June 2013 podcast: Longtime journalist launches news site aimed at young readers

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Holly Epstein Ojalvo, a journalism educator and founder of GoKicker.com, talks with Student Press Law Center Executive Director Frank LoMonte about her news site aimed at under-30 readers.

Frank LoMonte: If you’re a person of a certain age, you can almost recite from memory Billy Joel’s song that went to No. 1 on the charts back in 1989, “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” that runs through wars, famines, natural disasters, assassinations, 150 other life-changing historical events that happened during the 50s, 60s and 70s. Well that’s what the last couple of months have felt like in America’s news cycle. We’ve had a fertilizer plant explode in Texas, bombs going off in Boston, poison letters mailed to the Senate and the White House, killer tornadoes tearing through Oklahoma, frankly, it’s a little bit overwhelming. It’s putting a strain on the news media’s ability to separate rumors from truth and for a lot of people, it’s hard to wrap their heads around. It’s a little bit overwhelming for all of us, journalists and audience members, alike. This is the Student Press Law Center podcast and we’re here to talk about what it’s like to build your own online news operation from scratch and how to get young audience members to actually pay attention to the news that’s affecting their country and their world. 

My name’s Frank LoMonte, I’m the executive director at the Student Press Law Center, the SPLC is an advocate for free expression and transparency in schools and colleges. We train student journalists to use the law to gather and report great stories. If you’re interested in learning more, we hope you’ll check out all of the resources available on the www.SPLC.org website. 

Holly Epstein Ojalvo is with us, she’s the founder of the news website Kicker, which is at GoKicker.com. It’s a news and information source that is aimed at an under-30 audience. The goal is to engage young people in current events and in social action. So before taking on this role, Holly was deputy editor of The New York Times Learning Network, where she developed resources to facilitate the use of the Times in the classroom. For 10 years, Holly taught high school English, journalism and philosophy and she advised student newspapers in both public and private schools. As adviser at New York’s Stuyvesant High School, at the student newspaper The Spectator, she oversaw the development of a special magazine-style issue about the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which was circulated in The New York Times throughout the tri-state area in November of 2001. It is an eye-popper; it is some amazing student work. Well Holly has degrees from Lafayette College, from the University of Delaware and from NYU. She’s been recognized for teaching excellence by the Columbia Scholastic Press Association and with numerous other distinctions. So, Holly thanks for being with us and just take us back to the beginning of Kicker, take us back to the beginning of how this concept started, where the idea came from and what it is you’re hoping to accomplish.

Holly Epstein Ojalvo: Sure, absolutely. Thank you so much for having me on today. Well, as you said, I was working for The New York Times Learning Network and I was thinking everyday about how to help teachers engage students in current events. And that started to feel to me like one step removed, that I was really excited about it and I love it, but I never really was quite sure, even though we had a lot of feedback from teachers, really positive feedback from teachers, I was never really quite sure of how many students we were ultimately reaching and how many students we were then not just reaching with one-off lesson plans, but how many we were reaching and engaging in the news sort of long term. And I started to imagine that there had to be really good ways of doing that, of engaging students in news. And then sort of to think that there should be a news source that appealed to young people directly and didn’t go through the filters of home or school. And I started to do a lot of research and I discovered that there are all of these studies that have been done that showed that young people are actually very interested in what’s going on in the world, contrary to popular belief. There actually are five main barriers that keep them from being engaged in news everyday, and they’re really simple and they actually apply, as you suggested earlier, they sort of apply to a lot of other people, as well. And these barriers are, they’re kind of obvious, but they’re interesting. 

So the one is overwhelm by bewilderment. There’s just so many stories, there’s so many news sources. If you go to CNN.com or NewYorkTimes.com on any day, there’s just a constant refresh of hundreds and hundreds of clicks of links. What do you click on, what do you need to follow, what do you actually need to know is a big question. 

The second one is confusion. Students especially lack background knowledge. And you’d amount to 9/11, I just had coffee the other day with a young college student who’s really interested in changing the world and current events and he remarked that he was in fact in [unclear] when 9/11 happened. And that’s a good wake-up call for us. My daughter’s in fact in [unclear] and she looks at the newspaper a little bit because we do, but a lot of parents don’t even have news available to their kids anymore. So, even if something like a historical event like to you and me happened yesterday, it happened a long time ago to students. So the confusion, lack of background knowledge, lack of context. 

The third reason is boredom. I think a lot of young people say that news stories don’t feel compelling or interesting or fresh to them. 

Number four is relevance. Events often don’t feel relevant to their lives. When something happens in Turkey or Brazil or Australia, that can feel very far away and irrelevant. Even though you can connect the dots really easily. 

