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The Silence at The Intercept Is A Reflection of Startup Newsroom Difficulties

0ca4fbfa-ee45-4a5c-8995-24920f11e534-620x372Just over two months after publishing its first revelations about the NSA’s mass surveillance program, First Look Media’s The Intercept is taking a break. Well, sort of.

The newest member of the team (that we know of), built around former Guardian journalist and Edward Snowden cohort Glenn Greenwald, is editor-in-chief John Cook of Gawker. And on Monday, April 14, Cook took to the Intercept’s blog to explain why there hasn’t been a whole lot of action from The Intercept’s reporting team.

The main reason for the lack of reporting coming out of the team, which also includes Liliana Segura formerly of The Nation, is that they launched before they were 100 percent ready to launch. That is, they started posting stories detailing the NSA’s surveillance and other government programs before they were fully staffed and had a long-term vision for what The Intercept should be. Wrote Cook:

Until we have completed the work of getting staffed up and conceptually prepared for the launch of a full-bore news operation that will be producing a steady stream of shit-kicking stories, The Intercept will be narrowly focusing on one thing and one thing only: Reporting out stories from the NSA archive as quickly and responsibly as is practicable. We will do so at a tempo that suits the material. When we are prepared to publish those stories, we will publish them. When we are not, we will be silent for a time, unless Glenn Greenwald has some blogging he wants to do, because no one can stop Glenn Greenwald from blogging.

So there you go. The Intercept’s decision to go live was based on a broader obligation to just start reporting, “not based on an assessment that everything that one needs for the successful launch of a news web site — staff, editorial capacity, and answers to questions about the site’s broader focus, operational strategy, structure, and design,” said Cook.

Personally, I appreciate the sentiment that the website and editorial strategy don’t have to be perfect in order to set up shop. Ezra Klein‘s Vox did something similar and dubbed the site’s first iteration “a work in progress,” almost as if to invite criticism. The idea that The Intercept — even with such a specific topic focus — should have hammered out every single detail about what it wanted to be before launching is unfair. But, I can understand the complaints around the Web that The Intercept’s design is boring at best, given the $250 million eBay founder Pierre Omidyar funneled into the project. For all we know, though, part of their silence could be allowing for a total makeover.

Even though The Intercept’s level of funding is highly unusual among startup newsrooms, its team faces some of the same challenges as its peers. When you’re trying to get an editorial and technical team to rally around a new project, the daily tasks can seem insurmountable. You start with a lofty idea and gain some fans — which The Intercept has done, in addition to building an impressive masthead — but then you have to follow through on what you’ve promised. That means producing a steady stream of quality content, pushing it to social media, generating more and more interest and then monetizing your product through subscriptions or advertisers. The next day, you have to do it all over again. These most basic tasks don’t even cover preparing for legal implications if you’re an adversarial journalism outfit like Greenwald’s, accounting for audience growth with more staffing and forming an editorial vision and content strategy that can be sustained within your means (whether it’s $250 million to start or $2,000). Successful startup newsrooms are always prepared for the worst, always looking to expand reach while still tapping into their core audiences, improve the product and make money (I’m thinking of the Texas Tribune).

And if you haven’t planned all of these aspects to the tee from the beginning, you just may have to take a break like Cook said his team is doing. You just have to hope you’ve captivated your audience enough that they’ll stick around until you’re back from the hiatus. With experimental startups like Vox, The Intercept and the dozens of others like it, often the hardest part is finding readers who connect to your mission.

But it’s pretty clear that there isn’t much about doing entrepreneurial journalism that is easy.

Have you been following The Intercept’s work? How long do you stick with news operations if they go dark? What’s the balance between quantity and quality in the content farm that is the Internet?

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