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Sept. 25, 2017, 9 a.m.
Business Models

With Old Town Media, three former Politico execs want to help publishers figure out the future

The company is a little difficult to describe, but its mission is less so: to help a wide variety of news organizations develop new ideas, be more efficient, and build new ways to stay in business.

Old Town Media, the new company founded by a trio of ex-Politico execs, defies easy categorization. One part venture firm, one part creative agency, joined with a dash of content studio and sprinkling of recruitment firm, the company formed earlier this year to build new media platforms and help existing companies design new projects that they might struggle to develop alone internally.

Driving the project, explained Tom McGeveran, one of the company’s partners, is a larger desire to help a wide variety of media companies and journalism organizations develop viable business models, improve operational and editorial efficiencies, and recruit talent. And the company is betting that the shared expertise of its founders will give it a unique expertise on the topics: McGeveran and Josh Benson founded Capital New York in 2010 before selling the company to Politico three years later. The pair are joined by Katherine Lehr, former vice president of operations at Politico and the chief operating officer of Medium’s now-defunct spinoff Matter Studios.

“We have been interested in being more involved in the macroeconomic picture for journalism in a way that you can’t be when you’re working for any one publisher or publication or any one situation,” McGeveran said. “I’d always been interested in doing as many projects as possible that set out new models for journalism. For us, something like this felt very natural.”

McGeveran pointed to three of the core strengths that Old Town Media offers to the companies it works with. One, he said, is the founders’ experience recruiting and nurturing journalists, particularly those who are undervalued in the market. Much of the groundwork that Old Town Media does is on this front, helping connect reporters to companies that need talent to staff projects. There’s also their experience in “developing sub-projects that support broader editorial programs,” as McGeveran explained, in addition to, of course, their experience with launching, growing, and successfully exiting their own company.

The lack of clarity about the company’s message to the market, as mentioned above, hasn’t impeded its ability to attract companies to work with. Even in its early months, Old Town Media has amassed a small but diverse set of early projects that together offer some insight into the wide variety of work the company says it’s capable of doing.

One project is Galley, a subscription-based news and communication app designed to offer journalists a new way to talk to their members. Reporters can sign up to be “anchors” on the platform, where they can host discussion threads and develop what the company calls “high-trust networks.” Josh Young, CEO of Pack Technologies, the company partnering on the project, said there’s a clear connection between his company’s ambitions and Old Town Media. “Their mission is to clear away all the bullshit that fouls up the relationship between journalists and readers, and that’s what Pack’s all about too,” he said in an email. “When readers listen to journalists, journalists listen to readers, and readers listen to readers — and all in one place — the difference between the two kinds of actors diminishes somewhat, and the result is a community that’s really vibrant and valuable.”

The collective experience of Old Town Media has also been vital to the company’s work with Civil, the recently launched venture aiming to use blockchain tech to help individual reporters connect with and raise money from readers. (We covered its launch in June.) Most of Old Town’s work with Civil so far has been focused on the company’s First Fleet project, where it is recruiting journalists to join the network. It’s doing similar work with Pack. (Old Town Media has taken equity positions in both Pack and Civil.)

Old Town Media — it’s named for the New York City bar — is also working with Medium and education site Chalkbeat on subscription and expansion projects, respectively, though it it isn’t able to publicly share the specific nature of that work, thanks to confidentiality agreements.

McGeveran said that tying all of these projects together is the understanding that journalists and the organizations that support them face an ever-increasing set of demands. This is forcing Old Town Media and others in the industry to embrace more creative solutions, largely in an effort to, as McGeveran said, “preserve the standards of journalism while cutting away, as much as you can cut away, anything that isn’t the journalists and readers and the people who facilitate their relationship. How can we streamline things so that the most important elements of journalism — supporting journalists so that they can support readers — are preserved, and every other associated expense is, as much as possible, eliminated?”

Ultimately, while Old Town Media will only be able to work with a small percentage of media companies, it hopes to extend its influence beyond those partners. McGeveran is particularly interested in working with companies that are comfortable being transparent about their projects, even those that don’t work.

“It would really be better for everyone if there was more openness in the industry about what works and doesn’t work,” McGeveran said. “That’s where I think we can have real influence.”

Photo of Old Town Bar by Jazz Guy used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Sept. 25, 2017, 9 a.m.
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