Web Masters Episode #76: Mike Davidson


Anybody Remember Newsvine?. My first social network wasn't… | by Keith D.  Wilson | Medium

Mike Davidson:

I think journalists, for the most part, are severely underpaid, as are teachers. And so we’re setting up this system where some of the best people in the world, the best journalists, the best would be journalists, the best would be teachers, end up going into other fields, because they pay a lot better and they just want to be able to support their family. And so, as a technologist, as somebody who’s interested, who will always be interested, in advancement of high quality journalism around the world, I think it’s imperative for us to keep thinking about ways to make the economics of this all work. Because we don’t want to end up in a world in which all of the good information, real information is behind a pay wall. Right? And all of the kind of bad information is not. Because then you get the rich people who are willing to pay for news, finding out the truth about the world, and the people who aren’t willing to pay for news, or aren’t able to pay for news, end up getting all of the manipulative stuff that isn’t true.

Aaron Dinin:

Unless you’re one of those severely underpaid journalists or running a company me that employs them, the economics of journalism are probably not a topic you think much about, but maybe you should. It impacts all of us a lot more than we tend to realize. After all, journalists are content creators. And thanks to the internet, they’ve got lots of competition for our eyeballs, or in the case of podcasts, I guess I should say, they’ve got competition for our ears. Anyway, the point is, when the world wide web came along, it dramatically impacted journalism. Recognizing these changes, the guest on this episode of Web Masters, wondered if journalism might be able to benefit from a different type of business model. What if you could make anyone a journalist and pay them for efforts? That man is Mike Davidson, and he helped build Newsvine, a news website powered by citizen journalists, who were compensated for their contributions. Are you ready to hear the story let’s get dialed in.

[INTRO]

Aaron Dinin:

Hi there and welcome to Web Masters. You found yourself listening to the podcast that teaches about entrepreneurship, with a tasty side of internet history, by sharing conversations with some of the web’s most impactful innovators. I am your host. My name is Aaron Dinin. I’m a software engineer, serial entrepreneur, and tech enthusiast. And yeah, I also teach entrepreneurship at Duke University. The focus of most of my academic work is media scholarship, specifically social media. Because of that, Newsvine is, for me, a fascinating subject. Founded in 2005, it sat right at the messy early intersections of traditional news media and social media. It’s an intersection that still, to this day, so many years later, is actually probably more fraught than it was even back then. And we’re going to dive into that on this episode, right after I take a minute to tell you about our sponsor.

Web Masters is built with the support of our partner and sponsor Latona’s. Latona’s is a boutique mergers and acquisitions broker that helps people buy and sell cash flow positive internet businesses and digital assets. That includes news websites, and really media websites of all sorts. It also includes SAS apps, Amazon FBAs, Shopify stores, e-commerce sites, domain portfolios, really any type of online work, from anywhere, internet business you can come up with. Basically, if it’s a profitable online company and you’re thinking of selling it, you should be thinking of Latona’s. They’re experts at selling internet businesses, and they’re going to help make the entire process as simple as possible. They also make buying internet businesses easy. So easy, in fact, you can get started right now. Just head on over to the Latona’s website, where you can browse listings for all of the profitable internet businesses they’re currently helping to sell. That website is latonas.com, LATONAS.com.

The term creator economy is a bit of a buzzword of the current social media dominated world. And for good reason, social media content creators have become some of the most impactful voices of the digital age. But creators and a creator economy certainly aren’t new. From poets to playwrights to painters, creators have been dominating the media landscape for centuries, millennia, really. In this context, paid journalists are a relatively new type of creator. We could probably date them back in their modern form to the early 1800s, and the age of the penny press. That’s when media entrepreneur, Benjamin Day, launched the New York Sun, which was the first paper to produce daily news stories about what might be called ordinary events. Things like local happenings, crimes deaths, et cetera.

The New York Sun and other penny presses created the daily news cycle, and the speed at which news gets published. And as importantly, who gets to publish it, has only increased from there. This evolution brought us, eventually, to a site like Newsvine. Newsvine was founded in 2005 by this episode’s guest, Mike Davidson, along with his co-founders Calvin Tang, Lance Anderson and Mark Budos. And since it’s been a little while since Newsvine’s heyday, let’s take a moment to let Mike describe what it was.

