Media for the Modern Age

Start-ups, the Big Apple, and some artery-clogging pizza.

The smell of greasy pizza from the “best place in the neighborhood” filled the minimalist-chic room. The snap of opened La Croix cans echoed softly. Phrases like “natural language processing” and “trend analysis” floated through the air. The Pioneer was officially in Manhattan. Specifically, we were visiting the headquarters of Parse.ly, a company that provides content optimization for online publishers. Seated around this lunch of carbs and La Croix, Parse.ly staff and The Pioneer discussed the future of media and what our producers wanted from a future career.

Kelsey Arendt, the company’s Senior Success Manager, listened thoughtfully as we spoke of our hopes to do something meaningful and innovative in the media world. Though she was speaking for a company that focused on data analytics, Kelsey felt the same way we did– that breaking the cycle of trends and clicks would be essential for future media companies. 

As more and more companies become “data driven”, the distinction of which data sets are most valuable becomes more critical than ever. In today’s clickbait and “fake news” dominated culture, many media companies have directed their content towards maximizing how often their article, video, or website is visited. However, this statistic says very little about the actual quality of the content, or whether an audience will regard the source as worth revisiting.

This is where Parse.ly comes in.

Kelsey explained how the Parse.ly aims to provide data points that aren’t only focused on the number of clicks, but other factors such as total engagement-time, audience loyalty, and social shares. Using this information, companies obtain a more rounded understanding of which pieces of content are truly valued by their audience. And, hopefully, Parse.ly’s work will help give honest and responsible content providers a stronger online presence.  

This discussion of data and journalism’s ethics continued onto the subway, where we realized we had all been thinking the same thing: how different this was to our visit to NowThis News, which had occurred only a few hours earlier.

The group at the NowThis headquarters

Unless you have abandoned social media altogether, there’s a good chance that you’ve encountered NowThis’s short, mobile-device oriented videos. With each employee producing two a day, the company’s content strategy is notably quantity-focused. While ranging in the usual span of topics such as sports, finance, and entertainment, NowThis stands out in two key aspects.

Firstly, the content provider lacks any sort of personal platform. Rather than trying to market their own website, NowThis distributes its videos on the already heavily-trafficked avenues of social media. Their presence is most apparent on Facebook and Instagram.

The second distinction separating the company in a such a saturated media environment is the untraditional way in which producers source their information. Rather than relying on conventional news outlets for breaking stories, NowThis turns to the likes of Twitter and Reddit to uncover headlines before they surface on mainstream media. Of course, this requires that all videos produced must undergo a heavy legal review before they are published, as these sites can be speculative and questionable at the best of times. Despite this, such a method allows NowThis to produce content that is extremely resonant with their target audience of younger, left-leaning adults.

The direct juxtaposition between NowThis’s content and the content that Parse.ly is trying to promote was made all the more obvious when one producer mentioned that the NowThis rarely looks at the comment section beneath their posts. The company does not take into consideration the response their videos elicit, but rather, their capacity to go viral.

While neither type of data-driven content can be definitively considered “good” or “bad”, it did make our trip to the final media company of the day all the more interesting.

Everything about The Outline headquarters screams start-up. But after just a single visit to their eccentric website, one would expect little else. In a manner quite oppositional to NowThis, the year-old publication targets a very niche audience of readers through providing coverage of “underreported” stories almost exclusively through their website. These articles are funneled into the three topics of “power”, “culture”, and “the future”. The Pioneer was able to sit in on a meeting and observe as the producers bounced ideas between each other concerning HBO’s Westworld, what should not be on the blockchain, and a podcast about the NFL’s welcoming of male cheerleaders.

Despite the clear differences audience and mission statements, one thread of commonality underlies both NowThis and The Outline. Being the young companies they are, both have tailored their content to be extremely mobile-friendly. Where NowThis uses square videos with built-in subtitles (for those times you forget headphones), The Outline’s interface is designed to be swiped through and interacted with. Although The Outline is decidedly a more “engagement time” driven company, the importance of a seamless tech experience is not lost on them.

If the distinctness of each company taught The Pioneer anything, it’s that there is no one correct way to produce interesting, reliable, and popular media.

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About The Pioneer + HackCville

The Pioneer is the publication of HackCville. All of our producers are either current students or graduates of HackCville’s media education programs.

Our producers develop skills in modern media production through publishing stories about creative, civic, and entrepreneurial innovators in the University of Virginia and greater Charlottesville community. Learn more →

HackCville develops the skills, networks, and entrepreneurial ability of talented U.Va. students. We accelerate our students’ ideas, projects, and startups through our experiential programs and tight-knit community. More about us →

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