Almost three years after launching its first single-topic news site covering the crisis in Syria, media startup News Deeply is today unveiling its next project: Arctic Deeply. Like its predecessors, Syria Deeply and Ebola Deeply, the new site aims to provide comprehensive, authoritative coverage on a single beat. Arctic Deeply will follow the economic, environmental, and social ramifications of the Arctic’s melting sea ice. With a new round of funding and three years of experience under its belt, the project is the first of many that News Deeply wants to tackle in the coming year.
“We have matured so much as a startup it’s unbelievable,” says the site’s founder, Lara Setrakian, a former Syria correspondent for Bloomberg and ABC News. She quit to start her own news project after becoming frustrated by the lack of depth and context the media was offering on the Syrian conflict. The Deeply sites offer a mix of original reporting, expert op-eds, curated articles, and basic learning materials on the topic. Setrakian told Fast Company in 2013 that she wanted to “redesign the user experience of news,” and in some ways, she has. “Since we launched Syria Deeply, this single-subject news model has been hugely validated and the space has been so robust,” she says. The goal has always been to be able to replicate the template quickly to tackle other topics in need of a deep dive, which she’s now ready to do, thanks in part to a funding round that closes this month.
“Our technology is moving toward a system where we can literally launch a page with the push of a button,” Setrakian says. “What we’ve done in the past year is essentially prepare the model to scale.” An eight-person team of full-time employees plus a network of freelancers across the world are researching sites for Pakistan, Congo, Myanmar, refugees, and human trafficking—all topics that have what Setrakian calls a “Syria problem,” meaning they’re hugely important but being largely ignored (or butchered) by mainstream media. “We’re launching each topic because we see a distinct user community that does not have a hub,” Setrakian says.
At launch, Arctic Deeply readers will find interactive maps showing how Arctic sea ice has changed over time, and servicey content like a list of five things to know about the Paris Climate Conference. “A lot of it is looking at, How do you develop, and can we do it sustainably?” says the site’s managing editor, Hannah Hoag, who joined the startup a month ago. As the Arctic faces drastic change, Hoag wants to make sure its indigenous people get a voice in the coverage. “We know this change will happen,” she says. “We don’t know the details of how it might look, but we have this opportunity to pull in all the voices.”
The Deeply sites make money from a mix of sponsorship, live event sales, and paid content syndication. Setrakian says Arctic Deeply is cost-neutral for its first year thanks to a partnership with the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) and OpenCanada, a Canadian news site that covers global affairs. “In the year ahead, we will begin to integrate spaces for sponsored content, clearly demarcated and distinct from our house content,” she says.
Setrakian also wants to use 2016 to focus on the most valuable readers: The people who come back over and over (Syria Deeply has a 60% return rate and visitors spend an average of eight minutes on the site). “Think tank folks, academics, humanitarian groups, people close to the issue—they read us most consistently,” she says, adding that diplomats have told her they use the Deeply websites as fact-checking resources. “They’re into us because they are using this information every day. Everyone else is welcome to the party, but we’ve had enough time with core users to know what makes them tick.”
Not only do these die-hards come back, they’re also more likely to use the information they find on Deeply sites to inform policy and action. For example, when Ebola Deeply covered how young women who had become pregnant during the outbreak were being barred from returning to school, Amnesty International picked up the story and turned it into a campaign. Setrakian wants to see more of this kind of informed action, so the company is working on tweaking its platform to better foster an environment where readers can collaborate. “We’re figuring out how we can connect our readers to each other,” she says.
After Arctic Deeply, the next site slated for launch in 2016 is Refugees Deeply. “We know we have a distinct advantage when it comes to building specialized news sites on complex issues,” Setrakian says. “We’ve seen a market for it and we’ve been able to sustain it for a long periods of time. Nobody thought deep news was it three years ago, but we’re seeing it works.”