Leading the Sulzberger Program

The Redesigned Sulzberger Executive Leadership Program at Columbia Journalism School Is Open For Applications From Rising Leaders in Media and Journalism

Corey Ford

Today I am excited to announce that I, in partnership with Raju Narisetti, will be leading the redesigned Sulzberger Executive Leadership Program at Columbia Journalism School. The program is designed to train the future leaders of the world’s most impactful journalism and media organizations during a time of rapid transformation, uncertainty, and opportunity. The next program kicks off in January and applications are now open.

For those of you who have been following my journey building Matter Ventures, you know that I made the difficult decision to pause late last year in order to flare on new and different ways to make a difference in the space. Many of you reached out saying how much Matter has impacted you and your organization. You reinforced how deep of a need Matter had filled in the journalism industry and how much of a gap its absence has left behind.

One person who reached out was longtime Matter mentor Raju Narisetti. He had an idea: What if you were able to continue the impact of Matter by taking over the Sulzberger Program at Columbia Journalism School and infusing the essence of Matter into it?

It was a chance for Matter to live on when it was needed the most. I was in.

While this is, in essence, a side gig as I continue to flare on what I will pour myself into full-time, it guarantees that I have an outlet to continue to impact leaders within journalism and it ensures that the transformative experience of Matter has the opportunity to continue in a new form.

The redesigned Sulzberger Program draws heavily from my experience training both entrepreneurs and journalism leaders through Matter. But it also combines forces with Raju, who has led internal transformation at some of the most important journalism institutions. In addition, it leverages the assets of Columbia University, pulling instructors from Columbia Journalism and Business Schools, drawing industry innovators working in one of the world’s great media capitals, and tapping into the powerful Sulzberger alumni network. This community will give Sulzberger Fellows a powerful breadth of perspective on what it takes to lead innovation in media and journalism.

Like any rising executive, these fellows need a way to improve their leadership, business, and management skills while on the job. But because they are also navigating an industry facing constant disruption, traditional management training won’t suffice. They need to build cultures and create processes within these media companies that doesn’t just help them come up with “the next big thing” but enables the organization to constantly understand the changing needs of their audiences, experiment with emerging technologies, and seek sustainable business models as the world rapidly changes beneath their feet. They need to recognize opportunities for innovation and pursue them without being told what to do or how to do it. They need to lead.

Through the redesigned Sulzberger Program, these rising leaders will learn how to be entrepreneurial within their own media organizations. This is a hands-on, real-world, innovation-focused mini-executive MBA for rising leaders in the fast transforming world of media and journalism.

The program is organized from the point of view of the fellow as the GM/CEO/Founder of their own internal venture or enterprise-wide project. At the heart of the program is the Sulzberger Project. Each fellow will be required to define a project of strategic importance to their employer that they will lead throughout the course of the program. The project can be the launch of a brand new initiative, product, or strategy but it can also be taking charge of an existing one. Most importantly, it should be mission critical to the organization and fit naturally into the fellow’s full-time job.

The 16-week program starts on Jan. 6 with an intensive two weeks on campus at Columbia University. The first week is an immersive team-based experience where fellows will learn how to build a venture from scratch using design thinking processes and mindsets. The second week builds on the venture frameworks established in week one and dives deeper into each module through a series of lectures, case studies, workshops, and guest speakers leveraging experts throughout Columbia and the industry at large.

The modules that organize the Sulzberger experience will be based on the leader as an individual, the leader in the context of a team, and the leader deeply understanding the core variables that must be combined in any successful innovation. Those “venture variables” include understanding Top-Down Trends (The Macro Environment), developing a Bottom-Up Point of View (Audience/User/Customer), creating and managing a Minimum Desirable Experience (Product & User Experience), finding a sustainable Business Model, executing on a Growth Hypothesis (Marketing), establishing a Sustainable Competition Advantage (Strategy), and putting it all together in a Story that coherently brings all these variables together in a vision, plan, and pitch to obtain resources.

After two weeks at Columbia, fellows will return to their organizations with new lenses on themselves, their teams, and their organization. fellows will immediately get an opportunity to directly apply their learning to their own organization through a series of assignments as well as the ongoing project. They will receive feedback and support through regular check-ins with their cohort and myself.

On April 20, fellows will return to Columbia for the final week of the Sulzberger Program ready to share and discuss their real-world experiences while going deeper into the modules through more lectures, case studies, workshops, and guest speakers. The Sulzberger experience will conclude with final project presentations and the opportunity to pitch key stakeholders at their own company.

As with anything I touch, this experience is a prototype and always will be. In a rapidly changing industry, the Sulzberger program will need to change with it. We will strive to deliver timely case studies and guest speakers, adjust modules to fit the observed needs of our fellows and their companies, and constantly improve through feedback.

If you have any case studies, expertise, or feedback that that you think would be particularly relevant to our fellows, please reach out to me at

I’m excited. Are you? If so, dig into the details and apply through Columbia Journalism School here.

Entrepreneurs: Stop coding for a minute. Design folks: Stop running down intuition.

For early-stage startups, technical feats are the least important evidence of their potential.

January 31st will be my last day at Matter. It’s been an honor and privilege, and the three years I got here will continue to influence how I approach work for the rest of my life. Rather than fully enumerate how, I wanted to sign off from my run with one lesson I learned through experience. Thank you. Change media for good.

As the somewhat rare investor and startup advisor who comes to the space from a design and product strategy perspective primarily, I have a reputation for saying the same things over again to every founder I meet:

“Who is this for? Specifically.

“Have you met them? What are their lives like? Where does this fit in?

“How are they going to find out about it? What are you trying to replace that they use now? Why is this better?

“Do they think it’s better? How do you know?”