Mike Davidson:

So one day I came up with the idea for, what then became known as Newsvine. Newsvine was essentially a people powered version of NBC news, CNN, Wall Street Journal, ESPN, et cetera. And the original idea was, we were just going to do it for sports only. So we were going to create a citizen powered, sports only, journalism site. And if you look at the landscape today, it’s kind of what sports SB Nation into. Right? So SB Nation is this great network of sports sites now, and the people that write for SB Nation are sports fans. They’re homers, by design. Right? I live in Seattle and I’m a big Seahawks fan. When the Seahawks game is over, I don’t go to espn.com to read the summary of it. Right.? I don’t go to the Seattle Times to read the summary of it.

I go to Field Gulls, which is our local SB Nation site. And I love to read the readers’ takes. Jacson Bevens is one of the best writers over there right now. He writes the recap of the game from the standpoint of a guy sitting in the end zone, drinking beer, enjoying the game. And that was always kind of our vision for what Newsvine could be. Early on in development, we saw the potential for it to go far beyond sports. And so we ended up going from being a sports only journalism site to a catchall journalism site, that covered all sorts of topics, from sports to world news, to US news, to technology, to entertainment.

Aaron Dinin:

And how quickly did it take for this version of news to catch on with people and become something they either wanted to read or contribute to?

Mike Davidson:

Let’s see, we started building the site in 2005. Took us about six months, I believe, to go from first line of code to out in the world. And yeah, we launched with all topics, and to our surprise, the topic that took off, I think the quickest, was politics, honestly, because this was sort of right at the beginning of the race for the next presidency. So this was when John McCain battled Barack Obama for that 2008 presidential bid. It was four of us to start. We expanded to six or seven people fairly quickly. I took a few of the best people that I worked with at ESPN to build this thing. We built it on essentially one machine. This was before AWS even existed, so there it was, just sitting there, in a Linux machine, in the corner of our office for a little while. Then we co-located it inside of a local facility, inside of Seattle. Had it running on a handful of servers. And we scaled up to several million people pretty quickly.

Aaron Dinin:

So from idea to millions of users within a year. Not bad. Newsvine was named the top news site of 2006, and one of the 50 best websites of 2007, by Time Magazine. In other words, the idea behind Newsvine caught on quickly, which is actually interesting, considering how much trouble Mike originally had getting it started. You see, when he initially pitched the idea, he was working for a major media outlet, and rather than launch it himself, he was trying to convince his bosses to launch it.

Mike Davidson:

I took a job at ESPN in 2000 and I started designing for Disney and ESPN. We designed the first ever standards compliant, redesign of a major media website and ESPN in 2003, as well as a bunch of other cool projects around Disney. And late towards my time at ESPN, I started to see the explosion of user generated content on the internet. In the early days of the internet, it was a lot of professional journalists essentially publishing the same stories that they would publish in print, but on the internet. And with the emergence of blogs and the emergence of citizen journalism, I thought to myself, there are so many people in the world who have amazing stories to tell, but they have nowhere to tell it.

And so I pitched this idea to ESPN several times, Hey, we have this giant sports site with all of these sports journalists. And we have all of these sports fans, rabid sports fans, who are all fans of different teams. Why don’t we give them a platform to publish content, to write stories, about a trip to a no-hitter they just experienced, or what they think of what their favorite team did in the off season, with trades, or free agent pickups or draft picks. We have this incredible platform, why aren’t we letting our users help us build it, essentially?

Aaron Dinin:

So why do you think ESPN wouldn’t do it? And why did you decide to do it on your own instead?

Mike Davidson:

I pitched this several times around the company and everybody seemed super into it. Engineers seemed super into it. Executives actually seemed into it too. Designers, product people, but whenever it hit editorial, whenever it hit the editorial department, that’s when it always just kind of died. Right? Because if you’re a professional sports writer, you kind of probably don’t like the idea of everybody else in the world also becoming a sports writer. After the third time of pitching this, I kind of decided myself, this is eventually going to happen on the internet, and I can either stay at this company and watch it happen, or I can leave and make it happen.

Aaron Dinin:

Would you consider yourself entrepreneurial? What made you think you could start your own company and do this thing that ESPN wouldn’t do?

Mike Davidson:

No, I am definitely not a serial entrepreneur. I do not like the idea of starting things just to start things. I like to start things when I’m fairly convinced that they’ll be successful, and that the world needs them. And so when I think back of the problems that we were trying to solve at Newsvine, one of the big problems was, the world has so many stories to tell and not enough places to tell them. We’re now in 2022, and people have asked me, would you start Newsvine again today? The answer to me is, hell no, I wouldn’t, because I feel like we have the opposite problem now. Right? We have too much information out in the world right now, and not enough of it is reliable. Right? We have quite literally the opposite problem now than we had in 2005. And so if I was to build a similar venture today, it would almost be designed to do the exact opposite. It would be designed to get people as informed as possible in as short of a time as possible.

Aaron Dinin:

Well, it sounds like you have your next startup idea. So.

Mike Davidson:

Yeah.

Aaron Dinin:

So that’s good. But in terms of the Newsvine idea, I’m a bit surprised you and your co-founders would’ve even wanted to execute it outside of a large organization, especially since you mentioned not being much of an entrepreneur. It’s not like the Newsvine idea was the kind of thing you could easily launch, and then magically have a bunch of content and users. Right? Even just having enough content seems like it would’ve been a really massive undertaking.

Mike Davidson:

When thinking about kind of why I got into the idea of starting Newsvine to begin with, my background, wasn’t in news. However, I would consider myself a sports junkie and a news junkie. And so working at ESPN basically taught me how the sausage was made. When you’ve never worked at a news company before you have an idea about the way newspapers are built, and the way news websites are built, and all of the apparatus that needs to occur to get that out the door. But then when you actually work there, you realize, okay, 10% of this content is written by original writers. And 90% of it is written by The Associate Press. So what we did is, we signed our own license with The Associate Press for six or $7,000 a month. It wasn’t much at all.

Mike Davidson:

And we got access to 90% of the articles that you read on CNN, MSNBC, ESPN, et cetera. And so we use that as kind of our backbone of content. And so the idea was, essentially, if you can just get a few people together, sign a deal with The Associate Press, build a content management system and website to efficiently publish that information, in many cases quicker than the New York Times, CNN, MSNBC could even publish it, because we were all automated, and then supplement that with stories from people around the world. You’ve created this instantly valuable property for really not big of a footprint at all, from a design engineering and labor standpoint.

Aaron Dinin:

Okay. So the core content wasn’t really as hard to build out as I guess I assumed, but what about users? Where did they come from?

Mike Davidson:

It’s a really good question. I think it would be, perhaps, harder to launch something like Newsvine today. Back then several of us had fairly influential blogs within the design and technology community. I was one of them. I’ve been running Mike Industries now for probably 20 years now. This is pre Twitter, pre Facebook, and so we would really look to tech blogs to get our news. And so I had a pretty good followership there and I kind of told people, Hey, I’m leaving ESPN, I’m building something new. Sign up here if you want to get in early on the beta list. And then as we were building it, we already had a list of thousands of people who wanted access early. And by the time we launched it, we went into alpha first.

We let some of our friends in. We let people we knew we could count on to kind of write articles and be good community members, give them early access, got flywheels running, and then we released it to everybody. And it was covered by all the standard tech outlets. I think we won Time Magazine News Site of the Year at some point. It was just this drum beat of people who visited the site, liked the design, liked what we were offering, liked some of the stories that they had read, and helped us spread the word.

Aaron Dinin:

And I guess we should add that, 2005, 2006 ish, this would’ve been the golden age for user submitted story websites, if I’m remembering correctly. Right? That’s around when Reddit launches too, you’ve got Digg, and then there’s Fark and Slashdot. Those are still popular, if I’m remembering my conversations with those founders correctly. So this was really… It would’ve been a great time to launch a site like Newsvine.

Mike Davidson:

I think the two sites at the time, that were closest to what we were doing, there was Digg, done by friend of mine, Kevin Rose. Great site. They really showed the way, how you could use citizens to kind of determine what should be on a front page and what shouldn’t be on a front page. And then Reddit was the other one. We all had slightly different takes. Neither Digg nor Reddit presented themselves as a traditional news site. The front page of Newsvine looked similar to, what I would like to call, a better design version of cnn.com or a better design version of NBC. So when you came to it, you thought to yourself, this is a news site. Even if you didn’t know what social media was, it presented itself as a news site, whereas Digg presented itself as a list of interesting things, ranked by votes. And then Reddit, almost more of a lo-fi version of what Digg was doing.

So we all had slightly different takes on the experience, and we were all… Yeah, I think we were all rooting for each other. I don’t think this was a blood sport amongst us at all. I think we were all kind of just, Hey, this is great, that people are interested in what all three of our companies are doing. And so we had plenty of users who used all three sites and… Yeah, we just got a lot of attention at the time, and a lot of kind of organic growth.

We never really paid for any advertising or user acquisition or anything like that. And I think part of that, I would like to think, was the quality of the site. But part of it was people’s attention was not spread as thin as it is today. When I get a new notification about some new beta site or app that’s coming out, I’m just, cool. I’m going to wait until the 10th person tells me about this. And then maybe I’ll give it a shot. Right? But I think back then, everybody was just kind of dying to find out what the next new thing was. Right? I think that really benefited us.

Aaron Dinin:

All right. So that bit of context is helpful in explaining how Newsvine would’ve been popular with readers. So good timing. And you and the team had some decent reach. But what about creators? You said you were using AP content as the backbone for your newsfeed, but of course the goal was having user created content, citizen journalists. How did you get that flywheel spinning in terms of user generated content?

Mike Davidson:

Yeah. Well, so two things, number one, it was just novel to have a place, back then, that you could write a professional story and publish it, and have it viewed by millions of people. Right? So that was an advantage from the start. But the second thing, is we paid people, we advertised on the site, just like any other news site does, but instead of taking all the money ourselves, we split the money with the people that were writing the articles. And so we tracked page views and other metrics for our different writers around the site. And we actually cut them checks every month, essentially advertising royalties.

And we thought that was the right thing to do. I think we were, either, the only, or maybe one of the only sites doing that at the time. I think back then, most of these sites were trying to kind of attract users and keep all the revenue to themselves. But we figured, Hey, the value that we’re providing is we’re building the platform, but the real value is in the content that people are spending hours of their day writing. And so why shouldn’t we be as generous as we’ve possibly can, with the people that are spending their precious time writing for us.

Aaron Dinin:

And that would’ve been a really huge differentiator too. Lots of content creators, basically, expect to get paid today, but that wasn’t so much the expectation back then was it?

Mike Davidson:

It’s commonplace today. It was almost unthinkable back then. Just because a precedent hadn’t really been set, and also just the logistics of doing it is a little hard too. So we had a deal with Federated Media, which was John Battelle’s company. So they sold some of our ad space, and then we used Google Adsense in places. And so you have all these different kind of modernization engines plugged in throughout your site. And then at the end of the day, if you have to do all this accounting and say, ah, of all the money we made on this page, how much is it? What sources is it coming in from? And then how do we split it equitably amongst all the people that may have contributed to this page or this section, et cetera. And then you have to do the part with the actual physical sending money to people’s PayPal accounts, and then the tax bit, with 1099s and all that. So it’s not as simple as just saying, I want to pay people. Go. Right? You have to figure out all the gory details.

Aaron Dinin:

By the way, what Mike is describing here, in terms of the operational logistics of paying thousands of different writers, he’s actually alluding to something most entrepreneurs will face as they begin scaling their businesses. I don’t mean having to pay a bunch of different writers, but I mean that, at some point, you’ll realize your job is to handle the logistical operations of your company, in addition to the product itself. In other words, no matter what your company produces, your job, as the entrepreneur, is, in part, to also operate the business. That means things like managing people, dealing with customer acquisition or handling shipping logistics. In Mike’s case, as you heard him mention, one of the biggest and unexpected challenges of running Newsvine, was dealing with the accounting and payments component. That’s probably not the first thing you’d guess. Instead, you’d probably think more about content and how to provide readers with high quality journalism, on par with any traditional news outlet, and doing it with thousands of unmanaged creators. And to be fair, that wasn’t always easy for Mike and the Newsvine team,

Mike Davidson:

We had dozens of really great, interesting writers within the first few weeks of launching, and that then became hundreds, and that then became thousands. It was interesting too. We had quite a bit of, what I would say, really high quality, original content. We had one guy, I still remember his username. His username is Old Fogey, and he was a guy who lived in Coshocton, Ohio. And I believe he was in his eighties at the time. And he ran for Congress in Ohio, because he… I think his local Congressman had been involved in a scandal or something, and the old town was pissed off at this Congressman. And he’s, you know what, I’m going to run for Congress. And he documented the whole thing on Newsvine, which was super cool, to read what it was like to actually run for Congress in a state.

And he was one of our most popular writers anyway. So that series was super interesting. We also had a guy named Corey Spring, get an exclusive interview with Dave Chappelle. That was super cool. We covered the DNC and the RNC. We actually sent users to those conventions to do original reporting from there. And then we also had your sort of long tail of very niche content, I would say. Challenging part, I think, for us, was, how do we efficiently get all of the best stuff in front of people? We definitely did not want to introduce an editorial function into the site.

