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April 30, 2017

What Are They Thinking: Chris Altchek's Three Magic Words: VideoCentric Millennials Company

Chris Altchek doesn’t need the whole elevator ride up to Mic.com’s 10th floor downtown New York office to give you his pitch. What’s Mic, whose name is often pronounced as an Irish nickname? It’s a videocentric millennials-serving digital news company. Those would-be magic words — millennials, video — help position Altchek’s five-year-old start-up in the hurly-burly of the intensely competitive digital news start-up environment.

Today, Mic launches one of its two new 2016 video programs, Mic Check. Next Tuesday, it launches The Movement. Both build on the audience success of senior correspondent Liz Plank’s Flip the Script web series, which is just completing its second “season” of eight shows and planning a third for the spring. Look at Mic today, and the site is still dominated by lots of text stories. By spring, though, Altchek believes more than half of Mic’s content will be in video form. “It’ll be 50/50 by middle of the spring, and it’ll be majority video by next summer.”

In the Mic offices, it’s a video explosion. There’s a separate-from-editorial branded-content video team of a half dozen full- and part-timers producing a steadily increasing volume of work for advertisers. In editorial, Mic organizes its video teams by both topic and by platform. The new Mic Check has its own staffing, as does Mic Check Now, creating one-minute niche videos, like this one, for Facebook distribution. In total, Mic now employs 13 people in editorial video production of one kind or another.

In the whirl of wider distribution opportunities, Mic is trying — quickly — to learn how usage differs from platform to platform, and, consequently, what kind of programming each requires.


First published at Politico Mediia

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“We see the mobile, social video opportunity as being very different than the OTT [over the top] video opportunity,” Altchek told me. “The people consuming on each platform looking for something very different and the strategies that are going to win being very different, so it’s actually different teams.”

Smartphone usage may drive Mic Check’s one- to three-minute “programs,” mainly via Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter, the shareability of each key.

Then, a longer format (eight minutes or so) like The Movement, or Flip the Script, depends on the evolving OTT platforms, on the diverse entry points into the living room that Apple TV, Roku, Hulu and Netflix offer. While those audiences are still in early development, Altchek believes they’ll become routine for more-than-30-second, less-than-30-minute videos.

“People don’t have five to 10 minutes to watch a whole video. We want to make sure that we’re doing works, and the goal is that two years from now when OTT is the main way our generation consumes paid content.”

Mic has grown greatly, now employing about 118 staffers (a quadrupling since September 2014). Seventy-two people, mainly full-timers, work in editorial. Sales staff has grown to 16 and engineering to 12. It’s an organizational structure that’s emblematic of the modern digital news start-up.

In December, Mic plucked highly regarded Cory Haik from The Washington Post, naming her chief strategy officer.

The hiring marks an attempt to master the new complexity of the company, Altchek said. “Now that product, content, and platforms need to be so tightly intertwined along with sales, we wanted somebody to really own the roadmaps across those teams.”

She joins NPR veteran Madhulika Sikka, who became executive editor in June.

The two must grapple with what is a spirited, but gawky, site. In its very youth, it aims high — “Rethink the World” — but has produced uneven content. Further, it has had its share of stumbles, firing its news director for plagiarism a year ago and more recently, publishing pre-written story about a Rihanna album that hadn’t yet been released.

Clearly, the video imperative here is to bring new focus to Mic, as its new leaders re-strategize. It’s not alone in that focus. Just this week, Upworthy, another seeker of a youthful audience and of social change, also embraced video as the path forward.

Money followed millennials-reaching sites like hot youth-seeking missiles over the past year. NBCU led the pack, putting almost a half billion dollars into Buzzfeed and Vox Media, while everyone from Comcast to Time Inc to 21st Century Fox seeks millennial youth through investment. Axel Springer’s Business Insider acquisition got big notice, but it’s also spread its millennial money around, plunking $20 million into Ozy, leading a December funding round for Now This and acquired an interest in Mic in June. Altogether, Mic has raised $32 million in four rounds of funding, so far.


