the homing ground or first stop for busy people looking to catch up.

Aggregation

These startups are focused on taking news actually written by someone else and serving it up to readers. As I’ve written before in the Columbia Journalism Review, these apps (as they are mostly apps) pose some danger to traditional news outlets. Not only is there little linking, rare byline attribution or traffic pilfering, but these startups are investing heavily in personalization.

An aggregator that can personalize holds considerable promise as it offers sophisticated algorithms that can potentially better serve readers with content they want. Again, in the argument for one-stop shopping for content, aggregators bring together a wealth of sources in one set place. In leading examples such as Prismatic and News360, the algorithm is prompting investment, as is the low-cost promise of content delivered via personalization.

Social

These social startups rely on user-generated content for their existence. Without YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, these companies wouldn’t exist. The startups generally offer a platform to bring together user content and host this user content on their own systems.

Consider perhaps the first startup in this category, Storify. The startup offers literally a blank CMS giving anyone anywhere the chance to organize social media into a coherent story. This was created with news in mind, and journalists love it, but Storify is being used by all sorts of people and even brands.

Storyful, on the other hand, cuts out the work of news organizations by providing social media verification, though now it only does this for NewsCorp, which acquired it for $25 million. A team of social media verifiers search for citizen content to augment news events and then verifies it according to a variety of criteria. The social media is then transferred via the Storyful platform to the news property.

These social sites are not necessarily the darlings of VCs but instead have a business model where the most logical next step is acquisition by a major media company. This is an uncertain model to follow, especially given that major media companies may not have the spare cash to buy up these companies. On the other hand, the ability to host and verify citizen content seems to be a must for any news organization that actually has some regard for participatory content creation.

With these four categories in mind — content, curation, aggregation and social — we can see a breakdown of the landscape. Hopefully this makes it easier to see the different funding claims that each type of site offers to potential investors, and makes it easier for you to think about creating your own startup, perhaps investing, or simply choosing a new way to get your news.

Nikki Usher  
   
Nonresidential fellow


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