The News Project, a publishing technology startup founded by longtime media executive Merrill Brown, is preparing to launch its first website while completing a round of seed funding.
The company aims to put software tools into the hands of small- and medium-sized digital publishers that don’t have hundreds of thousands of dollars to sink into technology. The News Project also provides a suite of services to help sell advertising and subscriptions.
“The time is right for this kind of service, when there is an entrepreneurial news movement going on around the world,” Brown said in a phone interview this week. The collapse of big media organizations, daily metro newspapers and national news magazines has left “giant holes in our civic lives today.”
Next month, CALMatters, a nonprofit politics and policy website based in California, will showcase The News Project’s capabilities as the first organization to license its technology. The nonprofit reported revenue growth of 13% to $2.1 million in 2017, according to the latest tax filing posted on the CALMatters website. The group solicits donations from individuals, foundations and corporate sponsors.
In many ways, CALMatters is representative of the kind of the newsroom operations that Brown seeks to foster in communities that don’t have a reliable press watchdog.
The News Project’s key idea is to support news websites that can build an audience of 50,000 readers, willing to pay $2 a month on a subscription basis, which translates into $1.2 million a year in total revenue. That amount can support the cost of a small newsroom. Ad sales are another way to monetize digital content.
Businesses that license The News Project’s software get access to revenue tools such as Piano, which specializes in membership management, and Google Ad Manager, which consists of former services including DoubleClick for Publishers and DoubleClick Ad Exchange.
WordPress.com VIP, the hosting platform for enterprise and large-scale websites, this year invested in The News Project to help cultivate the market for news entrepreneurs.
“In this difficult business climate for news organizations, we want to double down on our commitment to journalism and a free (and sustainable) press,” Nick Gernert, CEO of WordPress.com VIP, said in a blog post announcing the investment.
The startup also received investments from Mark Walsh, a veteran tech investor, whose experience includes stints at America Online Inc. and VerticalNet; Steve Shepard, former editor of Businessweek; Larry Kramer, chairman of TheStreet.com; Terry Chadbrowe, co-founder-CEO, eMarketer and Crystal Gurin, former publisher of eMarketer.
Brown is an experienced reporter who worked for several newspapers, including The Washington Post. He helped to launch cable network Court TV and was the first editor in chief of MSNBC.com, the joint venture between NBC News and Microsoft Corp. MSNBC gave him an early glimpse of how technology was transforming news media.
And that was before Google and Facebook came to dominate the digital advertising market. Critics have blamed the companies for sucking the ad-revenue lifeblood out of news organizations while being indifferent to the spread of fake news, hate speech and dangerous conspiracy theories.
As part of its effort to quell negative publicity, Facebook recently pledged $300 million to support local journalism. The donation is admirable, but a healthy marketplace for journalism shouldn’t depend on the beneficence of a handful of corporate giants looking to cut their tax bills.
The News Project may help to tip the scales in the favor of smaller publishers and support a more sustainable environment for growth.