Yes, I won’t shut up about people. The soft stuff. The squishy substance that self-proclaimed visionaries ignore as they build their brilliant idea that will upend the status quo, so long as it just manages to get some traction. “If you build it, they will come,” as the fictional owner of a ghost baseball stadium in a corn field taught us all about entrepreneurship.

It should come as little surprise that a lot of startups take a long time to listen to me, whether I work closely with them or I just know them casually. Entrepreneurs regard themselves, often correctly, as mavericks, and mavericks don’t do market research. They get insights about the world, and they move fast and break things until everyone else catches up.

Although some startups manage to get gigantic without ever carefully observing people and figuring out which specific problem to solve in which context for which specific person, most will eventually hit a wall if they try to simply hack their way to product/market fit. Then they pick up the pieces, develop real empathy with a real person, make major product and business changes, and make more progress forward in a few weeks than they did in months or years. It’s not inevitable, but it’s common enough that I’ve started to develop a gut sense for when an individual leader is ready to stop trying to “educate the user” and instead educate themselves on what the user needs in the first place.

This pattern tends to recur. The interesting question is, why does it keep repeating, and how can entrepreneurs and their human-centered advisors interrupt this pattern? How can more startups find real inspiration for their companies faster without hitting that wall in the first place? Human-centered design-driven startups (especially those with designers on the founding team) have succeeded tremendously, perhaps most notably at Airbnb. Why, then, is design thinking such a hard process and mindset for entrepreneurs outside this set to adopt and implement?

Through thought and reflection, I’ve concluded there are two factors at play:

  1. Entrepreneurs dramatically underestimate how much investors value true insight about users and markets when making investment decisions (and founders are often, by personality and experience, not the most into asking random strangers to criticize their ideas).
  2. Human-centered design advocates can express their perspectives so forcefully and dogmatically that they can come across as dismissive of other approaches, unconsciously denigrating the mindsets and processes of the entrepreneurs they advise. Worse, design thinking can sound culty and evidence-free in a way that raises founders’ anti-brainwashing and anti-conformity defenses.

I’ll start by explicating the first point to make a case for why entrepreneurs ignore the imperative to be obsessed with the people they’re building their products for at great peril to their future success — and their future funding.

You can’t fake knowing your market.
It’s about risk. The job of a venture-backed entrepreneur is to identify key risks in their company, raise money to reduce those risks, and then watch valuation increase as the venture becomes less risky and later-stage investors see the startup as validated. This pattern repeats for each round of funding if successful.

But all risks are not created equal. There are risks investors can live with and risks they cannot. Above everything else, they look at the team risk. Have these founders worked together before? What have they accomplished? Are they committed and stable, or are they going to break apart at the first moment of conflict.

But assuming you’ve got a great team, there are three types of risk that investors care about: market, technical, and business risk. Or, as Corey articulated early in Matter’s life, what design thinkers call viability, feasibility, and desirability.

Technical risk is straightforward: can it be built with the time, resources, and team potentially at your disposal? Business risk is, too: Can this make money soon and/or at scale, and are there big competitors we need to worry about?

But then there’s market risk, which really comes down to the same question I and many other design thinkers always bang on about: is there at least one customer who cares about this problem, and, if so, are there enough of those customers in the market for this to be a problem worth solving with a venture-backed startup? At the end of the day, is this desirable enough?

Many new founders assume that it’s important to present a promising risk profile in all three of these areas, that you just want to look like you’re winning generally. But as I learned from long-time Matter mentor Brendan, this is the fundamental error of pursuing credibility at the expense of notability. Every early stage startup is flawed, so a bulletproof, optimistic story does nothing but raise the suspicions of investors. It’s far better to be several standard deviations above average in one area and look questionable in the others than to try to be well-rounded if unmemorable.

And if you’re going to be notable, market risk is a really good area to stand out! Remember, after team risk, investors care more about market risk than anything else, which is why the Matter accelerator emphasized validating desirability above all else. To an investor, if you’re solving the wrong problem, literally nothing else matters. It doesn’t matter how challenging to develop your tech is, it doesn’t matter what remarkable unit economics you could achieve at scale: a startup that isn’t solving a real user need is a great vehicle for setting millions of dollars and the best years of your life on fire. Other than describing a startup as “too early for us” or “playing in too small a market,” there is no more damning phrase in the mouth of an investor than “this feels like a solution in search of a problem.” If you hear that, congratulations: in a best case, you just might have the next Yo on your hands.

To really drive this back to the underestimation issue I mentioned above: investors can tell when you don’t really know your market risk, or when you’re waving your hands and citing top-down trends as a way to share insight about your users. This flaw in your venture’s story glistens like flop sweat on a comedian’s forehead at their first open mic. There’s no recovering from it.

What investors want to walk away from a pitch feeling about a startup’s market risk is the following: “Wow. That entrepreneur taught me a lot about a market I thought I understood before because they are obsessed with the people who live in it and have genuine insight that almost no one else does. I’m not sure yet if the market is definitely big enough or if their approach is a perfect fit for our investment thesis, but that team is going places, and I can’t imagine who would be able to keep up with them in solving that particular problem.” That’s what a win in a pitch meeting looks like. That doesn’t guarantee you get a check, but it’s the bar you have to clear.

The upshot is this: When an earnest, yammering, human-centered design advisor tells you nothing matters unless you nail who your user is, the context in which they live, the need you’re solving, and a set of insights that mean you’re uniquely able to define a resonant solution for the market, you should listen. Step away from the keyboard. Stop reading your (likely statistically insignificant) analytics for awhile. Close your list of priority features for your next release. Stop doing anything until you can paint an honest picture of your user and why their circumstances wouldn’t just welcome a new solution — they demand it. That’s the substance of your product and company. Everything else is irrelevant until you know that.

End shaming of entrepreneurs.

You’re not getting off easy either, design evangelists.
Now it’s time to shame the true believer design advocates among whom I grew up: the arguments you’re making to try to convince people to take a more empathy-driven approach often come across as condescending, generic, or, worse in the eyes of many, idealistic to the point of dangerous naïveté.

Let’s face some facts: plenty — almost certainly the majority — of products and startups created through design thinking processes still fail. Ultimately, luck and timing play as big or a bigger role than whether or not the founders spoke to enough potential customers and had a pithy POV statement that every employee could recite backwards from memory. I firmly believe that following a human-centered process and, more importantly, possessing a curious, human-centered mindset both increase — often dramatically so — the odds of a product or startup’s success. But neither comes close to providing a certain pathway to the top, and it reduces credibility to talk as if they do.

But even that last message often gets lost between advisor and founders. The case for a design-driven approach to entrepreneurship often summons the (deservedly legendary) skepticism of founders, and both parties suddenly find themselves in the most intransigent debate of all: attempting to prove or disprove the validity of an approach that itself isn’t rooted in statistics or unassailable logic. As is inevitable in all such circumstances, no one learns anything and everyone walks away more committed to their side of the argument than they were at the outset.

How and why do we get here? It stems from both founders and design advocates spending far too much time talking about the past of the venture in question and not enough time talking about the future. Here’s how it plays out: A new design mentor, advisor, or investor, asks to hear the history of how a startup came to be: the inspiration, the leap of faith to quit the day job, the different versions of the product, the many ups, the many downs, and the many, many in-betweens.

And, rather than take this history as a narrative for understanding where the founders are coming from — rather than actually practicing empathy for entrepreneurs —some try to impose a cookie-cutter template on the way things could have gone if only the founders had already been enlightened to the true way of design thinking. That failed first product whose many incorrect assumptions you ultimately discarded after pouring your heart into it? Wouldn’t it have been great to know it was the wrong thing and moved onto the next thing before you invested six months and your life savings in it?

Sure, it would be great! But you’re not going to convince an entrepreneur who has sacrificed and done what most would regard as risky or crazy that their hard-earned lessons could have been learned much faster if only they listened more to experts and ordinary people than by trusting their guts and following their passions. This is made even worse if you have not been a founder of a startup yourself, because that makes it all too easy to set your views aside. It’s just a fundamentally incompatible pair of perspectives that can sound like the design evangelist is saying the entrepreneur’s approach to building a startup is wrong and, on the flip side, can sound like the entrepreneurs don’t think they have anything to learn and don’t believe anyone understands what they’ve been through. What’s worse that sometimes actually is what both sides mean.

The clashes between intuition and evidence, between art and science, have raged for millennia, and they will continue to. But no one involved in early stage startups have the time or energy to relitigate those clashes. For design mentors and advisors to add value to a startup, they need to practice what they preach. They need to observe carefully and then identify opportunities to coach founders on how to inject more of a focus on people, prototyping, and quick experimentation into their venture that will not only help them build a better product and business down the line, but will, crucially, save time and money and increase the odds of building a company that investors back with huge sums of money.

That kind of convergent goal, that focus on a future state and how to get to an even better level of performance — not conducting a tedious at best, insulting at worst, postmortem of the history of the company to date — is where human-centered design becomes a giant booster rocket to the launch and long-term trajectory of a startup.

The good news is that the goal of breakout success is already shared between advisor and entrepreneur. All that needs to happen to enable that collaboration is to embrace a helpful pair of assumptions. Founders: a focus on the user is not a distraction, and its absence can easily kill an investor’s interest in you. Design advisors: Your job is to make the future even better, not to criticize the past. That’s it.

Now. Let’s do something amazing together.

It’s time to flare.

I’m proud of the impact we’ve made at Matter, the team we’ve built, and the people that we have transformed. But now it’s time for me to explore.

As all Matter entrepreneurs know, venture design is a process that consists of a series of flaring and focusing, knowing how and when to explore and knowing how and when to execute. In a flare, you uncritically explore and ideate; when you’re focusing, you filter and execute on your ideas. Successful venture designers do that as many times as possible as they create a venture that is feasible, viable, and desirable. I call this journey “The Drunken Walk of the Entrepreneur.

Recently I’ve come to the realization that for the last 7 years I have been in extreme focus mode. Since starting Matter from scratch in 2012, Matter has raised 2 venture funds, run 8 accelerator cohorts, invested in 73 portfolio companies, brought together 12 institutional media and technology partners, delivered 5 partner accelerator programs, trained local news organizations across the United States and Asia Pacific through Open Matter, assembled a network of 340 mentors, established media innovation spaces and communities in both SF and NYC, and built a team of extraordinary human beings on both coasts. We’ve proven that our repeatable and scalable venture design process works. Matter startups have raised over $53M and have been acquired by companies like Snap, Buzzfeed, and Kickstarter. In this tough early-stage media space, Matter startups have proven to be resilient, with 84% of our Fund II companies still operating or achieving an exit. And, in an industry with a terrible track record of diversity and inclusion, 50% of our Fund II founder CEOs are women and 40% are people of color.

I’m proud of the impact we’ve made, the team we’ve built, and the people and organizations that we have transformed. But now it’s time for me to flare.

For the last two years I have tried to secure Matter’s future. While I succeeded at figuring out how to successfully expand Matter and its unique culture to NYC and to tranform Matter into an organization that could continue to operate if I were hit by a bus, I have yet to successfully raise Matter Fund III and we’ve come to the end of our runway.