And number five is helplessness. You read about some terrible tragedy and you just feel helpless, especially if you can’t even vote. You might feel like, wow what can I possibly do to help these poor people? And it might just be tempting just to turn it out. So I started to wonder why isn’t there something that addresses all of these needs? And I went from why isn’t there something, I’m going to make something. So, I created the idea for Kicker based on all of this and I launched the sort of alpha version last September and I’m addressing all of these needs by offering a limited number of stories, providing background and context, breaking stories into digestible bits, infusing them with compelling multimedia and an interesting, fresh voice, demonstrating why they matter and providing ways to take action.

Frank LoMonte: So I think that the experience that you went through in just the last year starting up a brand new news organization like this from scratch could be really instructive to so many people who are listening who are journalists are going to find themselves in that kind of entrepreneurial start-up mode sometime in their careers sometime sooner or later. Just throw out some of the experiences that you’ve had. What was the thought process that you have to go through? How do you ramp up something like that? What are some of the decision points? And I guess, what are some of the lessons and takeaways that you had from that experience?

Holly Epstein Ojalvo: Yeah, that’s a great question and I think you’re absolutely right. Young journalists today have so many interesting options available to them and digital news is a burgeoning field. If you’re a young journalist today, unlike the kids who were students in my class 15 years ago, digital news start-ups can be a really viable career option for them. So yeah, that’s a great question. The idea development took a while, it took me months. 

I had the kernel of the idea for quite a long time and I was like I really want to do this, what do I do now? I actually was stuck there for a little while. Just questions of like what form should it take? What kind of tools should I use? What platform should I use? Should it be an app, should it be online, should it be this, should it be that? So many questions. Who can work on this with me? What do I really need? Who can help? How much will it cost? What’s the business model? What is the exact vision? What is the exact strategy? How are we going to get the word out? There’s so many questions. And for a while, to be honest, that definitely kept me busy. And when I finally made the decision to leave the Times and really, really focus on this, I was able to take all of those questions and make them much more concrete. And one of the key things is to really find people who have the skills to help and who also have the excitement and share that mission and that vision. Everyone I’ve hired so far has been, you know, I love that, I love this idea, I want to be part of this, how can I help? And that, I think has helped me more than anything else. People wanting to help who have different skill sets from mine. Complimentary skill sets, whether it’s development, design, writing, editing, business development, just all kinds of help. That to me is the key thing. Finding like-minded, talented, amazing people. That has helped propel me forward more than anything else. 

And yes, so I started on a platform that I was familiar with, which is WordPress. A lot of websites right now are powered by WordPress. All of The New York Times blogs are on WordPress. Mashable is on WordPress. Many sites actually are on WordPress. So, I decided to start there because I felt familiar with it and I knew a lot of other people knew it, too. And making big decisions like that help you move forward really well. You’ve now solved this problem and then you move on to the next problem. It’s sort of a big decision tree. But I’ve got to say that it’s so exciting, it’s so challenging and so exciting and it reminded me a lot of my first year in the classroom, where just everyday your brain’s just exploding and there’s so much to process and there’s so much excitement and it’s so hard and it’s so exciting and it’s so tiring.

Frank LoMonte: Right!

Holly Epstein Ojalvo: It feels just like teaching to me. [Laughs] So I’m definitely drawing on that experience, I have to say.

Frank LoMonte: Right. Well just to be clear for folks who haven’t visited the GoKicker site yet, you don’t have a network of correspondents out there who are going to Capitol Hill and going to the White House and actually generating original content, your kind of product, your value added is the method in which things are packaged and delivered, that’s what makes this unique.

Holly Epstein Ojalvo: Yes, that’s right. We’re aiming to make news accessible and engaging and actionable. We don’t have correspondents, that’s true. And we don’t, yet, do original interviewing, although we’re looking to changing that. But we do actually a lot of original reporting in so far as tons of research goes into any good reporting. And we do a ridiculous amount of research when we do a piece. So, that part of reporting we’re really working hard on and we’re looking at extending that. But you’re right, we don’t have correspondents and we don’t have boroughs in different parts of the world. But we’re trying to give people a frame and I think of Kicker a lot as sort of an on ramp to news. If you’re not ready to read the long form New York Times piece about something, you just need a sort of shorter version, a more simplified version, not dumbed down, but more accessible, before you’re ready to go dive in deeper, Kicker should be your first stop. Also, if you have time for just one story a day, say, that’s really what we’re doing. So every day we have a main story, a big story, and it breaks down the biggest story of the day, the most important thing we think you should know and its really accessible and in an engaging way. And then we give 10 other big stories of the day and they all have links so that you can go further once you’ve sort of gotten on this on ramp, then we give you ways to go further.