We thought that everything should sort of be controlled by algorithms, which is kind of a precursor to what we see on services like Facebook today, but we were really experimenting with it back then. And there were some wins and some losses, I think we got to a pretty good point. But especially after having been acquired by NBC in 2007 and seeing all of the work that went into putting together that front page on the site editorially, it really did increase my respect quite a bit for all of the nuances that go into the editorial operation of a news organization. Because they do a really great job and it’s really difficult.

Aaron Dinin:

But as soon as you introduce algorithms, aren’t you basically just inviting people to try to game the system. Especially if they’re getting paid off of the number of views their articles are generating.

Mike Davidson:

Yeah. It wasn’t as big of a problem back then, but we definitely saw bits and pieces of it, for sure. We had some users who were sort of on more extreme sides of the political spectrum, and we did see articles get a little bit sensational over time. And those, in some cases, did garner quite a bit of attention. We had an active moderation function of the company. We had a few people working on that. Guy named Tyler Adams was our main moderator for a little while. He’s awesome. But I would say we saw the early seeds for what you see today. Polarization. And when I see how awful of a kind of news atmosphere we built for ourselves here, particularly around the 2016 election, and even up until today, I’m almost relieved that Newsvine was not part of that, because I feel like it’s sort of a terrible, terrible development for the world.

And I don’t know how I would be able to operate a site that I thought was contributing to the polarization and the misinformation of our citizenry, frankly. I know the people who started Facebook probably did not start it with any sort of malicious intent in mind. They started it as a dating site. Okay. But it’s become a lot more than that. And it’s become a mix of good and bad forces in the world. But I think when you look at how bad the bad parts of it are, you really have to ask yourself, would we be better off with this thing if it was never around in the first place?

Aaron Dinin:

Just to push back on that thought for a moment. I feel like social media gets dumped on a lot, but in a way, I find myself wondering if ragging on social media isn’t its own form of click baity strategy, interested more in playing off outrage than reality. For example, I have a grant to study digital health communities on social media platforms like Facebook. And Facebook, for all its problems, is also filled with thousands of groups that provide incredible amounts of support and resources for people grappling with all sorts of crazy diseases. And that’s just one example of the positive value being created by social media.

Mike Davidson:

Interesting. Yeah. You could probably debate the subject for hours, because there are all sorts of really great stories out there, that don’t even involve the news. Right? People use Facebook to connect with family members all around the world, who have no other way to connect. Right? People have met their spouses on Facebook. Right? There are a lot of really great things that happen on Facebook too. But man, there are some bad things. And man, there are things that are tough to control. You got a hundred billion dollar company, with a lot of people working at it. You got to try your hardest. Right?

And I just don’t always feel like they’re trying their hardest. And look, I worked at Twitter for three and a half years, so I should know. Right? We also had our failings over the course of really the entire lifetime of Twitter. Right? There’s been a lot of abuse problems and a lot of misinformation problems at Twitter. So I can’t say that Twitter is perfect either, but I do feel like the ethos is a little bit different. I never, in my time at Twitter, ever felt like we were making decisions for the money, or for the engagement, or for the traffic, or for the advancement of any sort of politics that were bad for the world. I don’t know that I can totally say that about every social media company.

Aaron Dinin:

Yeah. For me, I guess, it’s kind of a case of skewed expectations. It’s like people are expecting something that impacts billions of people to be universally good, and that’s just not realistic. Anything with that much reach is going to be both good and bad. The question for me really is, does the good outweigh the bad, and if so, by how much?

Mike Davidson:

Yeah. Oh, there’s no question it has benefit. It’s just that I don’t think you can say, this thing has 60 points of benefit and 40 points of badness, and then all of a sudden say, and therefore it’s good. Right? I don’t think that’s the way that you need to measure these things. I think you need to measure these things by saying, okay, yes, it’s got 60 points of good stuff and 40 points of bad stuff. But is the company doing everything they can to minimize the amount of bad that they’re creating in the world? Right? And I think in almost all cases, the answer is no, but in some cases it’s, hell no. And you don’t have to look any further than the research teams at these companies. Right? These companies all do research into how their services affect their users. Right?

