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.
Mary Borkowski, Jennifer Bernstein, and Rachel Rosenfelt,
The New Inquiry
The New Inquiry is an intellectual heir to the most venerated literary criticism publications. But this monthly magazine, founded by three women, isn’t afraid of the digital realm—both practically and in the subject matter it grapples with. Monthly digital subscriptions are available on the cheap (just $2 an issue), but all content is available for free. It’s got the intellectual heft of older publications like The New York Review of Books but without the stuffy tone or bias against pop culture.
Laura Poitras, The Intercept
One of three founding editors of national-security-focused digital magazine The Intercept, Laura Poitras is also a Peabody Award-winning documentary filmmaker. While the focus tends to land on Glenn Greenwald’s role in publicizing the NSA leaks, Poitras was one of the initial group of journalists to meet with Edward Snowden. The Intercept will flood the zone on the NSA story, then perhaps branch out from there.
Mallory Ortberg and Nicole Cliffe, The Toast
Whereas most women-centric sites, the sort of modern answer to traditional glossies, are published by larger companies—or by men (Jezebel, The Hairpin, Bustle, Slate) The Toast is an independent, wickedly funny take on the ladyblog. Founders Mallory Ortberg and Nicole Cliffe sought to create “a place where women who are not all white and under thirty and straight and living in New York City are also writing about ‘Battlestar Galactica’ and ‘Sherlock’ and which BB creams work for them, and their friendships and the time they broke their arm playing field hockey.” Not only have they proved that a site doesn’t have to be bro-friendly to be hilarious, they have an enviable editorial voice that’s strong but doesn’t feel contrived.
Kelly Virella, The Urban Thinker
A digital magazine dedicated to longform examination of the African American experience, The Urban Thinker was founded by investigative reporter Kelly Virella with support from the International Women’s Media Foundation. She hopes to launch it later this year.
Sarah Lacy, PandoDaily
After AOL purchased TechCrunch in 2010 and took the blog in a direction she didn’t like, writer Sarah Lacy decided to do her own thing. The resulting site, Pando Daily, aims to be the site of record for the startup world, Lacy wrote in a 2012 post announcing the launch. She already boasts an impressive list of investors. And while the site has often stoked controversy in both the media and tech worlds, by all accounts she’s had an impact on the beat she set out to cover.
Bonnie Wolf, Carol Guensburg, Domenica Marchetti, and Michele Kayal, American Food Roots
The four founders of American Food Roots “combine rigorous reporting with recipes and stories from home cooks (that’s you), new and established immigrant communities (that’s you, too) as well as unpublished materials from US archives.” It’s an example of a new, narrative take on a niche issue, and it’s brought to you by veterans of The New York Times, The Washington Post, Gourmet, and National Public Radio.
Tavi Gevinson, Rookie
The teenage fashion blogger-turned-publisher runs what is arguably the best publication for teenage girls, because it’s also by teenage girls. Organized around a monthly theme, the site abandons the quizzes and prom-dress spreads on traditional teen magazines in favor of provocative essays, playlists, and fashion layouts that speak to the Tumblr generation. While Gevinson has made headlines for her fashion-forwardness, her celebrity connections, and her forays into Hollywood, she’s rarely credited with founding the best magazine of her generation (so far), a publication that filled a major hole in the media ecosystem: a smart, well-edited publication that doesn’t try to talk down or pander to the teenage readers it targets.