Frank LoMonte: Yeah and explore that a little bit more because I do think that’s maybe what makes this a model that is unique from say, you know, another news aggregation type site, is that you have married the idea of getting informed with actually then acting upon that information in some way.

Holly Epstein Ojalvo: That’s right, absolutely. I do think that’s a unique part of Kicker. One thing that people say over and over again when they see something like a famine or a tornado or a bombing is that it just makes them feel so upset and they feel disempowered. Nicholas Kristof, who does a lot of social action engagement with his journalism, I saw a really interesting interview with him where he said people have written into him to say he doesn’t tell them enough ways to get involved in the issue that he brings up and that he hears from people all the time saying I want more of that, more please, more please. And we do see that a bit, you know, something like the Moore, Oklahoma tornado, you’ll see some ways to help. But we do that every single day, not just on those big stories. And we do try to go past, here text to the Red Cross, because I feel like that is often the most accessible way to get involved. But we actually provide a range of ways to get involved, and sometimes we even break them down into sort of like small, medium and large. And the small ways can be anything like follow this Facebook page to stay up-to-date on the story. Medium way might be something like sign a petition. And a large way might be something like volunteer or donate money or start a fundraiser. But, yeah, we provide all kinds of ways to get involved. We might suggest writing to your congressman or congresswoman. We might suggest participating in a Twitter stream that’s going on right now. There’s so many ways to be involved these days and there’s no reason to feel disempowered. But news has not done a great job of this and this is something that we’re really involved in. When you go to Kicker, GoKicker.com, and you’re reading a big story, on the top right hand side it says “Fired Up: How to Take Action.” It’s a clickable module and when you click on that, it pops you down to the list of ways to take action that we provided at the bottom of the story. So, you could click on that directly or you can just encounter it when you get to the bottom of the story.

Frank LoMonte: Well, let me ask you the business model question. You mentioned that’s obviously something you contemplate at the onset. And this is the conundrum that everybody in journalism at big and small organizations is going to go through. Is this fundable? Is this scalable? Is this survivable? So, what are you thoughts about that? Where do you see your platform going and I guess, is there any bigger lesson to be gained from that? Are you sort of on the front edge of experimentation?

Holly Epstein Ojalvo: Yeah, that’s exactly where I am. That’s a good way of putting it, I think. Absolutely, news has to be fundable and it has to be sustainable and it has to be scalable, or else we’re all in a lot of trouble. So, really, really smart people are thinking all the time about business models for journalism and I’m paying very close attention to that. My philosophy on the business model is sort of an all of the above approach. People ask me all the time. Subscriptions? Sponsorships? Advertising? Sponsored content? Conferences? Thinking engagements? And my answer to all of that is, yes, yes. And why shouldn’t be all of that? And other things, too. There’s e-commerce ideas. We have no shortages of ideas for how to monetize it. We just haven’t gotten there yet. We’re really so in alpha mode. [Unclear] But I’m really excited to start to turn this into a real operation, so to speak, from a business perspective. I think it’s exciting. I don’t think it’s scary.

Frank LoMonte: And there’s an aspect to what you’re doing obviously that is not just like any other business, and you’re actually trying to do some good here, you’re trying to make some change. So I’m just going to lobby the big softball here, why does this matter? Why is this important? And why should people care? I mean, there’s plenty of people who sit on the couch and just watch Desperate Housewives or they can go through their lives happily disengaged. Why should we care if people under 30, your target audience, are not following the news like maybe their grandparents did? And why does it matter?

Holly Epstein Ojalvo: I love that question because I don’t believe that there are people who don’t care about news. One of our mottos is, “It’s not so-called ‘news,’ it’s life.” I guess it just depends on what your definition of news is. But I think a lot of people say that they don’t pay attention to news but then you start a conversation with them and all of a sudden, look there’s all kinds of things that they’re paying attention to and they care about. It might be the environment, it might be same-sex marriage, it might be gun control. There’s just a host of things. I really never met anyone yet, and I’ve taught hundreds of students and met so many people, I’ve never found anyone once you start talking to them, literally all they do is watch something like the Jersey Shore and they really care about nothing. I don’t know anybody like that. And all of those issues, whatever issues they care about, is covered in news media. So, I personally would reframe the word news as information, stories, people, issues. Right? So it’s not about “news” per say. If people don’t care about politics, they care about some of the issues that politicians are involved in. Immigration, for example. They literally touch peoples’ lives. So they may not want to read Politico, right? And read about the minutia and the back-and-forth of who said what on Capitol Hill, but do they care about what’s going on in their communities? With their friends and co-workers and colleagues who might be affected by immigration? Sure they do. And that’s where I think Kicker is really reaching out. 