And in many cases, the research says, eh, we’re having some bad effects. And so if your reaction to that research is, oh [beep], let’s fix that. Let’s put a team on that. Let’s change the way the service works. This is bad. Well, we need to change this. Then, great. Okay. I’m willing to say, you’re a good company. Your heart’s in the right place. You’re doing the right things. But if your reaction to that is, ehhh. This could cost our business a few percent off the top line, or we could lose some users if we actually do the right thing here. Oh, let’s actually not even show that research report to the CEO, because they’re not going to like it. Then I have to question how you’re running the company, and I have the right to say, I don’t care how much good you’re doing in the world, you’re hiding the other side of that equation. So we can’t just say all social media companies do this or all of them don’t. They all have to be looked at individually because you have different people making the decisions at each one of those companies.

Aaron Dinin:

Okay. So to bring this back to Newsvine, I guess, when you were one of the people making the important decisions about out how it operated, how did you all deal with the fact that you had this website where people were creating news, and being incentivized by how many views their articles were getting? For example, I write lots of articles for medium.com, which has a very similar model. And I know if I create articles about certain topics, for example, venture capital and fundraising. And if they have certain click baity headlines, they’ll do much better than articles about other topics, and with more informative headlines. So I’ll intentionally write about things that, personally I think, are less important for my audience, but I know they’ll get more views and they’ll make me more money. Surely people were doing the same thing on Newsvine. Right? And if so, how did you mitigate it?

Mike Davidson:

Yeah. So that’s a really great question. I think this is a much bigger issue today than it was in 2005, 2007, because the checks we were cutting, people were more in the neighborhood of $10, $20, a hundred dollars, $200 people weren’t really relying on Newsvine for primary income, in most cases. So yes, there was probably a little bit of, if I write about this, I’ll get more page views, but it wasn’t the difference between being able to pay your rent and not. I think now the ability for users to get paid a living wage, essentially, by writing on, say, like Medium, is much higher than it was back then. And so I think the incentives are a lot stronger now to do that. It’s funny that you mentioned Medium too, because, Ev, who I worked with at Twitter, who started Medium, he said something like, we already know that people want to view footage of car accidents all the time. Right?

Because that’s kind of what people are drawn to. They’re drawn to spectacles. Right? They’re drawn to things that shock them. If that’s the function that we optimize for, that’s what would appear on medium 24/7. Right? We really want to maximize eyeballs, and engagement, where you just show people car accidents all day. But that’s not the type of service we want to be. We want to be more than that. We want be a service that helps people learn the most important things there are to learn in the world right now. And so this gets back to that kind of balance between running a news site with an editorial focus versus doing it in a fully automated way. And, I’ll be honest, I think I am more on the side that says, some amount of smart editorial oversight is not just better, but necessary in today’s world.

I think when you ask people about the various news stories that they read on Facebook, many people don’t even really know why they’re seeing these stories. Right? There are a lot of people that actually assume that Facebook is editorially driven. Oh yeah, this story has to be true, it showed up at the top of my feed. Do you actually know why it showed up at the top of your feed? Well, it’s just because it’s got a click baity headline and a bunch of your friends happen to click on it. Right? Like that’s why it’s up there. It doesn’t mean it’s true. And this is a really, really big problem. When you read a news article for the first, that may seem shocking.

The first time you see the headline, you’re, ah, that’s probably not true. You see it a second time, and you’re, oh, okay. Maybe there’s something to this. Then you see it a third time and a fourth time, possibly just in your Facebook feed. And then your brain says, oh, this must actually be true. Now you look at the comment count and the like count, wow, there’s a lot of other people that think this is true. And a lot of other people that have an opinion on this. And so therefore the chances that this is true, is higher. Right? And this is all just done via an algorithm. Right? And so it’s really, really dangerous.

Aaron Dinin:

So it sounds like pretty early into your time running Newsvine, you gained an unexpected appreciation for editorial, almost for those editorial people back at ESPN, even who were pushing back against the idea originally. Did that contribute to your decision to sell to NBC, which you alluded to earlier? I guess, would you mind talking about how that acquisition happened?

Mike Davidson:

So we had been running Newsvine for about a year and a half or so. So this was mid 2007 at this point. And we were eight or nine employees. And I believe we had about three million unique users a month, which was a big number at the time. It’s a small number now. At the time that was a substantial number. We were going at a pretty good clip, but we had only raised a small amount of venture capital up until then. I think we raised a million dollars to get the site off the ground, and we were just getting the process going of raising our next round, when we started getting calls from some news organizations. So we got a call from MSNBC, which was located right across the lake from us in Redmond. And we also happened to get a call from CBS and CNN within a couple weeks of that.

