Pando

With $4.7M in new funding, the Dodo wants to build a new kind of environmental site for the social age

By David Holmes , written on September 12, 2014

From The News Desk

If you visit TheDodo.com right now, you'll see headlines like "Feisty Bulldog Puppy Takes On A New Enemy: The Ice Cube"; "9 Dogs and Babies Who Are Having Important Coversations"; and "Bat Causes Sheer Pandemonium During Local TV Newscast." It's the kind of light, clickable content that seems to dominate Facebook feeds, optimized for that network's viral video-friendly algorithms.

But you'll also see articles like "Exclusive: SeaWorld Animal Care Vets On Diving With Angry Dolphins And A Traumatic Sea Lion Death," "Climate Change Hits Sharks' Key Body Part," and "U.S. State Dept. Sued Over Keystone Pipeline's 'Severe' Impacts On Wildlife."

It's a similar high-low strategy to the ones we've seen at places like Buzzfeed and Huffington Post (which shares a founder with the Dodo in Kenneth Lerer), where Sideboob listicles sit alongside deep investigative reporting and analysis. The theory is that the monumental traffic gains from the less substantive content will help support the more expensive, less-read, and less-advertiser-friendly investigative stories that can have real "impact." Some might find the combination jarring, but to paraphrase Jonah Peretti, who cofounded both of those sites, if you take a break from reading Sartre to pet a cute dog, it doesn't make you stupid.

But there's a key difference between the Dodo and these other sites. While a quiz that asks, "What 'Friends' Character Are You?" doesn't make you want to read a deep dive into the struggles of Guantanamo Bay prisoners, these Dodo clips of a bear cub playing on a putting green might make you more likely to click on an article about bears losing their habitats thanks to climate change. To expand on Peretti's metaphor, it's like the cute dog is reading Sartre to you.

"I don't think you can build a brand without both," Lerer told me over the phone. And now with $4.7 million in new funding from RRE Ventures, Greycroft Partners, Softbank Capital, and Discovery, the Dodo will expand its editorial team to produce even more investigative reporting.

In addition to being an investor, Discovery will also launch a content partnership with the Dodo, trading stories and posting on one another's sites.

"I think that we can help Discovery a lot in the social web aspect in the world, and I think they can help us in the video aspect," Lerer says.

The Dodo, which launched in January, has arrived at an uncertain time for environmental reporting. Despite mounting warnings over climate change by scientists around the world, not to mention the fact that nine of the ten hottest years since recordkeeping began in 1880 have occurred in this century, newspaper coverage of climate change has dropped significantly since 2009. Last year, in a controversial move, the New York Times closed its environmental desk and shut down its Green blog. And while the Times claimed there would still be plenty of environmental reporting in other verticals, climate change coverage dropped precipitously in the six months since shutting down the dedicated blogs.

Meanwhile, perhaps the most well-known blog dedicated to environmental reporting is Grist. But that site often takes a snarky, Gawker-esque approach which, while fine for bitching about celebrities, seems to hurt the debate over environmental issues by preaching to the choir and alienating everyone else. Furthermore, much of its GMO coverage has been wildly irresponsible and out of balance. (Disclosure:I once wrote a thing about bikes for Grist).

Over at Greenfriar, an excellent new nature site that sadly hasn't published since June, there's a great article called "Millennials Don't Call Themselves 'Environmentalists,' But They Are." In short, young people care about the environment, but they don't feel the need to identify themselves as such. It's among these readers that the Dodo can really make an impact -- a young person may not seek out a self-described "environmental blog." But if the Dodo can get the masses through the door with cute animal videos (which, while not exactly Pulitzer-worthy, aren't hurting the world either), and then serve up relevant, thought-provoking investigative pieces, it can hopefully bring similar levels of virality to stories of animal abuse or climate change.

As for how the Dodo plans to make money, Lerer says its commercial offerings will likely take the form of native advertising, sponsorships, and commerce partnerships. It almost certainly won't be homepage banner ads. In fact, the entire site is built on RebelMouse, a "social CMS" that creates homepages out of social media activity, not the other way around. It's part of the Dodo's social-first mentality.

"When I launched the Huffington Post, a very significant amount of the traffic came in the front door," Lerer says. "Today you can't really built a content site unless it comes through the backdoor, and that means the social web. So you have to build these sites with the social web in mind from day one, and mobile in mind from day one."

Hey, if goofy bear videos can help spread awareness over environmental and animal rights issues, I'll take it.

[image via Museum of Natural History, London]