As the investment period for Matter Fund II has now come to a close, I have decided to pause raising Matter Fund III and take a step back to decide where I want to take Matter and, most importantly, what I want to pour myself into next. That could take many forms, from deciding to raise Matter Fund III with a different strategy, to pivoting Matter to a services business, to starting my next company, to taking a leadership role at an existing company in media, venture capital, technology, education, or government. The whole point is I need to flare — get out into the world, have lots of conversations, and generate multiple directions before focusing on one. So if you’re up for exploring possibilities, let’s talk.

Up until this exact moment I haven’t allowed myself to think about anything besides figuring out how to keep Matter alive. Matter is my baby. And I have made the classic (and inevitable) founder mistake of intertwining my identity and my self-worth with the identity and the success of Matter. That’s not healthy. That’s why I need to take a step back. So I am allowing myself to separate the two as I explore potential futures for myself in which Matter continues — and in which it doesn’t.

I’ve been focusing too long. It’s time to flare.

The practical implications of this are that the Matter accelerator program is on pause indefinitely and I have knocked down our burn rate to the studs. The Matter spaces in SF and NYC have been subleased and, effective February 1, the full-time Matter team will just be me. I will continue to support our portfolio of 73 companies across our two funds. I may also continue to provide Matter services like bootcamps, workshops, consulting, coaching, and speaking. I will do this full-time for now but this may shift to part-time in the future depending on how my personal exploration takes shape.

I don’t make this decision lightly. In fact, I’ve been struggling with it for the last 6 months. But if there’s one lesson that all Matter entrepreneurs know, it’s that sometimes you have to “Kill Your Puppies” in order to truly make your venture succeed. So that’s what I’m going to do.

I still fundamentally believe in Matter’s mission to support early-stage entrepreneurs and leaders within essential institutions of journalism to build a more informed, empathetic, and inclusive society. Journalism and democracy are now under attack around the world. Social media giants have demonstrated that they cannot be trusted to make decisions that are in the best interest of their users and of democracy. Mission-driven media entrepreneurs are needed now more than ever to build alternatives and to strengthen our media ecosystem. And existing media institutions need to become more resilient by transforming their culture. The world is moving so fast that media organizations will only be relevant, sustainable, and impactful in the future if they focus on building culture, people, and processes that enable them to constantly be understanding the needs and behaviors of their audiences, leveraging emerging technologies, and seeking sustainable business models. That starts and ends with culture.

Matter is a community and it is a community that will continue. I am forever grateful to each and every one of you who have made the last seven years of the Matter accelerator program possible. Our founding institutional partners, KQED, Knight Foundation, and PRX, and my co-founder, Jake Shapiro, made a huge bet on me when Matter was only a crazy idea on a whiteboard. After we proved out our process for entrepreneurs in Fund I, The Associated Press, McClatchy, CNHI, and AH Belo made a bet on us that we could expand those offerings to our partners in Fund II. And when we decided to expand to NYC, The New York Times, Tribune Publishing, and Tamedia made a bet on us that we could successfully replicate our model and, most importantly, our culture in a new city. Steve Grove of the Google News Initiative has had our back at every step of the way, first by becoming our technology partner, then by supporting our expansion to NYC, and then by enabling us to offer our Open Matter Bootcamps to local news organizations across the United States and Asia Pacific. And Google for Startups has connected us into a startup community that has enabled us to learn best practices from around the world.

I am thankful for the entrepreneurs from our 73 portfolio companies for trusting us to invest in their companies and guide them on their journeys. We may have been investing in them but they were the ones really betting on us. Entrepreneurship is hard. I see the grit and determination and creativity of founders every single day. The highs are high and the lows are low and the chances of failure are almost certain. I believe many of our investments will succeed in fulfilling their bold visions AND the truth of the matter is that most entrepreneurs we invest in will fail. It’s the nature of the beast. But regardless of whether their business venture succeeds, I know that the Matter experience has transformed each and every founder who has come through our door and I believe in the impact that these incredible humans will have in their current venture, their next venture, or in leadership positions at the most influential organizations throughout media and technology. That is success.

We have built an incredible team at Matter and the thing I most regret is that I haven’t found a way to keep this team together. Everyone who chose to work at Matter made a bet on me and I’m grateful for that. Each of our employees has made me a better leader and a better person through their example, their empathy, their creativity, their grit, and their gifts of feedback. Lara Ortiz-Luis, Ben Werdmuller, Pete Mortensen, Roxann Stafford, Josh Lucido, Liz Kopp Morrison, Shereen Adel, Lindsay Abrams, Kourtney Bitterly, Nikita Shamdasani, Rebecca Bowring Radnaev, and Jigar Mehta, I hope to work with each and every one of you again one day. Thanks also to our Google News Lab Fellows, our Morehead-Cain Scholars, and our Stanford GSB Associates who got thrown in the deep end every summer and thrived as true members of our team.

I am also thankful for the guidance of Matter Advisory Board members past and present who have been the sounding board for Matter’s strategy and have given me encouragement and confidence through Matter’s own drunken walk. I am especially thankful for the steadfast support and guidance from Jake Shapiro, Jim Kennedy, Tim Olson, Andy Pergam, John Boland, Kerri Hoffman, Steve Grove, Jake Smilovitz, Nick Rockwell, Jeremey Gockel, Pat Talamantes, Craig Forman, Matthew Ipsan, Nicki Purcell, John Bracken, Ben Wirz, and Pietro Supino.

Finally, I want to thank our mentors — 340 strong! — who volunteered their time, their advice, their personal narratives, their “gloves off” feedback, and their connections. Matter’s core team has always been small and you were the leverage that made Matter possible.

Thank you all for creating a community that continues to change media for good. Onward.

Open Matter Phase I: Complete

Reflections on an experiment to support local news innovation

At CUNY: the first of four class photos.

To say this year started with a bang for Matter is an understatement. Just two days into the New Year, I learned that:

  1. We were moving ahead with our local news innovation bootcamps with the support of Google News Initiative.
  2. I was in charge!

