COLLEGE
02/16/2016 12:48 pm ET

These Startups Want To Create College Media Powerhouses

Several new websites are challenging "dinosaurs" at campus newspapers, as they overhaul reporting on campus.
Jack Rivlin, co-founder of The Tab, at left, stands in their Brooklyn office below pennants representing the campuses wh
Tyler Kingkade/The Huffington Post
Jack Rivlin, co-founder of The Tab, at left, stands in their Brooklyn office below pennants representing the campuses where they have writers. 

A goalie chugging a beer at a hockey game would not be the top story for a traditional college newspaper, but a website like The Tab knows Internet gold when they see it.

The Tab's editor at the University of Virginia obtained a copy of a four-second video of the hockey team's goalie having a beer on ice and posted it to the website's Facebook page. It soon went viral, and sports blogs and major news outlets picked it up

Major outlets like The New York TimesAdWeek and Britain's Daily Mail joined local papers in citing reports by The Tab's writers from other campuses -- including one about a Dartmouth College protest and an interview with the person who made a fake "White Student Union." 

And there are plenty of personal essays on The Tab vying to be the next viral "dad bod" column, that appeared in March 2015 in the Odyssey, a similar startup that college writers populated. (The Tab currently has declarations like "The rise of the dad hat" and "Let’s stop calling it 'the walk of shame.'") 

This is the new college media world: a trend of quickly growing startups, fueled by investors and seed money, running entirely on content that college students and fans of the provocative create.

In the past couple of years, websites like The Tab, the Odyssey, Spoon University and FlockU began to create a foothold in collegiate life and culture, just as student newspapers have scaled back. A small, central staff of professionals runs each outlet, while students write all of the articles. Some sites pay and some don't. But each say they can offer a more unfiltered view of collegiate life and a larger platform for writers, with potential connections to professional media outlets. 

FlockU president Zanny Oltman said that existing publications were highly filtered. "The idea behind creating FlockU was to fill a void in the media space for college students," she told The Huffington Post. "We consider ourselves a destination where students can come and really discuss their lives in an unfiltered way." 

The Tab's style of reporting is different from most college newspapers; they're like a campus version of Vice Media, a bit more edgy and often written in the first person, mixing opinion with local news and reporters' experiences. 

"In the college media landscape, there are a lot of dinosaurs, there's a lot of people who still focus on the print paper, they're way too into styles which are now out of date, and they're a bit elitist," The Tab editor-in-chief and co-founder Jack Rivlin told HuffPost.

As of February, The Tab had raised $4 million and reached 45 American campuses, 46 British universities and one Canadian school. FlockU rolled out a relaunch last week after spending most of the fall semester touring campuses to recruit students. The Odyssey collected about $3 million in funding last year, while Spoon U raised $2.7 million in summer 2015, both to continue fueling expansions.

The homepage of The Tab on Feb. 15, 2015. 
The Tab
The homepage of The Tab on Feb. 15, 2015. 

Only a few years ago, the consensus was that students preferred printed papers over their campus newspaper's website -- even as daily newspaper circulation nationwide declined significantly

That calculous changed for college newspapers largely due to the growth of smartphones, which made social media available at all times, and allowed for the rise for new platforms like Snapchat and Yik Yak. By 2014, even elite student papers like the Columbia Daily Spectator announced they were cutting back their print publication. Smaller papers cut printed editions altogether.

These startups won't replace traditional campus newspapers, said Gary Kayye, who teaches at the University of North Carolina journalism school, but that doesn't mean they won't have an impact.

"It'd be short-sighted and downright naive to think that these types of publications won't have any effect," he told HuffPost. "The plethora of campus newspapers that are owned by campuses need to seriously join the digital age and certainly the mobile age."

With everyone jockeying for attention in the same space -- social media -- it has offered an opening for outsiders like FlockU or The Tab.  

A couple dozen editors work from The Tab's office in the northern end of Williamsburg, a neighborhood of Brooklyn.
Tyler Kingkade/The Huffington Post
A couple dozen editors work from The Tab's office in the northern end of Williamsburg, a neighborhood of Brooklyn.

