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Nov. 13, 2015, 9:45 a.m.
Audience & Social

With a focus on college-educated millennials, Mic’s new executive editor wants to improve the site’s editorial standards

“I care about the news, and I have a lot of news left in me, and it’s wonderful to grow a new news audience,” says Madhulika Sikka, who joined Mic in September.

In June, after Mic announced that it had hired Madhulika Sikka to run its newsroom as executive editor, CEO and co-founder Chris Altchek told Capital New York that, as executive editor of NPR, Sikka “really helped make that place young and cool again.”

MadhulikaSikka_TwitterNow Sikka will have nearly the opposite task at Mic: To expand its coverage and implement more stringent editorial standards. Earlier this year, the company dealt with highly public plagiarism allegations and reported dissatisfaction among the editorial staff. Sikka started at Mic in September and, since then, has been making an effort to get to know the newsroom while also putting new editing structures into place. In the coming months, Sikka plans to continue to build out Mic’s investigative and enterprise reporting efforts.

Sikka said she hopes to use the relative youth of Mic’s staff, which is comprised mostly of college-educated millennials, to relate with its readership.

“College debt is a huge issue, and one that isn’t talked about in a lot of newsrooms because most newsrooms are not full of people with college debt,” she said. “My newsroom is full of people with college debt. They’re living it, and so are their friends.”

Sikka and I spoke last week (with a Mic spokeswoman listening in on the call) and a condensed and lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Joseph Lichterman: What have the last couple of months been like? What have been your priorities so far?

Madhulika Sikka: It’s been great. On some days, I feel like there’s so much to take in I’m drinking from a firehose. Other days, I feel like I’m taking a step forward, which makes me feel really good.

I’m focused on upping the quality of the stories and the reporting, and even in the short time that I’ve been here, I’ve been impressed with the newsroom’s embrace of wanting to become better and wanting to differentiate from the crowd. I’ve also spent time trying to get to know people.

Lichterman: What have been some of the surprises and new things you’ve had to confront?

Sikka: The biggest difference from my past career is that when you’re at an organization that hasn’t been around for a very long time, you build the structures as you go along. In some ways, we move incredibly fast because we don’t have an infrastructure in place that has been around for a long time. That means that on many days you can make things happen really quickly without too much angst, and without being meetinged-to-death.

Another advantage of being a young company is that we’re small enough that we’re still all in the same room. We all have eye contact with each other, and it’s a little looser in terms of structure.

Lichterman: Are there any specific projects that you’ve been focusing on?

Sikka: What I really wanted to focus on was just having a good relationship with the reporters and editors, to make sure that they have ambition. It’s very exciting for someone like me — I was going to say at my age, but scratch that — someone of my experience to be in a newsroom of people who have less experience but who want to be in a newsroom and are excited to be there. It’s a terrific atmosphere to be in. They’re very hungry to learn and to push themselves.

We’re not covering politics the way a Politico or a Washington Post would cover politics. We’re much more focused on the things that will resonate with our audience, and I’ve been impressed with how our political reporters have stepped up to the challenge. It’s looking at policy and not getting too stuck in the weeds on the day-to-day machinations of the campaigns, but being a little more issue-focused. We’ve done some very good reporting on issues like minimum wage and income inequality, as opposed to going into one more round of who said this about that.

We’ve expanding our coverage in tech, science, and health.

We’re also implementing a little more rigor into our reporting, upping the number of editors, and taking a much tighter look at the stories that we’re doing.

In the newsroom, we’ve implemented Mic Story of the Day. When we pick the story, we give it a big push on all our social platforms and on the homepage. I’m really pleased with how that is working. It’s made everyone up their game, but it’s not competition in the newsroom for competition’s sake.

Lichterman: You also said when you were first hired that you wanted to focus on enterprise and investigative coverage.

Sikka: It’s an opportunity for us to differentiate. There’s a lot of news out there, a lot of topics that don’t get covered as well as they should, and the trick for any news organization is to balance the things that people are interested in with the things that people didn’t know they were interested in but will respond well to if you put it in front of them.