It was a shot of adrenaline that launched us into rapid action. Over the next month, we finalized plans with Google, enrolled News Media Alliance as our industry partner, and secured the support of our incredible university partners at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, UC Berkeley Advanced Media Institute, the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute at the Missouri School of Journalism, and the James M. Cox Jr. Institute for Journalism Innovation, Management & Leadership at the University of Georgia’s Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.

The Berkeley scramble for prototyping supplies.

We then dove into our curriculum, adapting, tweaking, and changing elements we’ve put into practice with our entrepreneurs and publishing partners over the years to make sure we were providing concentrated, standalone experience that participants could take home and put into action. Across two and a half days, news organizations would be mixed together, then build new startups from scratch, culminating with a pitch session, before rejoining their colleagues to begin applying the methodology to their everyday work and news innovation projects.

We built an application process, posted announcements detailing the opportunity, and had one last phone call with the principal partners. We dreamt up ways this program could impact for-profit newsroom across the country and decided to call it Open Matter. And then, we pressed go and waited.

Building in Georgia

Having run similar application processes for our startup accelerator, I can say that one of the great sources of joy in evaluating applicants is getting to be blown away by an out-of-the-blue team that you could have only hoped would throw their hats into the ring.

And, I can tell you, having wrapped up this first phase of Open Matter a few weeks ago, we got blown away again and again. Whether it was the crew in New York, Mizzou, Georgia, or California, the 23 teams (assembled from more than 44 newsrooms and comprising 133 incredible people) we hosted for Open Matter represent a vital cross-section of the local news fabric. Each team was unique but had shared challenges that brought them to Open Matter: Declining print circulation, aging readership, the challenges of distribution in a post-app world, how to motivate readers into becoming true members. They were inspired to put in the work, to get uncomfortable, try new things, and then be ready to put what they learned into immediate action, before they even left bootcamp.

Camaraderie in Missouri

At each of the bootcamps I helped lead I felt a tremendous sense of satisfaction, as the talent, energy, and enthusiasm of the people fighting for the future of local news manifested at four great journalism schools. But my satisfaction, nor Matter’s, isn’t terribly important. What counts is what the people we designed for thought about the experience, and what they’re doing with what they learned.

And the data is clear — across all four Open Matter bootcamps, participants were very satisfied indeed.

— Overall satisfaction: 4.33/5 average
 — This will have a positive impact on my work: 4.35/5
 — Likelihood to recommend to a peer: 4.45/5

Coming to Open Matter for a full three days, usually in another city or state, is a tremendous commitment for any local news organization in the current era. We really, really didn’t want to let them down, and the numbers suggest we largely succeeded.

As for what they will do, well, that’s still somewhat to be foretold. I’ve been checking in with teams and gathering stories, and I will be sharing some impact in this very publication before long. I can tease that a few teams have embraced the Open Matter material to a degree and depth I could not have guessed in advance. But that’s a story for another time.

As for Open Matter’s future, all I can say is that this wave was meant to start a lot more experiments in the future of news. It wasn’t meant to be the full set we ever work on. This is the end of chapter one. There’s much more to be written and done. Stay tuned… or give us a call if you want to collaborate on something similar!

Thank you, Matter.

It’s six o’clock on a Friday morning in June. No, I’m not blissfully catching up on rest ahead of a homework-filled weekend in Chapel Hill. Instead, I find myself coordinating coffee deliveries, finalizing space setup, and extinguishing every small fire in sight before entrepreneurs arrive. Months of mindful planning are reaching their zenith — Matter Eight Demo Day.

Me smiling to mask my Demo Day exhaustion

My name is Matt and for the past nine weeks I’ve been a Program Intern at Matter. That means I observed firsthand the grueling efforts Matter Eight entrepreneurs invested to prepare for demo day. Beginning with Design Review 3 the week I joined Matter, and continuing through speaker series, office hours, and feedback sessions, I witnessed the core of Matter’s approach: to be on the cutting edge of design thinking, entrepreneurship, and media.

Before officially starting at Matter, I had only an abstract conception of what it means to be a mission-driven for-profit organization. The notion didn’t quite jive with the world I encountered previously. I currently serve as the President of the Board of Directors for the Daily Tar Heel, one of the oldest and most respected college media organizations in the country. Perhaps because of my experience in a nonprofit organization, my mind associates the words ‘mission-driven’ with nonprofits or poorly performing companies, stumbling to reconcile its mission with its margins. I was a skeptic. Fortunately, nine weeks of learning, doing, observing, and failing convinced me that thriving mission-driven companies like Matter not only exist, they are essential to economic and societal health.

Corey Ford, Matter’s Managing Director, put it best when he said this:

“We believe you can do good and do well. In fact, in this climate, we believe that if you don’t start by doing good, you will not do well.”
Corey Ford introducing Matter Eight teams at Demo Day in San Francisco

My summer also taught me that Matter’s staff actively practices the design thinking principles they preach — and they really do work. We regularly engage in ideation, feedback, empathy, prototyping, failing forward, and everything in between. And although the process didn’t feel natural at first (like I said, I was skeptic), I now can’t imagine work and innovation happening any other way. I believe that human-centered design is the most efficient and reliable way to build products for human use. Otherwise, you’re just throwing dull imaginary darts at a dartboard of faceless imaginary users. You’re designing specifically for yourself. Or worse yet, you’re trying to design for everyone.

Back to that caffeine-fueled June morning. If you were in the room on demo day, you certainly experienced, as I did, what Matter is all about. Matter invests in early stage media startups that are working to build a more informed, empathetic, and inclusive society. Each founder that presented is dedicated to at least one of those goals.

On Demo Day, the first entrepreneur began her pitch directly after Corey’s introduction. Hebah Fisher is the founder and CEO of Kerning Cultures, a podcast dedicated to storytelling in the Middle East. For people living outside of the region, Kerning Cultures aims to upend stereotypes perpetuated by media portrayals of Middle Eastern and North African politics. For Middle Eastern listeners, Kerning Cultures tells stories that people can see themselves in. The stories that Hebah and her team tell inform audiences, construct empathy, and include voices that aren’t represented in traditional Middle Eastern media outlets.

Hebah Fisher presenting at Matter Eight Demo Day in San Francisco

The twelve Matter Eight teams have little in common beyond this: they are building a more informed, empathetic, and inclusive society. Every pitch after Hebah’s shared these themes.

Sadly, my time at Matter is quickly coming to a close this week. I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity to intern at Matter, an environment that is lively, interesting, and ever changing. Matter has the perfect blend of expertise, entrepreneurial spirit, and whimsy. On my first day I was told to embrace any task, big or small. That’s exactly what happens here each day.

My departure from Matter is bittersweet. It’s bitter in the sense that I no longer get the chance to work alongside the amazing, passionate Matter community every day. But I do get to carry my experiences back to UNC and the Daily Tar Heel for my senior year. In a futile attempt to summarize all that I’ve learned during my time here, I’m left with this: Do good, do well, and always stick to your values.

Thank you, Matter.

8 Ways Matter Eight is Changing the Future of Media

Our eighth cohort is moving onward and upward. We anticipate great things.

Matter kicked off 2018 with a new cohort of intelligent, capable entrepreneurs with big visions for the media companies they had begun to build. The teams came through our garage doors in February at different stages of development, and over the past five months, they incorporated design thinking principles into their work, iterated their businesses time and time again, and embraced the principle of failing fast to fail forward. Yet that barely scratches the surface of what Matter Eight accomplished.

At the core of each of these startups is a firmly-held belief that this thing needs to exist. Though the cycle ends with Demo Day, the experiment is just beginning for these entrepreneurs.

Here are eight ways Matter Eight companies push the boundaries of what’s possible in tech and media.

1. Giving underrepresented creators new ways to be seen, heard, and discovered

DeShuna Spencer, Founder & CEO of kweliTV

Media plays a central role in determining how we perceive cultures that are different from our own. In order to create a more equitable society, cross-cultural representations must be accurate, empathetic, and accessible. Matter Eight startups kweliTV and Kerning Cultures tell broad stories that go beyond the usual narrative, replacing negative or inaccurate stereotypes of black and Middle Eastern cultures with authentic stories from creators who have previously been left out of the conversation, while Scriptd creates a new channel of discovery for such creators.

2. Changing your news consumption habits for the better

Compass News Co-Founders Mayank Banerjee and Matilde Gigli

Revitalizing journalism is at the core of our mission here at Matter. In 2015, the American Press Institute reported 88 percent of millennials consumed news on Facebook regularly — yet it wasn’t until 2016 that the polls exposed just how splintered our democracy had become. Facebook and other social media platforms create filter bubbles that conflict with one of journalism’s fundamental principles, objectivity, help spread fake news, and hasten the decline of civility on the web.

On the surface, Compass News and would appear to have conflicting missions: the former is using technology to summarize the news, while the latter is using technology to hold users to task for reading articles to completion.

Compass News, however, is simply meeting its millennial users where they are, delivering news in a format that works for them. The team uses machine learning technology to transform the much-loathed news app experience, valuing personalization but also providing a breadth of topics and opinions.

By developing a “FitBit for reading,” on the other hand, is promoting media literacy, and building a community that highlights commenters who demonstrate their breadth and depth of their reading habits. Through two very different routes, both companies are contributing to our mission of creating a more informed society.

3. Getting you the personalized information you need, when you need it

Courtney Snavely, Co-Founder of Ovee

Expediency and personalization are no longer “nice to haves.” Instead, they are increasingly expected by consumers.

With its AI editor, Compass News is able to personalize its newsfeed for individual users’ interests. Ovee is another product designed to be incorporated into the user’s regular routine. Ovee harnesses both the anonymity and the flexibility of mobile technology to connect young women with accessible and reliable information about their sexual health.

4. Reimagining the way we engage with brands, and they with us

Matter Eight companies Paytime and Tangible solve pervasive industry ailments: reaching and engaging customers. Paytime takes a simple principle (“Time is money”) and turns it into a new way of paying for subscriptions, where advertisers have the opportunity to engage directly with users and users are given control over the information they share with those advertisers. Tangible gives ecommerce companies a way to reach customers “IRL”, harnessing direct mail to provide a more valuable and memorable way to interact with users.

Paytime CEO Ignacio Linares

5. Restoring value to digital ads

Paytime attracts much-coveted millennial audiences with the promise of transparency and a fair return on investment. Advertisers are mining data regardless, but through Paytime the user is in control, and directly benefits from engaging with a brand of their choice.

Optimera maximizes ad revenue through its suite of solutions that optimize for viewability, a concept that plagues publishers and advertisers alike. Founder Keith Candiotti explains the conundrum the two parties currently face in this Medium post: “Consider for a moment that 70% of all ads on the internet were not seen but 100% were paid for by advertisers. Or another way to put it, in a 36 billion dollar a year industry, $25 billion was wasted.” The high viewability standards advertisers now demand as a result is hurting publishers. Optimera’s platform solves this tedious issue for time-strapped publishers with a few lines of Javascript code.

