Pando

How health site "The Mighty" thinks it can build the next big content platform without selling its soul to Facebook

By David Holmes , written on May 21, 2015

From The News Desk

When Mike Porath's daughter was diagnosed with a chromosome disorder that includes autism and other challenges, he spent a lot of time on WebMD.

"But WebMD didn’t cover the day-to-day challenges and the emotional side," said Porath. There was no digital equivalent, he felt, to the indispensable routine of talking to other families that are going through the same thing. And so with a CV that includes being editor-in-chief at AOL, an executive at SpinMedia, and a journalist for the New York Times and NBC News, Porath felt he had the content and platform chops to build the solution himself.

Enter The Mighty: A content site based in Los Angeles designed for "a community of people who are thrown a curveball." And today it's announcing a $2.5 million seed round led by Upfront Ventures.

The Mighty's stories are produced by a small staff of journalists and a larger network of unpaid contributors, not unlike early iterations of Huffington Post and Bleacher Report. The pieces are made up primarily of personal essays, advice tips, and stories of inspiration: items on the homepage right now include, "I Have a Son With Autism and Don't Know What's Best For Him," "The Secret Way I Get My Son With Special Needs To Brush His Teeth," and "She's 26, Lives With Williams Syndrome, and Has Her Own Successful Business." And to give you an idea of how these stories are resonating, Porath says the site attracted 30 million visitors in its first year and 20 million over the last six months.

"For a long time I believed in contributor networks as a business model," Porath said. "Why this works for us is we’re based on experiences and those are unique to individuals." That means the contributions on the Mighty aren't simply rewrites of the day's news or embed posts of the most popular videos on Reddit or YouTube that any J-School intern could write. The content here is made up of truly unique stories readers can't find anywhere else and that can't be easily reaggregated by competitors.

The words "unpaid contributors," however, should come as a red flag for many media observers. Sites that scale affordably on freely provided content -- whether that means a social network like Facebook or a more traditional media site Bleacher Report -- have rightly come under scrutiny. In the Mighty's case, this concern is arguably amplified by the fact that these writers are in emotionally and financially vulnerable positions, and nobody wants to be accused of taking advantage of these contributors. But Porath argues that, unlike something like Bleacher Report where the contributors are aspiring journalists whose career is in writing, his contributors truly want to tell their stories on a platform that can amplify these pieces of content to large audiences. None of them have asked about payment, he says, and if any do ask about compensation, it's in the form of charitable donations.

"Once we have revenue we can start distributing that to non-profits where a percentage of the revenue can flow back into the non-profit of [the writer's] choice."

As for how the Mighty plans to bring in that revenue, Porath says they'll be running ads from consumer brands and pharmaceutical companies.

"Health brings in much higher ad rates," Porath says, explaining how WebMD has been able to achieve the same revenues as sites with far greater traffic. After all, a reader on a story about a very specific disorder is likely in a very specific market for health products. "If you think about it from a pharmaceutical perspective, if they’re able to basically get a new client, someone who is using their drug. that person may use their drug for the next 20 years. That rate is much much higher than if you are selling soap."

Along with the issue of unpaid contributors, there's another concern about I have about the Mighty: Accuracy. If an unpaid contributor at, say, Buzzfeed writes a misinformed article about Buffy the Vampire Slayer there's no harm except maybe to Sarah Michelle Gellar's pride. But if an unpaid contributor at the Mighty writes about, I don't know, vaccines, and communicates misinformation, is there an editorial process in place to catch any outright falsehoods?

Porath assures me that nothing goes on the site without first being factchecked by his editorial staff, which he plans to expand with the new seed round. That's reassuring, though it's worth noting that when it comes to health stories, even an outlet as prestigious and well-respected as the New York Times makes mistakes.

Concerns aside, Porath's model is undoubtedly compelling: A passionate community of readers and writers, a vertical that brings in ad dollars as higher rates than others, and content that can't be found anywhere else. Porath is so confident that he's not striking the devil's bargain with Facebook that so many other content properties have struck.

"Many other sites are paying Facebook to boost stories to get traffic. We are not. As we grow, we're becoming less dependent on Facebook."

Hey, if the Mighty can show a provable content model without being beholden to Facebook, that will be a boon in and of itself.

[illustration by Brad Jonas]