We are seeing a proliferation of media startups trying to innovate the news industry. But becoming the head honcho of these enterprises is sometimes a cryptic endeavour. Journalists who take to these roles will find it requires new and old skills. In this series, we talk to the CEOs of media startups of all sizes to demystify their job description and understand what they have learned in the role.
Next up is Frame, a US-based media company launched in 2019, which has since produced award-winning interactive and immersive journalism on the biggest news topics. Its features have covered US police reform, migrant journeys, QAnon and the list goes on.
It has raised close to $500k so far through investments with Snap Inc.'s Yellow Accelerator and Twitter co-founder Biz Stone. It has a membership programme on the horizon set to launch in early 2022 which will add another revenue stream on top of brand sponsorships and television and streaming deals.
The CEO, Ben Moe, started out in the industry as a video journalist at the news site Mic where he worked on short-form Facebook videos, producing multiple videos a day on topics ranging from social issues to human interest stories. One of the reasons he started Frame was to create a new kind of publication centred on human experiences which fully immerses viewers.
Before that, he started a literary magazine called Table Talk whilst studying, which discussed a single hard-to-describe human experience in each issue and it went on to be distributed in book stores internationally.
With a team of six, including part-time staff, Moe leads the company, manages team members to make sure they are meeting goals, develops partnerships (from securing brand sponsorships to working on deals with streaming platforms), and helps guide and maintain quality. Speaking to Journalism.co.uk, he reflects on his day-to-day responsibilities. The interview has been lightly edited for brevity.
What sort of important decisions do you need to make regularly? And what is your decision-making process?
I regularly need to decide what stories Frame is going to cover and how high impact each could be. I make editorial decisions by first assessing whether the story fits our mission of presenting news in innovative formats and covering underreported stories that help elucidate major social and political issues. Then I will consider how unique of an angle the story is and if it has a "zeitgeist-y" component that will help it gain traction on social media.
On a more macro level, I need to decide what initiatives our team is going to work on and if they will help us grow our audience and publication. I make these decisions in a similar manner, first running all of them through the prism of "Does this support our mission of using new storytelling formats to help people care more about the news?" Then I look at the project or initiative through a second layer, assessing whether it is the most direct path for us to expand Frame's reach and impact as a publication.
In the context of a startup, there are probably dozens of routes to the result you want for your company, but one could get you there in a month, while the others could take years.
What are the key challenges with running a media startup and your specific business? What is your problem-solving process?
Generating "hockey-stick" subscriber growth when you do not have the advertising budget or organic reach of legacy media companies.
We solve this by developing ways we can get Frame in front of millions of people both in the short- and long-term while continuing to expand our subscriber growth through organic virality and honing our marketing strategy.
What advice would you give for media startups to secure funding?
Investment in media startups has decreased since a peak in 2014/2015, when media companies like Group Nine Media, Vox, and BuzzFeed were raising hundreds of millions of dollars. If you are raising money for a new media company today, I would recommend differentiating yourself by developing both a compelling new storytelling format as well as hyper-focusing on a certain angle in the news and media landscape. For example, exposing the lesser-known sides of big issues like we focus on at Frame, or building a media brand for people interested in permaculture.
Also, do not just reach out to venture capitalists interested in media, but also angel investors who are passionate about the topics your media company covers. On the venture capital front, Eric Peckham's Monetizing Media has put together a helpful list of media-focused VCs.
What are the key skills needed to do your job? How do you work on them?
Deep work — carving out the space and time to think deeply and analytically about whether the decisions we are making bring us closer to our goals, and/or if there are things we are doing that feel productive, but really are not leading us to success. I try to make time each week to do this deep thinking and find that working through these ideas with pen and paper helps me slow down and see blind spots I had been missing.
What is one skill people might not expect you to need when becoming CEO?
This might come off as schmaltzy at first, but I think being able to be present and grounded in your everyday life is an essential quality for becoming a CEO.
If you are able to fully immerse yourself in whatever you are doing, whether it be taking in the sights, smells, and sounds of a city street, or really losing yourself in a conversation with a team member, it allows for two big things.
First, you gain an emotional authenticity that inspires people, since rather than repeating catchphrases you speak from a place of lived, grounded, emotional experience. Second, when you fully enter the present moment, whether it be brainstorming a new editorial series or talking with your team, it sparks the most unexpected and interesting ideas.
What advice would you give media professionals who aspire to become CEOs of startups?
Surround yourself with supportive and smart colleagues and mentors. When I started Frame, I was living at my grandmother's house in Princeton, New Jersey, and had a very small support system. Each day, I would have to psych myself up about Frame, and I could literally spend hours reminding myself why what I was building was important.
When our chief product officer Tom Barnes came on board, and later when we were accepted into Snap Inc.’s Yellow Accelerator, I found myself surrounded by people who believed in what we were building and a sort of multiplying effect took place, where their belief reinforced mine. Having a community of people who get excited with you, make your ideas better, and lift your ambitions, I truly believe is the key to successful CEOs and successful companies. You need to have that undying belief in yourself and your idea, but you cannot sustain it and grow it alone.
Would you like to contribute to our series? Get in touch with us today