Rivlin and George Marangos-Gilks started The Tab as students at Britain's Cambridge University in 2009, trying to cover more of student life than the campus newspapers, which often focused on national and global issues. Rivlin spent a brief time working as a professional reporter in London after leaving Cambridge, before he and Marangos-Gilks, who handles the business side, raised enough money from investors in the U.K. to work on outlet full-time. 

In 2015, The Tab began working on an American expansion. A handful of its editors came over from England, but the rest of the couple dozen staff members in the Williamsburg, Brooklyn, office are recent graduates from the United States.

The Tab's writers on campus are not paid for their work, but Rivlin said they're provided with analytics, editing and guidance on story ideas. They are experimenting with cash bonuses if students' stories do well to "share in the benefits of our growth," he added. 

We're very adamant about trying to build value for these students other than money Mackenzie Barth, co-founder of Spoon University

"Fundamentally, this is a talent network of reporters," Rivlin said. "It's a newsroom that's distributed across two countries -- hopefully plenty more countries -- and we are constantly thinking of ways to help our existing reporters and editors publish more, but also to help people who wouldn't write, who wouldn't login to WordPress to write a whole story, but who might send a photo or send a video that could be a news story."

Spoon University doesn't pay either, but Mackenzie Barth, its CEO and co-founder, said writers get more out of training and exposure.

"We're very adamant about trying to build value for these students other than money," she told HuffPost. "I think once you introduce money, the incentive changes and we've held that idea pretty strongly over the last couple of years."

Sarah Adler, left, and Mackenzie Barth, right, speak during an event in Washington, D.C. in 2015 about Spoon University, the
Courtesy Photo
Sarah Adler, left, and Mackenzie Barth, right, speak during an event in Washington, D.C. in 2015 about Spoon University, the website they co-founded. 

Spoon U started similar to The Tab -- Barth and Sarah Adler co-founded it as undergrads, originally as a print magazine about food at Northwestern University. After amassing a staff on campus of more than 100, and receiving interest from students at five other universities to start their own versions, Adler and Barth felt like they should try to continue building Spoon as a website post-graduation. 

They worked out of an apartment for a few months until they got accepted into Techstars in 2015, which offered them a bootcamp in running a startup and introduced them to potential investors. Now with a Manhattan office and hiring budget for the professional staff, Barth said Spoon is on track to add as many as 60 new campus chapters by April, on top of the 110 existing ones. They're considering expanding outside of food to write about similar topics like health and travel, and are focusing on adding more video content. 

It's not about churning out an unlimited number of articles, Barth said, because Spoon works from the idea that "quality is so much more important than quantity." 

The homepage of FlockU on Feb. 15, 2015. 
FlockU
The homepage of FlockU on Feb. 15, 2015. 

The Philadelphia-based FlockU pays $50 per article through Venmo to each of its 300 student writers, or "Flockers." The Odyssey, based in Indianapolis and New York, pays a small amount to its campus editors. 

FlockU isn't raising money right now, but it has a revenue model based on marketing partnerships, and Oltman said they're being "very selective" about brands they work with. Caroline Weller, the site's managing editor, said they want to make the website feel like a "members only club for college students," more akin to Reddit than a newspaper.

"I'm for it, with caution," said University of Southern California journalism professor Robert Hernandez, in reference to whether students should write for these sites. Hernandez said that he worries about students being exploited for unpaid content, but "sometimes you do the ones that don't pay and the trade-off is it's great for exposure."

Another bonus, outlets like The Tab can offer, are that they are financially independent and can't be bullied by university PR offices -- there are no faculty advisers that administrators can pressure

"We represent students," Rivlin declared. "I have no interest in doing institutions or authorities any favors. I'm happy to have a cordial relationship, but if they do something wrong, we want to be the first to report it."

 

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Tyler Kingkade is a national reporter that covers higher education and millennials. You can reach him at tyler.kingkade@huffingtonpost.com, or on Twitter: @tylerkingkade

 

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