In August, I wrote about FailFaire, a recurring event in the nonprofit industry that revisited projectsa gone wrong in order to prevent future mistakes. I thought it would be a great idea for the news industry to do the same, to encourage more innovative experiments while learning from the ones that didn’t make it.
One of the most spectacular failures I mentioned—spectacular in terms of its ratio of hype-to-lifespan—was NewsTilt. A platform for independent journalists to “brand themselves” and monetize their writing, NewsTilt closed its doors mere weeks after its launch. What could have gone so badly, so quickly? One of its co-founders, Paul Biggar, wrote a very lengthy and thoughtful post on that very topic on Thursday, answering my questions before I got the chance to ask them. (H/t Peter Kafka at AllThingsDigital.)
The summary at the top of Biggar’s post pretty much sets the tone: “Following the launch, everything started going to shit.” The takeaway: the biggest two problems NewsTilt had were communication issues between Biggar and his co-founder Nathan Chong that made it impossible for them to work together, and complete ignorance about how to deliver what they had promised to their journalists and their audience.
The whole piece (on his personal blog, Bad Nomenclature) is an interesting read, very analytical and honest. Biggar basically throws up his hands and admits that he was totally unqualified to make this project work. Which takes a lot of guts. Here’s the summary he gives at the top:
NewsLabs failed because of internal problems and problems with the NewsTilt product. NewsTilt failed because:
* journalists stopped posting content,
* we never had a large number of readers
* we were very slow to produce the features we had promised,
* we did not have the money to fix the issues with NewsTilt, and it would have been tough to raise more.
None of these problems should have been unassailable, which leads us to why NewsLabs failed as a company:
* Nathan and I had major communication problems,
* we weren’t intrinsically motivated by news and journalism,
* making a new product required changes we could not make,
* our motivation to make a successful company got destroyed by all of the above.
But when Biggar gets into specifics, he has a lot of salient points; the first being that they picked the wrong kind of journalist to provide their content. The content they got was long, leisurely, and infrequent.
Somewhat surprisingly, the journalists we picked were too good. We made a big deal of only hiring the “best journalists”, something we spent a great deal of time getting right. We had a guy with a Pulitzer, one with an Emmy, and overall a great deal of talent writing for us.
In hindsight, this may have been a big mistake. The kind of writer we actually needed was one that was hungry to succeed. Someone who would write five pieces a day, and who wanted nothing more than to be a big-time journalist.
Here’s where he gets really honest:
The fact that we didn’t know anything about our readers’ demographics underscores another problem: I don’t understand news readers. I certainly wasn’t one, and I didn’t know many people who really were. My customer development had largely consisted of talking to journalists and figuring out what they wanted. I never really–despite good intentions on lots of occasions–talked to people who loved news about why they loved it. So I was unable to say what was going wrong and why people weren’t sticking around.
The major reason the journalists bailed was that we failed them. We didn’t deliver the things that we said we would, and we wasted the content they provided.
One part of the service we offered was that we would get the journalists traffic. Whooops! Getting traffic is really really difficult. We completely underestimated how difficult it would be, largely because I’d never had a problem with it in the past. When I’ve needed to promote some pieces I’ve written, I simply submitted them to Hacker News and Proggit. However, that doesn’t generalise in any way.
In the end, after an rigorous amount of self-analysis, much of it personal (including the thought that it could have helped if he had rescheduled his wedding), Biggar concludes that the idea of NewsTilt is still a good one, a way for journalists to empower themselves. At least, it’s an obviously attractive one to the journalists he exclusively spoke to (see above). But they weren’t the people to do it:
Despite everything that went wrong, I’m pretty sure that what we set out to do can be accomplished, though perhaps not by us. It is certainly the product that journalists want, but simply one we were unable to deliver.
On Friday, Christopher Lloyd, a NewsTilt contributor, responded to Biggar’s post. He specifically attacks Biggar’s argument that having experienced journalists was a detriment, saying that hiring hungry “newbies” to churn out click-grabby posts would turn NewsTilt into “the content farm you claim to abhor.” Good point, but it’s not surprising that Biggar doesn’t grasp that quality journalism takes time: he already said he doesn’t read the news.
Here’s the meat of Lloyd’s takedown of Biggar’s post-mortem, and it’s (of course) about money:
I sense that you and Nathan believe yourselves to have done a tremendously honorable thing by returning the remaining 20 grand of your start-up funds to your investors. No doubt they’re happy to have it back, and should be thanked for putting it up.
Personally, I think the money would have been much better spent compensating the people contributing to the site.
I regard you and Nathan as decent chaps who had good intentions. But from my perspective, you violated the primary principle of what you claimed NewsTilt was about: Putting journalists first. It’s all very well to claim that in abstract. But when it came time to (literally) put your money where your mouth was, once again journalists found themselves at the back of the line.
That’s just my two cents worth. Which, of course, is a pair of pennies more than anyone who wrote for NewsTilt ever received.
(Ouch.)Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner