On the Red Couch with Mic Co-Founder Jake Horowitz
Gabriella Schwarz / April 27, 2016
Mic, which is now on Flipboard, was founded in 2011 by Jake Horowitz and Chris Altchek as a news source by millennials and for millennials. It’s since grown to a destination across 10 verticals reaching 30 million people each month. Mic’s founders are proud of their largely millennial staff, based in New York, that covers everything from changing voting demographics to hoodies with the same level of in-depth reporting. In a newsroom The New York Times compared to a “middle-school fraternity house,” Horowitz said Mic has only started “scratching the surface” of what they can do.
We spoke to Horowitz about Mic’s origins, why millennials get a bad rap, and how he’s “balancing traffic and brand.”
What was the void you wanted to fill when you launched Mic?
When we were thinking about starting Mic, we were looking at the millennial generation—so the generation of Americans between ages 18 to 35—and what we were seeing was that this is a generation that has a very distinct worldview. This is a broad generalization, but it can be described as skeptical but optimistic and entrepreneurial and diverse and educated and checking the news on their phone multiple times a day. We felt like there was an opportunity to build a media company that has a voice and tells stories in a voice that’s tailored to this demographic, which is unique and sees the world differently.
The other interesting piece, which obviously Flipboard plays a major role in, is this is a generation that consumes news very differently. Long gone are the days when young people are buying physical copies of newspapers. We knew that in this digital distribution revolution that we’re in, where people are now getting their news from Periscope and Facebook Live and Instagram and Facebook in very new and revolutionary ways, there was an opportunity to also think creatively about the way that we produce news and the way that we reach our demographic. So that’s really why we got so excited to build Mic.
Why did you think you were the one that could make this a success?
There are a lot of people who try to reach millennials. But we don’t sit in a room and sort of strategize about how to talk to young voters or how to talk to young readers or viewers. We are young. The staff here is predominantly millennial, and we work hard to hire diverse voices who have an ear to the ground about the discussions and debates and important conversations that are happening around their dinner tables and friend groups. We try to really reflect those conversations in our coverage.
I think you’ve seen that a few times in Mic coverage where we’ve really been ahead of major trends, whether it was writing about trans issues before Caitlyn Jenner was on the front cover of a magazine or writing about youth support for Bernie Sanders before the media caught on. We felt confident in building and assembling a team of young hungry reporters to have a pulse on what’s happening.
Much attention has been paid to the culture at Mic. What do you look for in potential employees? Are there common characteristics that unite the staff other than age?
Definitely. Diversity is incredibly important to us and has been a big part of our focus, just assembling a really diverse newsroom that reflects how diverse the millennial generation is and being able to be part of conversations around race or feminism or LGBT rights or a number of the seminal identity politics debates of our generation.
The other things is it’s a really exciting time to be a digital journalist. When you’re out in the field it’s no longer just writing a 2,000- or 3,000-word story. It’s also thinking about video, and it’s also experimenting on Facebook Live. It’s also tweeting and posting on Instagram. One of the things that we look for is people who are super creative and willing to try lots of things. When our politics reporters go to political rallies they’re not just writing. They’re also interviewing young voters on Facebook Live about why they’re at a Trump rally and what they’re looking to hear from the candidate. We recently interviewed Vice President Joe Biden about campus sexual assault, and we took a really creative approach. We did a host of different written stories, our social team was posting different nuggets across Instagram and Tumblr. We look for folks who are creative and excited and willing to experiment in different types of storytelling.
You talk about staff diversity but Mic also has story diversity: serious policy stories and lighter fun stories. How do you draw the line between what readers should know and what they want to click on?
As a news outlet you have to have tentpole initiatives and stories that you believe your audience really needs to know and needs to care about. And you need to go after them. You need to think about how to tell them creatively. We’ve found that if you do that you can find distribution for things that people might not think you could. I think one of the prevailing stereotypes of this generation is that it’s only the light and fluffy entertaining stuff that resonates, and we’ve actually found the opposite.
In December I actually went to Lesbos, Greece, and I reported on the refugee crisis. I went to the beaches and saw the boats coming in and did Periscope reporting and Instagram photos and did a whole host of different types of storytelling. We actually found that those videos and my reporting really resonated. We had readers email us and say, “Hey, we went to go volunteer in Greece and work to prevent an ongoing humanitarian crisis as a result of the coverage.” The campus sexual assault package that I just mentioned, you might not think that’s the most clickable thing but it’s something we felt was so important for our audience given how many people who read Mic are on college campuses or recent graduates.
Obviously we’re a metrics and data-driven newsroom and you have to be. And obviously we’re paying very close attention to where our readers are and what they want, and we’re building franchises around those. But we’re also saying here are the things that we think are really important and we’re going after them no matter if they drive huge amounts of traffic or they just end up driving a lot of attention for our brand.
Why do you think this generation gets a bad rap?
Like every stereotype, there are always grains of truth in broad portraits of a generation. I mean is this generation taking selfies? Yes. Is this generation addicted to their phones? Of course. Are we checking the news 25+ times a day on our phones, too? Yes. Because the news and our social lives are becoming blended. Our Facebook feed shows important things happening in the world just as it shows your friend’s photos from the party over the weekend and your family’s recent baby announcement. So I think there’s always a tendency to paint in broad strokes about who the generation is, and it’s markedly different than previous generations, so obviously there’s inclinations to talk about millennials in a certain fashion. But I think what we’ve found is that within all of that you can leverage the fact that we’re so connected on technology and leverage the fact that we’re literally updating and checking our phones so often to actually provide a real benefit for building a digital media company.
Your headlines definitely have their own tone. What have you learned about headline writing or the importance of grabbing people’s attention?
We’re living in a distributed landscape where you’re living on people’s feeds across different social platforms. Driving attention and getting people to read your stories is a core part of our job as journalists. We want to make sure that when we do these big interviews, when we produce these big shows, it’s packaged in such a way that it maximizes the exposure and the amount of people that they reach.
So headlines are a big part of that, frankly. Photos are a huge part of it. Teasers and blurbs are a huge part of it. And we have an incredible team here, our audience team, where we have specific folks within the audience team who are devoted to understanding different platforms…That may mean a single story has many different packagings depending on what kind of social platform it’s living on.
What do you hope Mic brings to election coverage? What most excites or interests you about how you’ll be covering the campaign?
It’s obviously been an exciting one up until now. I think the election is really a great opportunity for Mic to really pursue the strategy which I just layed out. A great example is The Movement, a show that is hosted by Darnell Moore, who’s one of our on-camera personalities who focuses in particular on race, on Black Lives Matter, on criminal justice reform and on issues of social justice and equality. He’s been going all over the country and he’s been interviewing people in their communities about the way that they are pursuing social justice reform and really trying to lift up the voices of marginalized communities that may be not getting the recognition that they deserve. He’s gone to places like Camden, and he’s gone to Newark and Detroit and New Orleans and Mississippi. He’s going all over the country, and he’s really showcasing stories that are very core to who our readers are that we feel are important. Now that doesn’t mean again, that we’re going to drive millions and millions and millions of views for the show, but it means that we think this is a core thing that we want to be known for, and we’re going to pursue it over the course of the election.
There are so many political reporters out there. Our reporters are really trying to use these platforms, like Facebook Live or Periscope, or use creative storytelling and try to nail creative interviews with not just the actual politicians but also with 26-year-old voters to try to make sure our coverage feels different and that it reflects where our audience is. Our generation is so engaged, and we care deeply about this election. But we care deeply about the issues, and we really don’t want to get lost in the horse race of what’s up and what’s down, what’s happening in D.C. We’re trying to reflect that as we go to these places. It’s a long election. It’s the first big one that we’ve covered. So there’s a lot of experimentation. And so you’ll see different things in the next three months or six months than you see today, and I think that’s a good thing.
What’s your news diet throughout the day?
My news diet throughout the day is I’ve been consumed most recently with lots of reading about global affairs. Over the last four to five months I’ve taken a number of reporting trips—one to Cuba, where I reported on President Obama’s historic visit, as I mentioned I was in Lesbos, Greece, I was in Jordan on the border between Jordan and Syria—I was reporting on what’s happening in the refugee camps there. I was in Israel, where I interviewed Shimon Peres about U.S.-Israel relations and where he sees things going. So a lot of my reading and news diet has been reading Jeffrey Goldberg’s Obama interview in The Atlantic and sort of understanding how President Obama thinks about foreign policy, reading a number of the seminal pieces that have come out of the Panama Papers and the reporting that the intercepts have done on what’s happening in Brazil ahead of the Olympics.
Having really just been all around the world, I’m more convinced than ever that this generation, because of technology, is so connected more so than any other. And what was so striking—I went to Ramallah, in Palestine, and I interviewed a young activist who said he’s been watching the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S. and taking inspiration. Or in Cuba interviewing an LGBT activist who said the same sex marriage movement helped inspire how he thinks about bringing about change in Cuba. So it’s really exciting to see that interconnectivity…I think it’s really important that in today’s day and age Mic represent and tells stories about U.S.-based issues, but also about what’s happening in the world, too.
Building a news brand in this day and age is about balancing traffic and brand. It’s not just about who can reach the most people. If everybody worried about that then it would be a race to the bottom. And you have to take the stories that you think are really really important and that your readers think are important and go after them.
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