From Gannett to The Charlotte-Observer, The Chicago Tribune, and The Sarasota Herald-Tribune, legacy media companies are seeing value in creating lightweight, startup-style spinoffs that approach voice, content, revenue, and distribution from fresh perspectives, earning strong Millennial followings along the way.

By positioning The Bold Italic, CharlotteFive, RedEye, and Unravel as independent brands, these media companies gave small teams permission to reach new audiences without the entrenched routines and expectations that come with an established organization.

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As the journalists we interviewed are proving in their newsrooms, legacy startups can be excellent ways to target a very specific audience, build a new culture of innovation and experimentation from scratch, involve young editors at a more senior level, and allow room for the kind of trial and error that a more traditional organization may have difficulty achieving.

If you are part of a legacy newsroom that’s considering a Millennial-focused spin-off, the following are important keys to success:

  • Parent companies should allow these spinoffs to establish unique Millennial identities and related processes separate from the larger organization.
  • Consider locating the new team in the middle of the newsroom so the larger company can share story ideas and be infected by a spinoff’s sensibility.
  • Support from leadership at the umbrella organization is vital, not only in the initial phase but as significant positions need to be filled over time.

Parent companies should allow these spinoffs to establish unique Millennial identities and related processes

None of the new media spin-offs mentioned above deny their corporate connections, but only RedEye is explicitly connected to its parent company. There’s a reason for that semi-independence — to allow the startup to be judged by its audience on its own merits.

Editor Tony Elkins says the Sarasota Herald-Tribune learned from focus groups that if Unravel became little more than a Millennial marketing wing of the larger paper, they’d lose everybody right off the bat.

“[Younger readers] would not have anything to do with us because they know the Herald-Tribune proper didn’t have their voice in mind,” he says. “The point of not advertising [the connection] was to say, ‘This is for you.’ It has to be its own product so people know that we’re speaking to them.”

Millennial-focused spinoffs often start small, generally with between two and five staffers at launch. But even with limited resources, the initiatives thrive when employees are allowed room to experiment, and to learn from their failures as much as their successes.

Innovations Editor Jennifer Rothacker says CharlotteFive editors were allowed to go outside the Charlotte Observer’s content management system and use a more agile WordPress site, and to be creative with the newsletter content by using MailChimp over the company’s standard vendor.

[Millennial-focused initiatives] thrive when employees are allowed room to experiment, and to learn from their failures as much as their successes.

These sorts of allowances are creating a buzz around the newsroom, she says. “To get things through a big corporation you have to go through channels, and we were given permission to go off on our own, hire a designer, get it out there fast, and then we put our tracking codes on it,” she says.

The successes of legacy spin-offs can be templates for the larger organizations as well.

Rothacker says the Observer has created an environment where the CharlotteFive team has the freedom to try “crazy things.” The standalone publication, which officially debuted earlier this year, has already produced results that help the Observer.

“The newsletter is so big we’re now looking at other newsletters that the paper offers,” Rothacker says. “We’re thinking, what could we do with those to make them more must-have? We actually just did that with our Carolina Panthers newsletter; we added more voice.”

Small teams are by nature more nimble, with fewer schedules to coordinate for meetings, fewer approval bottlenecks, and the room to take ownership of whatever your mistakes are teaching you.

“Being at a small organization, especially doing something new, it keeps you really flexible,” says Sarah Frank, executive producer at NowThis, a venture-backed startup that publishes only on social networks, aggregating the video news of the day. “We can change direction in a day, whereas at a larger company it can take a week to set the meeting to have the conversation to start something to change.”

Consider locating the new team in the middle of the newsroom

Ideally a legacy startup becomes an idea lab for the larger company, with its successes and failures informing the company as a whole. Locating this spinoff within the traditional newsroom means journalists working for both the standard and Millennial-focused organizations can share approaches, resources, and values as a news team.

Tasneem Raja, the digital editor for Code Switch, says NPR strategically located her team in the center of the digital newsroom, in a place people from other departments are constantly walking by.

Their physical location, she says, sets the tone that the Code Switch staff could “infect the rest of the newsroom” with the ethos of the stories her editors are trying to tell. By being a central part of the open office, Raja says Code Switch is able to suggest story ideas to other teams (and vice versa), talk about why her writers approached a story a certain way, and generally become part of the mix so people in the larger organization know they’re around.

“Our job is to talk to everybody,” she says, “and bring some of our sensibility to the rest of NPR’s DNA.”

Support from leadership is vital initially, and to support growth over time

One of the challenges of legacy startups is that they don’t have the backing of venture capitalists, so they’re often sharing personnel resources with the rest of the company.

The heads of these spinoffs often double as the innovation leads. There’s risk of burnout — or losing key players — if there isn’t the financial support to grow the team when needed.

“You have these people who are doing two jobs but are being held to the standards of people doing one,” says Unravel’s Tony Elkins. “Until newsrooms start to break out teams and solely focus on these projects, I don’t think you’re going to see true innovation because people are just burned out. Until you figure out how to manage this strain you’re not going to be successful.”

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