6. Cutting through the red tape to ensure decision makers listen to their users–and their employees

LedBetter CEO Iris Kuo

Although the past year has demonstrated technology’s potential to both threaten and facilitate democracy, we at Matter believe in utilizing technology to address problems of access and integrity. One Matter Eight company that embodies this ideal is LedBetter, which combats all-too-frequent occurrences of workplace discrimination, starting with its gender equality index. LedBetter helps companies collect and report on their leadership diversity, and gives them the tools they need to improve their company culture. It offers potential hires insight grounded in data and qualitative analysis and puts PR jargon to the test.

Targeting diversity in the entertainment industry, Scriptd also connects leaders with their audiences. From discovery to optioning, Scriptd serves as the connective tissue between production companies and talented writers tha might otherwise go unheard.

7. Harnessing emerging technologies to help you search for what you want — and need

nēdl CEO Ayinde Alakoye

In today’s content-saturated media climate, optimizing according to SEO best practices isn’t sufficient — particularly for smaller publishers competing against household names with national and global reach. More than half of web users find content through organic search, yet only five percent of users click beyond Google’s first page. nēdl puts the power of broadcast in everyone’s hands, democratizing a long-static industry. On the nēdl app, users can easily search and stream live radio, as well as create their own stations anytime, anywhere.

As the post-mobile world approaches, everyday utilities are being reimagined beyond the typical constraints of a screen. Drop, which designs information spaces in VR, is one of several companies working to humanize virtual reality. Browsing doesn’t have to be a phone-in-hand, eyes-glued-to-screen activity. Drop demonstrates that it is already becoming immersive.

8. Changing media for good

Everything we do at Matter comes back to this central mission. And it’s one that is more important now than ever before.

Matter Eight entrepreneurs are designing the future of media with a fierce commitment to sharing knowledge, valuing diverse perspectives, and leading with empathy. Despite Demo Day marking the end of their time at Matter, each team’s passion for their unique causes will drive their next steps of development.

We know we’ll be following along, and we hope you will, too.

Meet the teams of Open Matter Berkeley and Open Matter Georgia!

After a brief interlude for a little thing called Matter Demo Days, we’re back next week with the final two installments of the first Open Matter bootcamp program. They’re happening on opposite coasts on the same days. Up first (by three hours, thanks to the Eastern Time Zone) is the James M. Cox Jr. Institute for Journalism Innovation, Management & Leadership at the University of Georgia’s Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, which will be ably led by my colleagues Roxann Stafford, Josh Lucido, and Lindsay Abrams. On the West Coast, Ben Werdmuller, Shereen Adel, and I will lead an Open Matter at UC Berkeley Advanced Media Institute.

We’re excited, and it’s a heck of a way to get summer off to a roaring start. But we’re even more excited about who will be joining us for the experience!

Here are the 10 teams who will participate in the first-ever Double Open Matter!

Gatehouse Media (Florida), publisher of local newspapers
As I mentioned in my post about our Mizzou Boot Camp, I started my career at the Holland Sentinel, which is now owned by Gatehouse. Their publications reach an incredibly large number of people as the local paper of their community. The team for Georgia comes from Gatehouse’s corporate side, as well as leaders from their papers in Daytona Beach, Lakeland, Sarasota, Palm Beach, and Jacksonville, Florida.

CNHI, publisher of more than 100 local newspapers
We’ve had the pleasure of knowing and working with CNHI as a partner of Matter’s for several years now, and we’re thrilled to be able to deepen our impact with them. They own more than 100 newspapers in 22 states and are based in Montgomery, Alabama. Thanks to Open Matter, more of their team will be able to train and apply their learning throughout the chain. Their team of five come to us from CNHI itself, as well as publications in Texas, Massachusetts, and Indiana.

American City Business Journals, covering business where it happens
It’s all-too easy to break the news ecosystem into what’s local by geography, and then what’s vertical and therefore national and global. But business is local, too. Inherently local, even for global businesses. And American City Business Journals is a major lens for how people understand the business environment around them. They publish 43 business publications covering 43 distinct metropolitan areas. We’re thrilled to welcome them to Georgia.

Cox Media Group, Atlanta’s news source
Atlanta is the Empire City of the South — the center of industry, news, and entertainment alike. It’s only appropriate, then, that we welcome Cox Media Group for our Georgia bootcamp. Cox owns six newspapers and dozens of TV and radio stations, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, WSB in Atlanta, and WGAU in Athens. They are the largest news source in the largest market in the region. We’re proud to include their Atlanta-based team in our group.

Berkeleyside, an innovative news publisher and events company
Many see a potential new revenue stream for local news organizations of all kinds in hosting events in the community. Few have realized it so successfully as Berkeleyside with Uncharted, the Berkeley Festival of Ideas, hosted each fall and bringing together world-class thinkers and doers. We’re excited to welcome their team to our Berkeley Open Matter.

Mission Local, award-winning hyperlocal publication
Originally started at the Berkeley School of Journalism, Mission Local is the definitive news source for San Francisco’s Mission District, covering its many changes and breaking news since 2008. Like Berkeleyside and past participant Spirited Media, they’re part of a movement of built-from-scratch new local publications that are starting from the bottom-up and validating their model and experiments as they scale.

Gatehouse Media Ohio
Like their Florida colleagues, the teams from the Ohio wing of Gatehouse represent many corners of a major state. They represent Columbus, Canton, and regional coverage of all Ohio. As a Great Lakes region transplant myself, I’m excited to see them out here by the Bay.

Mt. Angel Publishing, community news in the Oregon countryside
Open Matter has been home to every scale of local news organization, from hyperlocal digital-only publications to major metros. Having been an editor of a community weekly, however, I’m glad to see the category represented in Mt. Angel, which publishes a wide variety of publications based in Silverton and Stayton, Oregon. Serving those two towns, each with fewer than 10,000 residents, and their surrounding areas is an important and essential part of the news ecosystem.