And I don’t know how this happens. Maybe VCs play a role in that. Maybe it was serendipity. Maybe word just kind of gets around. I’m not sure. But we ended up talking to all three of those companies, plus a couple more companies over the course of the next few months, about strategic investments, about being part of our round, about potentially being part of one of these larger organizations. Flew to New York, met with some really amazing people at CBS. CNN flew people out to meet us, which was great. But all along in our hearts, we sort of felt closest to the people of MSNBC, not just geographically, because they were already so close to us in Seattle, but we just felt like it was run by a really good group of people, particularly on the tech side, also on the editorial side, but particularly on the tech side. msnbc.com was actually a joint venture between Microsoft and NBC.

And so it had been a news operation that had done some really great things in online news over the years, that I always respected, from a design standpoint, from an editorial standpoint, et cetera. And every time we met with them… The president was Charlie Tillinghast at the time. Every time we met with Charlie, every time we met with Jen Sizemore, who was head of editorial, every time we met with Rex Sorgatz, who was an amazing technologist over there, we just felt very simpatico with them. And we felt like it was a company that, if we became part of them, we wouldn’t feel like we had lost any of our spirit.

We felt like we could be just as innovative and independent, as part of them, as we could as an independent firm. So we just felt better and better about them every time we talked to them. October of 2007, we came to an agreement and they acquired us on October 5th. All of us ended up working at NBC for quite a while, after that. I believe I was there for five years before I left for Twitter, but they were a great parent. They were a great organization, a really fun company to work for. And I’ve got nothing but love for everybody over there.

Aaron Dinin:

And even though you left NBC eventually, do you happen to know the general details of Newsvine’s trajectory and why/how it ultimately closed down?

Mike Davidson:

Yeah. So Newsvine was actually around for quite a while. It was around for 12 years before MSNBC shut it down in 2017. I believe, ultimately, it was shut down because it wasn’t doing nearly as much traffic as most of NBC’s properties. It was one of those things where, it’s not hurting us, but it’s not helping us either. And at the time it was probably run by a handful of staff, and so. At companies you have to focus a little bit. And I think with the explosion of Facebook and Twitter and all these other kind of news services… Since it wasn’t one of those top two or three destinations, by the time it shut down in 2017, it didn’t make a ton of sense to keep it around. You could have just as easily kept it running in perpetuity. It didn’t cost a whole lot to run, but I just think going back to kind of what’s needed in the world right now. I would say the idea of a citizen generated mainstream news site, just, is not as necessary in the world.

I think, what I want to see more of is, sites that are very succinct in what they present to the world and very impartial in terms of the news that they add to the world. And that’s a totally different mission. And I think whenever the world changes in as dramatic of ways as it has changed from 2005 to 2022, you have to always take fresh perspectives as to what these properties should do. And I think this will always be the case. We’re never going to settle on a news format that works for 50 years or a hundred years, or maybe even 10 years. Things are always changing. This is one of my favorite things about being in technology to begin with.

Aaron Dinin:

Looking back at Newsvine’s legacy, what are you most proud of in terms of what you built and its impact?

Mike Davidson:

I think the thing that I’m most proud of is the idea that users should share in the benefits of the value that is created inside of a platform. Tim O’Reilly, I think, or Dave Weiner. I can’t remember, one of them. Actually, I think it was Dave Weiner, has this famous saying, where he said something like, an API should always provide more value than it takes in, or a company should always provide more value than it takes in. And not every company seeks to do that. Not every company succeeds at doing that. But that was always one of our founding tenets from the beginning. We don’t want to make a bunch of money off the site at the expense of our users. We want to monetize this site so that the business can stay operational, but we really want to return as much money to the people that make it special as possible.

And I think you see plenty of businesses do this today, in much more aggress of forms. Take a site like Etsy, for instance. Right? Tons of people make a living off what they sell on Etsy. eBay, obviously there are people who built entire careers selling things on eBay. There are sites like Medium that can pay amazing writers like you wages to supplement the work that you do at Duke. So if there’s any that I’m most proud of, is just kind of the idea of building a service that is, not only entertaining and useful to people, but allows them to very directly benefit in the financial outcomes of it.

Aaron Dinin:

In my mind, that’s such an interesting distinction, especially for the time. Because, as you mentioned, most sites early into the social media space, we’re focused on, for lack of a better word, exploiting their creators, just to get as much traffic as possible. Why did you and your team take such a different approach?