Follow the millennials money

Chris Altchek has the numbers to prove out his millennials-heavy audience, but his positioning is about more than getting a big enough of chunk of the 18-to-34-year-old cohort. Altchek aims at the high end of the 75 million-strong millennials generation, and invokes more of a higher-toned mission than most of his peers.

The Mic sweet spot: “college-educated millennials.” Altchek says about “forty million millennials have been to college”; more than 50% of millennials have attended college, but a smaller percentage have graduated. (That lack of completion is a sore point and a social issue for another day.) At this point, Mic would reach maybe a third of those who attended college. With education comes affluence; Mic pitches an audience with a household income of $96,000 annually.

He acknowledges that Mic finds itself behind what I’ve called the Big Four of Vice, Vox Media, Buzzfeed and Business Insider. In digital audience — at about 20 million unique visitors in the U.S. — it counts about a third to a half of the Big Four’s reach. Of course, Mic is the younger sibling, started in 2011, five years after Buzzfeed and three years after CEO Jim Bankoff began building Vox Media.

Twenty-eight-year-old Altchek, whose pre-Mic experience included a one-year stint at Goldman Sachs and political work for the Bloomberg mayoral administration, says given the rhythm of the business, he doesn’t give much credence to the whispers, or shouts, of a next bubble in digital media.

“The life cycle of these companies is build your audience, build your brand. Those two things comes first. Then you start to build a business around it. Then as the business matures it starts to generate profits. That life cycle is call it seven to 10 years in terms of how long it takes to put those pieces together traditionally.”

Mic’s growth is impressive, but still timing is a relevant question. Is it indeed on its own track, or is it too late to the party? How much more funding may it need to sustain its growth? Will investors tire too soon, as Disney has done with Fusion Media, also a millennials seeker?

All that said, its growth still impresses. It now ranks 19th among news sites. With a 94% November over November growth rate, it is the fastest grower among the top 20, according to Comscore. Further, in November, millennials made up fully 68.6% of its audience. Only The Root, the now-Univision owned, African-American site, has shown a higher percentage of millennials in its audience among top news sites.

The programming

The success of Flip the Script confirmed for Mic that a particular kind of snackable yet newsy video could find a sizable audience. Mic says the program drew 33 million views in its first season of eight episodes.

Flip the Script takes on topics tilted to young women, including “Beyoncé voters,” “This is what dress codes really do,” “How does birth control work? Nobody seems to know,” “Don’t ban Muslims, ban hoverboards,” and “Mic speaks to Melinda Gates on the Dangers of Anti-Vaxxers.” Mic senior editor Liz Plank has created a knowing, spirited show, delivering both entertainment and information. Its confident model explains Mic’s enthusiasm for more video, though that success won’t be easy to replicate.

The Mic context shines through, as in this pitch line from Flip the Script’s recent episode, “This is what dress codes really do”: “What happens when girls speak up.” In both the Flip the Scripts and the first daily installment of Mic Check, debuting today and running daily Tuesdays through Fridays, Mic doesn’t mince words.

“The state of teen sex education is ridiculous,” it begins. There’s a directness to the reports, a bluntness that may now be part and parcel of our age, from the comedy of Amy Schumer and Lena Dunham to the post-politics-as-usual candidacy of Donald Trump. That’s a distinction we can see in Mic’s reports that largely differs from those produced by legacy media.

Yet both the Flips and Mic Check pack a fair amount of information, and some storytelling, in to a tight time frame. Visualization of data has come of age, among top digital news sites, and good, quick and informative graphics have peppered the programs. It’s a newer form in creation, and one that’s meant for smartphone consumption.

Darnell Moore’s The Movement, which begins a five-episode, five-week test-the-audience run on Jan. 19, more fully embraces traditional storytelling. Consistent with Mic’s progressive political values, The Movement combines its plain-spokenness with a search for solutions to the nagging issues that millennials have heard of throughout their coming of age.