In the Mic of six or eight months ago, there probably wouldn’t have been a story about your old graphing calculator and why it’s so expensive. But it was a story that did phenomenally well. Another one we had a few weeks ago looked at what we called the 19th-century origins of the meme Netflix and Chill. It had a lot of historical research, went back to 19th-century etchings, and brought us all the way back up to present-day Netflix and Chill. It did really well. Both of the stories that I cited were Mic Stories of the Day, and examples of the kind of things we want to showcase in addition to churning out the daily news.

Lichterman: One of Mic’s aims is to be a voice for the younger generation. NPR, meanwhile, has younger listeners digitally, but its broadcast audience is older. What’s it like for you to now try and reach these younger readers?

Sikka: It’s quite fascinating. I’m learning a lot. I like to think I’m not a complete old fogey. I have children who are 16 and 18, so I feel invested in the pop culture, technological world we live in.

We’re very much going for the 40 million college-educated millennials. For me, the exciting challenge is to reach the next great news audience. I want to grow this audience. What better challenge than to come to a place where I can do that? I care about the news, and I have a lot of news left in me.

Lichterman: You’d mentioned you want to expand Mic’s video offerings. How are you going to do that?

Sikka: We’re still at the early stages of our video offerings, but in the spring before I got here, we started with a couple of series. Flip the Script does phenomenally well, and season 2 is coming soon to a device near you. And we just completed a series on technology.

Video is going to be huge for us. It’s a market that hasn’t been fully tapped yet, and I want to dive in full-on. But we’re not focused on video for video’s sake. We want to be discerning about the kinds of things we focus on and try to differentiate ourselves from the crowd.

Lichterman: So how do you do that?

Sikka: There’s some interest in deep dives in some areas. We’re launching a series in the new year that is an example of looking at one person at a time, making a difference as opposed to just skimming the surface. We’re digging down a little deeper.

We are experimenting with a new daily news offering that we hope will not be a collection of headlines, but again, picking one thing from the day and focusing on that a little more. We’ve learned a lot from the efforts we’ve made this year. There’s a misconception that this demographic doesn’t care about news and isn’t interested in in-depth news. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

We did an interview with the president this summer on the Iran deal. It was very successful, and people appreciated it because it was a deep dive into one issue as opposed to the rat-a-tat of things that come up to you in today’s news environment. In that video, we engaged people and told them what we were talking about. We had young people ask questions, got them on video, and showed them to the president on an iPad. We had someone from Iran, someone from Israel, a young person from the States, and we had 2 million visitors to that page, which is pretty impressive for a 15-minute video about the Iran deal.

The other thing is that this generation accesses way more news than I ever did at that age, just because of technology. There’s a lot of opportunity there.

Lichterman: People are spending a ton of time on mobile. Mic launched its first app, Mic Check, earlier this year. How are you thinking of incorporating other platforms, whether they’re native or distributed platforms, in trying to reach audiences on mobile? For example, yes, there was a 15-minute video with the president, but there were also shorter videos to highlight the interview.

Sikka: Absolutely. That’s what you have to do. You have to produce for the particular distribution channels at hand. You’re not doing yourselves any favors if you’re not thinking about them from across all platforms and delivering them in a way that makes sense for that platform.

Some people think, oh, the story is what matters, and you need to be platform-agnostic. I don’t believe in platform-agnostic, I believe in platform-appropriate. We’ll be having a big push on a wide variety of channels to reach people where they are. Many people would be surprised to hear that Tumblr is one of our most successful distribution platforms.

Lichterman: Really?

Sikka: Yes, that was my reaction exactly when I came here. Really? Tumblr? We have somebody on staff whose sole job is the Mic Tumblr page. He is an expert. He knows what he’s doing, he knows how to recraft the work that we’ve done for a Tumblr audience, and we will see that replicated across a lot of different platforms.

POSTED     Nov. 13, 2015, 9:45 a.m.
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