And why does it matter? It matters for so many reasons. I think number one is that news literacy is incredibly empowering. If you want to be a person who solves problems in the world, who makes a difference in the world or who even just wants to make a stand and make your voice heard in the world, you can’t do that if you don’t know what’s going on, if you’re not informed. You can’t be a force for change and you can’t be a voice for change if you don’t even know what the problems or issues are. And you could just start with things that affect you that really matter to you. Something like student loan rates doubling. That’s something that’s really concrete that a lot of students are affected by. You could start with whatever’s really emotionally close to you or really affects you and then that’s often where people start and they branch off from there. And then in a larger sense, as I’m sure you know, news is strongly correlated with all kinds of civic engagement and also educational attainment, even income levels. So knowing about what’s going on in the world and being engaged in current events is correlated positively with a lot of really important things. So, I think things like likely to voting, interest in politics, taking action related to something you’re concerned about, all kinds of things. So, I think there’s reasons for anyone to care about it, whether you’re a teacher, a journalism teacher or a civics teacher or what have you. If you’re a parent, if you’re in politics, if you are a young person, all of these people and more should be concerned about whether young people are reading news or not. It’s not just about the news is dying and we have to find new readers. There are millions of reasons why young people need to know what’s going on in the world.

Frank LoMonte: Well, let me ask you to wrap up with a couple points, I guess. First of all, what are you seeing? You must track readership of the site, you must track the kinds of things that are getting responses, that are getting views. What are you seeing in terms of the kinds of things that are grabbing and successfully holding and engaging an audience? And then just finish up by telling us where do you see Kicker going? What is your next step? What’s your roll-out strategy?

Holly Epstein Ojalvo: Ok, great. Those are great questions. In terms of what’s engaging our readers, I think it’s so interesting to see what really engages people. One of the things that gets a lot of attention is when we break something down that’s really big and hard to understand. We get a lot of traffic to things like what’s happening in Mali, what’s happening in Syria. It’s explained in plain English, that kind of thing. During the election, we translated what happened in the debates and in the big speeches in just sort of like plain English and non-politician speak. All of that got a lot of engagement, that’s one thing. Another thing we see a lot of traffic to is about breaking news events that are really difficult, like the Boston Marathon bombing. We say that we’re not sharing anything that’s too graphic or too gory or too disturbing. No really disturbing details about the Newtown shooting, that sort of thing. Where we just say, listen, everything you need to know but nothing too disturbing, tons of traffic to that. People really seem to want that. And another thing we get a lot of traffic to is stuff that’s maybe not like front-page New York Times, but young people really care about. Things like the Rehtaeh Parsons rape case, [unclear] which I would say that was Times front page. But things that involve young people and are maybe intersections of really difficult issues, like rape or something like that, off of social media, you know intersections that are their culture and some big issues. We get a lot of traffic to things like that, as well. So those are just three of the things we see a lot of engagement on. And we get a lot of correspondence lately from people saying this is the future of news, I’m so glad I’ve discovered this. This is the way my generation wants to engage with news. And so that’s very, very heartening to me. And that tells me that we’re on the right track and that the main thing we need to do is reach more people. And I know that our audience is out there, there continues to be study after study showing that young people ages 13 to 25 or 13 to 30 are interested and interestable and they care about the world and they just feel alienated from the way it is presented. So, I know we’re on the right track and I know our audience is there; it’s just a matter of meeting up with them. And to answer your other question, yes we are planning new features. I’m working right now sort of on an interesting game/quiz feature that I think will be really fun and also engage you in a topic that maybe you weren’t previously engaged in and hopefully peak your interest to go delve in more. And also, an interesting commentary voice feature that’s going to involve video. I really want to start hearing from our audience and what people think. Back to that point of why is it important to know what’s going on in the world? You can voice your views. I really want to start hearing from young people voicing their views. And I think a lot of young people are turned off by the whole pundit industrial complex and I think it would be great for all of us to hear from some new, fresh voices and I’m going to get that going on Kicker, too. So those are two of our plans.

Frank LoMonte: Well, that’s really exciting. We will look forward to following what you do and watching how it evolves. I’m going to plug the site one more time, it’s GoKicker.com. Our guest Holly Epstein Ojalvo is the founder of Kicker, a former journalism adviser, formerly with The New York Times Learning Network. So, thanks so much for being with us and best of luck with wrapping up the site.

Holly Epstein Ojalvo: Thank you.

Frank LoMonte: If you are interested in learning more about law of online publishing, we have a wealth of resources on the SPLC.org website, that we hope you’ll take the time to explore. You can connect with the SPLC on Twitter, our handle is just @SPLC, on Facebook and on Tumblr. And if you’re a student journalist or a journalism educator with any question about the law, call our hotline any time, (703) 807-1904 or email us at SPLC@splc.org. Thanks so much for listening.