Disruption from the inside: Media companies seek hope in incubators
The word “disruption” is enough to make a traditional media organization either puke or squirm. Puke, because many people, media folks especially, are sick of the cliche; and squirm, because it usually means that they – organizations that are heavy on legacy and light on innovation – are the ones most vulnerable to the effects of the digitally-instigated industry shakeup that “disruptors” both promulgate and benefit from. Those effects are tangible. Take, for instance, Time Inc, which just a couple of weeks ago laid off 500 staffers, or the New York Times, which has lost of some its top editors and reporters in a continuing round of buy-outs.
So it’s significant that some media organizations are stepping up to claim a piece of the disruption for themselves. In December, we reported on the arrival of Matter, an incubator for nurturing startups focused on public media. Last March, Turner launched an accelerator called Media Camp, which invests in and advises media startups and entrepreneurs.
In London, BBC Worldwide has its own accelerator, BBC Worldwide Labs, a six-month program that currently houses six early stage companies. A couple of days ago, Labs celebrated its first success story: Foodity. The startup signed a deal to integrate its auto-generated shopping lists software into the BBC's GoodFood website. BBC Worldwide doesn't take any equity in the startups it incubates, but it provides free office space and access to executives for advice. The objective of Labs is to forge commercial deals with the companies once they graduate from the program.
In the coming weeks, BBC Worldwide will launch a New York office for Labs. Once it does so, it will be competing for talent with the New York Times, which a few weeks ago decided it would get in on the incubator action, too. It has announced TimeSpace, a four-month program for between three and five media-focused startups.
Aron Pilhofer, editor of interactive news at the Times and head of the newsroom side of TimeSpace, says the company has been paying attention to Turner's Media Camp, and to similar programs at the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Boston Globe. Then, when Matter launched in San Francisco, the trend became clearer. “We all looked at that and thought that was quite interesting as well,” says Pilhofer of Matter’s launch. “There’s a lot of momentum in this direction right now and the potential outcomes are huge.”
As well as having early access to products and services built by the companies incubated in TimesSpace, teams on the business side and in the newsroom, will be exposed to something perhaps even more important: fresh thinking. “For the technology part of the team, a lot of the best ideas that we have for new ways to do storytelling, new ways to approach some of the projects that we do, are inspired by what we see outside the journalism world,” says Pilhofer. It might turn out that the most important benefits to the Times are cultural, he says.
“In general there’s a recognition, which I share, that many of the answers we are all seeking about the future of news and journalism are not going to come from within the four walls of newsrooms like this one,” he says. “We have a lot to learn and there’s no reason we should not open the doors somewhat to companies that are doing innovative things.”
Companies that are accepted into TimeSpace will get desk space in the New York Times building as well as access to key decision makers for advice, mentorship, and partnership opportunities. The Times won’t be taking equity in the startups, but it isn’t ruling out later investing in any that show extraordinary potential. The startups potentially also get the chance to expose their products to, and learn from, the Times’ audience of 1.5 million print and digital subscribers, if the circumstances make sense.
On its call for applications, the Times says it is interested in companies that have raised at least seed-stage funding and focus on mobile, social, video, advertising technology, analytics, or ecommerce.
“We’re not really looking for a content company,” Pilhofer says. “We’re not looking for the next BuzzFeed necessarily. We’re looking for the next Chute or SocialFlow.” Chute is a San Francisco-based startup that provides a system for building rich-media apps and sites. It is backed by $2.72 million in venture funding. SocialFlow, which has offices in New York and San Francisco, is backed by $7 million of venture funding and analyzes social content in real-time.
The final details of exactly how the program will work are not yet fully determined, but Pilhofer hopes the startups and the Times can learn from each other. Applications for the program close on February 19, and Pilhofer says their number so far has been "unbelievable." Last time he checked, more than 200 applicants put their names forward.
TimeSpace alone won't solve the challenges that the Times faces in turning itself into an innovative newsroom. For one, it is still having trouble figuring out a workable social media policy for its journalists. And while the interactive Snow Fall feature was a landmark in digital journalism, that sucker took six months and 16 people to create. At that pace, that resource-sapping achievement is not eminently replicable.
But opening itself up to new energy and new ideas certainly can't hurt – at least in theory. Indeed, Pilhofer refers to TimeSpace as an "experiment." And, hey, the company should have plenty of desk space right about now. That, alas, is the painful effect of "disruption." The Times will be hoping that disruption looks a lot friendlier when it's happening under its own roof.