Even casual consumers of media news have heard of Ezra Klein and Nate Silver, two names that are now synonymous with the future of journalism. Their startups, Vox and FiveThirtyEight, are being closely watched as examples of what happens when journalists leave the mainstream-media nest and try to do things differently, on their own. But ask those same news consumers to name a woman who’s founded a media startup, and chances are you’d be met with a blank stare. Or maybe a shrug and “Arianna Huffington?”
Yes, women are still underrepresented and underappreciated in the media startup world, but the truth is women are founding their own digital media companies. The problem is that they are largely absent from the buzzy narrative about entrepreneurs leaving the confines of traditional journalism.
“The idea is that tech companies have a woman problem and these new startups have a woman problem,” says Melissa Bell, a cofounder of Vox. “But wait a sec, I’m the technologist and a woman.” After a Guardian story framed a series of new startups, including Vox, as boys’ clubs, Bell pushed back. Despite media narratives that have erased her from the equation, Bell is an equal cofounder. “It’s kind of a chicken and egg thing,” she says. “Is it the media’s fault for picking up on Ezra? Is it my fault for not speaking up?”
Sometimes the lack of visibility has real consequences. Startups live and die by their ability to secure funding, and the money doesn’t always flow to those with the most innovative ideas or the tightest business plans. “I know women who have seen dude-run startups offering very similar products successfully close rounds of funding with no troubles,” says Erin Polgreen, founder of Symbolia, a tablet magazine that uses the graphic-novel format to tell journalistic stories. “It’s about who you know. I worry about that in our future.”
Polgreen notes that her first investors were programs dedicated to women’s entrepreneurship in media—the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Women Entrepreneurs in Digital News and J-Lab’s New Media Women Entrepreneurs—which have been vital sources of seed money for many women who’ve left more secure, traditional media jobs to forge their own journalistic experiments. But when it comes to funders that aren’t specifically looking for women entrepreneurs, the most talked-about startups are often the first to find institutional support and investment dollars. Not to mention a head start when it comes to the sort of marketing necessary to attract readers in the first few months after launching. Funding often follows visibility, which is why trend stories and lists of media entrepreneurs matter, even though they can seem like vanity projects.
So let’s discuss the women who are out there with their own media startups. Their biographies share much in common with more venerated media darlings. Most began their careers with stints at major newspapers, cable news outlets, or magazines before securing funding to start their own innovative media companies. The only difference is they haven’t showed up in many media-entrepreneurship trend stories—yet.
Melissa Bell, Vox
After the coverage of Vox’s launch focused heavily on her co-founders, Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias, “I felt like maybe me not talking about my role was part of the problem,” Bell says, “that I hadn’t been asserting the fact that I was a founder, that I hadn’t been asserting the fact that this was my idea along with Ezra.” Vox aims “to deliver a lot of contextual information that traditional news stories aren’t designed to carry.” As executive editor and senior project manager, her role is heavily editorial but also technical. “The more we can wrap the technology and editorial production together, the better our storytelling tools will be,” Bell says.
Erin Polgreen, Symbolia
Launched in late 2012, Symbolia combines reporting with illustration to tell stories visually. “People know us,” says founder Erin Polgreen. “At the same time, I also feel like the quirky kid sister. Not only are we scrappy and bootstrapping it, we hybridize art and journalism. Sometimes it makes us hard to categorize and sell.” But when people learn about Symbolia, they’re fascinated. No one else is doing anything quite like it.
Lara Setrakian, News Deeply
A former Middle East correspondent for ABC News, Lara Setrakian founded Syria Deeply to experiment with storytelling innovation around a global crisis. Bridging the newsroom and the classroom, Setrakian is applying the infatuation with explainer-style journalism to a single big news story. “We had this really cool opportunity to approach news in a way that was focused on the user,” she told Rookie magazine in February. With News Deeply, she’ll be applying those tools to telling other big news stories, too.