This agency makes it easier for media startups to get off the ground

Back in late 2019, nearly all the writers for the beloved sports site Deadspin resigned en masse after butting heads with the private equity executives who owned the website.

After they left, there was lots of speculation about where those writers would turn up. Would they simply get new jobs, or would they band together to create their own site?

And then in July 2020 we got our answer: they launched Defector, an employee-owned publication that would be monetized mostly through paid subscriptions. To build the site, they turned to a guy named Austin Smith. Austin is the founder of an agency called Alley, and over the past decade he’s helped build and maintain the websites of many of the most well-known news publishers in the world.

I interviewed Austin about his career in media, what goes into building a good publishing platform, and why he’s recently begun working with news startups like Defector to help them get off the ground.

To listen to the interview, subscribe to The Business of Content on your favorite podcast player. If you scroll down you’ll also find some transcribed highlights from the interview.

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This transcript has been edited for clarity.

How Austin started building tech for media companies

Austin didn’t set out to work in media; he fell into it by accident. “One of my first jobs as a freelance software developer was for Minnesota Public Radio in Minneapolis. I then moved to New York in 2007 to take a job at the New York Observer, and I've not done really anything but journalism and media technology since then.”

This was an era when many media companies were building their websites on already-existing platforms, and Austin focused on Drupal for most of his early career.  It’s also when the industry was still optimistic that quality journalism could be funded solely by web advertising. “I remember at The Observer, I sat in the same office with the audience development manager, and he would be sending instant messages on AOL instant messenger to Matt Drudge, and when he got a Drudge hit,  it was sort of like all hands on deck, because we were going to experience a bunch of traffic.” This type of mentality led to publishers adopting all sorts of shady practices, including the adoption of “cutting edge” ad tech that created horrible user experiences just so publishers could squeeze a few more pennies out of each pageview.

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Why Austin left his salaried job to launch an agency

The longer Austin worked in media tech, the more he grew to understand the industry’s specific needs. “We started Alley in 2010 to really just do what we had been doing internally at publishers and scale what we knew to more publishers who really needed it, because there was a real dearth of software developers in New York who knew Drupal well enough to work at a really high traffic publication. There's a really busy market for Drupal developers, and we felt like we could effectively serve more publishers by going out on our own and starting an agency.”

Alley built up a steady roster of clients that included NBCUniversal, The New York Post, and People Magazine. It also eventually switched over from Drupal to Wordpress development, since that’s the platform many publishers preferred. “You would definitely not want just any WordPress developer to drop into a really high traffic news website. I think it's way more important to know how news websites work and to know what the trade-offs are, especially in terms of user experience, than it is to have a really deep background in WordPress.”

A focus on news startups

While most of Alley’s clients were larger media brands, Austin began brainstorming a few years ago about how he could apply his services to news startups that didn’t yet have the resources to afford his agency’s high fees. That thinking led to the launch of Lede, a sub-brand within the agency. “We're essentially investing in an upfront project to create, design, and build a whole website and make it ready for publishing on day one. We're putting in a lot of effort to help news organizations differentiate. And to that extent, we're a good fit for startup newsrooms.”

Because these startups are pre-revenue, Lede sets up a rev share system in which it takes a percentage of the money generated through paid subscriptions. “We found this model is faster for product development because we can steer the conversation in a way that we can't with publishers that are paying us upfront.” It’s not uncommon for clients, for instance, to reject the agency’s suggestions and instead choose features that create a bad user experience. With Lede, however, the nature of the partnership gives Austin’s team a greater say in the design. 

Lede has already partnered with some high-profile media startups. Earlier this year, it helped launch The Defector, a media-cooperative run by former staffers from Deadspin, all of whom resigned en masse from the site last year after disagreements with ownership. “I ended up getting pulled into really early conversations with some folks that were involved and were looking to start something new. It was on everyone's mind when they left Deadspin together that their ideal outcome would be to work together at a new venture. We probably had one or two conversations a month for six or seven months. And finally in July, things kind of clicked and they said, ‘okay, let's do this.’” Defector launched in July 2020 and generated 10,000 paying subscribers in its first 24 hours. By September, it had over 30,000 subscribers.

Lede also worked with another group of former Gawker employees who had launched a publication called the Discourse Blog on Substack. This year, the writers decided to move off of Substack. “I think a lot of it is wanting control over the way things work, over the way things look, the ability to have much more of a blog feel. They were running up against some of the limitations in terms of how to market to their subscribers on Substack.” Some of the coverage of Lede has portrayed it as a competitor to Substack. “I don't really think that's the case. I think that we're a very different use case and publishers have to want a lot more out of their web presence in order to jump over to lead. It's a lot more work running  a website that has a great deal more functionality and flexibility, just in terms of layout and content options. But I do think it’s a better fit than Substack for these multi-party newsrooms.”

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.