21st-Century Journalism

The Entrepreneur’s Drunken Walk Is Paved With Good Intentions

Google and Facebook are the two biggest media institutions in America today. Neither likes to be called a media company, but together they command the lion’s share of online advertising and dominate the distribution of information.

Neither Google (search engine, garage, 1998) nor Facebook (social network, dorm room, 2004) set out to become a media company, but startups have to figure out what people need and who will pay for it. Both companies provide many benefits to society, but they have also made it harder to sort out reliable news from misinformation while making it easier to mislead people. The same can be said of Twitter — which is why lawyers from all three companies are appearing before Congress this week to account for how they enabled Russia to influence the 2016 election.

So how do we do better next time? Congress and the European Union may want to rein in these tech giants, but another option is to build new companies that will do better.

Matter is a venture capital fund that is looking to answer the question, “What if we tried to build the next great, meaningful media institutions from scratch?” It looks for startups that represent possible answers and invites them into a 20-week accelerator program to teach them how to be entrepreneurs. Corey Ford, the managing partner of Matter, is fond of saying that entrepreneurs are on a “drunken walk,” experimenting all over the place until they figure out what works.

At Matter’s recent Demo Day, twelve graduates gave a six-minute spiel that is somewhere between a TED Talk and a fundraising pitch. In among the VCs were dozens of mentors to the startups as well as executives from the Associated Press, newspaper publishers, public broadcasters, and other media companies that are partners of Matter. (The Knight Foundation is both a Matter partner and a supporter of Journalism + Design.)

A couple of the accelerees I’d come across before. The Establishment is one of many online magazines that wants to be “a truly safe space for diverse creators”; hosted on Medium, it has been testing a membership model. The last time I tried Purple, it delivered news in chat form via Facebook Messenger, but it presented a paid subscription news service delivered over SMS.

The rest of the companies were new to me, and not strictly speaking journalism, although some will be useful to journalists. Vigilant wants to be a single portal for searching public databases. When Kim Hansen of the podcast-sharing app Gretta asked, “How many of you listen to podcasts?” almost every hand in the room went up.

Others are further afield. Dada uses the blockchain to sell digital art in limited editions. Multimer uses biometric sensors to improve mapping and spatial design. In the Room, which has been piloted on campuses in Nashville, is a social network based on physical proximity.

Most of the startups announced something that they hoped was newsworthy: new customers and partners, plans to ship new hardware, a discounted token presale for their ICO. Rewire, which wants to make it simpler to use encrypted email, announced that Chelsea Manning was on their advisory board — and in the audience. The biggest applause came when the startups got specific about revenue or boasted of high rates of engagement and retention.

Before the presentations, Corey Ford talked at length about Matter’s latest cohort as a response to the failures of media in the 2016 election.

In light of this, I wish more of the founders had talked about ways they anticipated people might misuse the media institutions they are building. For example, geotargeting could help you identify nearby friends with shared interests, but the military uses it to track and kill people.

Having worked at startups, I know that misuse is not what founders want to talk about in front of people who might invest in your company. But the misuse of media is an urgent conversation today in the United States and other democratic societies.

The drunken walk is hard, and entrepreneurs can get lost along the way. The compromises are rarely as obvious as killing. Plenty of companies set out to make tools for journalists or citizens and end up making tools for marketers. Business models lead to choices that increase the noise instead of sharpening the signal.

This week’s hearings, and the dysfunctional information ecosystem that provoked them, are a reminder that it’s not enough to mean well. Utopian thinking inspired the horrors of the 20th century. For a long time, Google used the slogan “Don’t Be Evil,” but they don’t anymore. Matter’s tagline is “Changing media for good,” but where will the drunken walk lead? Like the road to hell, it is paved with good intentions.