It’s a dose of positivism – akin to what CNN has done with its own Heroes programming. The Movement is “dedicated to the individuals who fight to reclaim and recover marginalized communities across America …. This series is about — and for — the invisible heroes making a difference.” Moore’s own site shows his own long activism. A senior editor at Mic, his Movement focuses on change-makers.

In the first episode, Moore’s eight-minute report takes us through the streets of Camden, N.J, the most impoverished city in the nation, where he grew up. Narrative drives these reports, as Moore describes the efforts of Cure4Camden, a community-directed, anti-crime organization. Here, too, there is no equivocation, as Moore speaks of “moral outrage” and the attempt “to think different about crime.” The first episode could use a little more journalistic heft — the who, what and how much explainers that populate other Mic programs — but it speaks well in its own voice.

That voice has got to be more natively multicultural, given the complexion of the Millennial generation. Only 60% of U.S. millennials are Caucasian.

39-year-old Moore sees the value of providing “a sense of historical context in the social issues that we’re talking about in the media. That’s an intriguing thought on how to serve a smart, curious audience — but one that hasn’t lived through earlier “wars” on poverty.

Moore encapsulates the generational quotient of the work this way: “The subjects are also of various age groups. But the focus is still to get their stories out to our audience, which is millennials. Millennials are attracted to stories that resonate with hope. With some positive outcome with the sense of direction about, ‘Well what does one do in response to the problem?’ And I think that is what is going to drive our connection to the millennial audience.”


Mic’s Place in the World

There’s a “we can solve it” ethic that drives Mic, one that in some ways seems out of step with the wider partisan intractability of U.S. politics. Someone’s out of touch, but we can only hope it is the younger generation that is getting it right.

Mic’s attempted alchemy — its combination of a millennials audience, video emphasis and a plainly progressive stance — means it needs to thread a needle with its audience and its advertisers.

I asked Altchek how he deals with the question of Mic’s activist position, one that his competitors say limits the company’s attractiveness to advertisers and its financial valuation.

“We have gotten that from some people,” he told me. “I love when I get that question because it’s like, ‘Don’t worry about what we’re doing, and let us do our thing.’ It’s almost a good thing if you don’t believe in the core mission from my standpoint because it’s less competition. We started the company with the mission first.

“My take is really what’s happening to the world is so central to our generation that these media companies need personalities, brands, et cetera, that speak and help our generation understand the world and push it forward.”

Altchek also touts the emerging blue-chip nature of advertisers, as certification that his formula is working.

“Just this year, we started the year with only a handful of advertisers, but now we close the year with 27.”

He rattles off the list of the millennials-seekers: Intel, Microsoft, Lenovo, Dell, HP, LG, Goldman-Sachs, Discover, JP Morgan, Chase, Nordstrom, REI, HBO, Marriott, the Army, Google Chromecast and GE.

It’s curious that none of the new video programs have launch sponsors attached to them, and neither does Flip the Script. Why? Mic says it wants to prove out the audience first, but given its sampling by major brands, the lack of sponsorship seems odd.

“We’re seeing people get really excited about branded video content, and I think what’s interesting is that branded video content is becoming really short form media,” Altchek said. It is a certain kind of branded video that Mic aims to perfect, as such revenue assumes a larger and larger percentage of income.

“It’s not only the five to seven minute long form piece, but it’s also the 15-second version for Instagram, and the six-second story for Vine, and the 90-second version for Facebook.”

Form and format. Words and pictures. It’s still very early days in figuring out what looks like our first real age of convergence. Mic’s early video success is noteworthy, but it’s really singular at this point.

Creating good programming is never easy, but it’s far easier than creating a daily and weekly habit. Flip the Script works, but Mic Check will be harder to get right. Promising everything from culture to politics to entertainment, in four-day-a-week shorts (one to three minutes) may make it hard to create a daily habit among samplers; consider it a work in progress. For Mic, 2016 will be a whirlwind of video experimentation. For its increasing number of watchers, it’s a lab worthy of close attention.

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