Mike Davidson:

God, it’s a good question. I don’t remember if there was any other companies doing writer royalties like this. I don’t want to say no, because I’m probably missing some, that I’m just not remembering right now. But I think it was more just a sense of this is the right thing to do. We felt obligated to do it. We felt like this is the way a site like this should operate. I’m not sure it was inspired by anything other than just the idea that returning money to the people that make your services special is the right thing to do.

Aaron Dinin:

More than the innovative way Newsvine contributed to journalism, in my mind, it’s this belief that Mike espouses, that really differentiated Newsvine. In some ways, I’d even argue, it’s Newsvine’s biggest legacy, paying creators. That was unheard of back in the early days of social media. It’s actually something that’s only finally starting to become important now. And in this way, Newsvine was far ahead of its time. So if you are a creator, getting paid to produce on your favorite social media platform, or if you are a consumer on one of those platforms, enjoying all the incredible content from your favorite creators, and I’m pretty sure that includes everyone listening. We should all take a moment to appreciate what Newsvine did. They helped set a precedent that online content creators deserved to get paid. True. It’s an ambition that’s still not fully realized, but we’re definitely heading in the right direction.

And, for at least some of that progress, I’m pretty sure we can thank Mike Davidson and the Newsvine team. I’d also like to thank Mike for taking the time to talk with us and share the Newsvine story. If you’d like to see what he’s up to these days, you can find him on Twitter, he’s at @mikeindustries. Web Masters is on Twitter too. We are @webmasterspod. Find us there to send us any thoughts or feedback you have about the episode. You can also reach me. I’m at @aarondinin. That’s A-A-R-O-N-D-I-N-I-N. And for more articles and other content about startups and entrepreneurship, check out my website. It’s aarondinin.com.

Thanks to our audio engine near Ryan Higgs, for his help, bringing together this episode, and thanks to our sponsor, Latona’s, for their continuous support.

Remember if you’re interested in buying or selling an internet business, be sure to visit latonas.com. If you want more Web Masters, be sure to subscribe on your podcasting app of choice. And while you’re there, please rate, review, like, share all those good things. They really help us as we keep trying to bring more stories of impactful internet entrepreneurs, to more people, which is, of course, what we’ll be trying to do again when we release our next episode in just a few days. Until then, well, it’s time for me to sign off.

[INTRO]

Aaron Dinin:

So I’m always looking for interesting or funny stories from founders that are worth sharing and preserving. So this is just kind of an open ended question. Do any particularly memorable stories jump to mind, that you think listeners might enjoy?

Mike Davidson:

I’ve got a lot of those. I think maybe the most interesting one that happened during the Newsvine time, was in the lead up to the 2008 election. Barack Obama was the democratic nominee and John McCain was the Republican nominee. And MySpace was a big thing at this time. And I had written this tutorial on how to hack your MySpace CSS to get your MySpace page into like a more attractive kind of format, essentially, to just kind of decrapify everything that the MySpace people put around your profile, basically. So it was just one big like CSS reset, essentially. And then after you applied the CSS reset, you could do your own customizations. And as I released this tutorial, it became really, really popular. It was downloaded tens of thousands of times and people would take it and make it their own. It was free.

I felt really good about it. But one day John McCain’s office decided to use my template. This probably, poor intern actually, who was working on shining up John McCain’s MySpace page, grabbed my CSS file and proceeded to make customizations to McCain’s page. But what he didn’t do is, he didn’t replace the images that were directly loaded from my server, basically. So he was hot linking the images. So instead of linking the images on John McCain’s server, he was linking the images on my server. So what this meant was at any given time, I could actually change those images to whatever I wanted, and affect what was on John McCain’s MySpace page. So I got together with the fellows at Newsvine, and we talked about, Hey, what would be a funny thing to do to John McCain’s MySpace page and the lead up to this election?

I think he had expressed a lack of support for same-sex marriages at some point during the campaign. And so we replaced his images on his page with a note, ostensibly from him, that said he had come out in favor of same-sex marriages. And then we put a little funny line at the end of that too. And it made ABC news. It made the Daily Show. There’s a segment of it out on the Daily Show, that I still have recorded. That was my career highlight, appearing on the Daily Show. My favorite part of it is when John Stewart was talking about it during the middle of his segment, he actually broke character when he was talking about it. So he was laughing about the prank, as he was explaining the prank, which was just a career highlight for me.

Aaron Dinin:

That’s great. Yikes. Well hopefully being on this podcast will become a new career highlight on the… Certainly on the same level as the Daily Show. I’m sure of it.