Reno Gazette-Journal, chronicler of the biggest little city in the world
Reno, Nevada is a fascinating and fast-changing city. Its population has grown by more than 30% since 2000 and now sits near 250,000. And the Gazette-Journal has covered its growth, economy, and population throughout. I’m thrilled they’ll be traveling over the Sierras to see us down here by the water., digital-first publishing for curious locals
Arriving in a new place is a challenge. What does it take to become a real local? That’s the problem set out to solve as it set itself up, first in Miami, with support from the Knight Foundation, and now Seattle, Portland, and Orlando. I had the pleasure of meeting their CEO Christopher Sopher a few years ago, and I’m excited to welcome the team as they plan their future growth.

What an incredible group! The entire first wave of Open Matter has been a remarkable journey with great participants, hosts, and, of course, partners. It’s been the honor of my life to lead this effort for Matter, and I can’t wait to welcome all these teams to Berkeley and Georgia next week to wrap up this cycle.

The Drunken Walk, S3-E7: Jill Koziol – Co-Founder, Motherly

Jill Koziol, Co-Founder and CEO of Motherly (and Matter Five alum!), joined us in San Francisco for a conversation with Matter Eight entrepreneurs. Pete Mortensen, Director of Program in San Francisco, talked with Jill about the incredible growth that Motherly has seen over the last few years.

Initially, Jill says, their growth was slow, but steady. By staying the course with conviction and always going back to their user—a digitally native, Millennial mom who is learning to parent in very different circumstances than previous generations—they built something that resonated. And over time, because they deeply understand her needs, they saw a huge spike in users without pouring tons of money into advertising.

The Drunken Walk, S3-E6: Deepa Subramanian- Co-founder, Wherewithall

The Drunken Walk is a series of live fireside chats, blog posts, and podcasts from Matter Ventures, the world’s only independent startup accelerator for media entrepreneurs.

Our eighth accelerator class is underway in San Francisco and New York City. Learn more about our amazing teams.

Join the conversation about the future of media by following us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and of course here on Medium!

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Enough is enough. It’s time to support startups that respect our rights.

Surveillance is not a requirement. We’re looking for scrappy entrepreneurs trying to build something better.

It’s hard to avoid the headlines. The personal information of tens of millions of people was scraped by a political consultant campaign, using the API of the world’s largest social network. There was no data breach; there were no hackers. The information taken from the API as designed, which was there in the first place to support a targeted advertising business model with a goal of growth at all costs.

This event wasn’t alone. It would be naïve to assume that there had only been one solitary personality test that used this data. Aggressive data gathering has become commonplace. Even in the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook again drew fire for storing facial recognition data without consent. And Facebook is far from the only tech company guilty of such activities.

It would be easy to blame the tech industry for these abuses of trust — and we should. But at Matter, we know that there are entrepreneurs and startups who are actively trying to create a more informed, inclusive, and empathetic society. There are ventures engaged in the business of supporting democracy. They’re out there, fighting against the tide to build something better. They know that technology, used well, can empower communities, not undermine and divide them. They know it’s not just about good intentions: it’s about deeply understanding the implications of your work. And we know this because they apply to join our program every single day.

A community changing media for good

Our five-month, immersive accelerator in San Francisco and New York City helps entrepreneurs de-risk their businesses through a culture of rapid, prototype-driven experimentation. We help you understand your users and your venture holistically, test your core assumptions, and land on something that resonates, is feasible, and is a viable business.

That’s important for every venture — but it’s particularly important when you’re mission-driven. You can have all the goodwill in the world, but if you’re building something that aims to do good, you have a responsibility to make it viable. If you want to make an impact tomorrow, you should want to be continuing to make waves two years from now. We want to help you do well while doing good.

We believe the seeds of the next great media institutions will be planted by courageous entrepreneurs who make the leap to build ventures that speak truth to power, close the empathy gap, and take a radically inclusive approach to amplifying the voices of all people.

This moment is too important to let slide. We’ve always made it clear that we’re looking for the next generation of ventures that will remake the technology industry into one that supports inclusion, empathy, and safety. And now it’s more important than ever.

A human-centered program that aligns you with your users

Recently, Anil Dash wrote in 12 Things Everyone Should Understand About Tech:

We can be thoughtfully skeptical and critical of modern tech products and companies without having to believe that most people who create tech are “bad”. Having met tens of thousands of people around the world who create hardware and software, I can attest that the cliché that they want to change the world for the better is a sincere one. Tech creators are very earnest about wanting to have a positive impact.

Wanting to make a positive impact is one thing. Ensuring that you do is another.

Matter’s program gives you the tools to holistically understand your user — and your venture. Our version of design thinking aligns you on a fundamental level with the people you’re trying to help. Rather than harvesting their data, or engaging in an ad blocking arms race with them, we can help you find business models that meet their deep, unmet needs, while allowing you to grow and reach profitability.

The Matter Nine program

Matter is all about testing and experimentation. The pillars of our program are Design Reviews: closed, safe spaces where you can get feedback on the vital characteristics of your venture. You will tell the story of your startup in the form of a narrative, and receive gloves-off, honest feedback from a panel of experts and invited attendees.

Nothing leaves the room; everybody understands that your venture is a work in progress; you decide which feedback you want to act on (after all, it’s your venture). But at the end of the session you have far more data than you had before.

Then, together with a community that will keep you accountable, you set goals that will guide you to the next Design Review.

In between, you meet one-on-one with members of our network of hundreds of mentors, hear the stories of invited speakers who have been down this entrepreneurial path before, participate in workshops around vital topics like revenue models and user journeys, and test and share with your fellow entrepreneurs as part of a weekly event we call a Shareout.

This is all in service of helping you to perform rapid tests, get feedback quickly, and use what you learn to propel you forwards at an accelerated pace by aligning you with your users. We’ve proven that the model de-risks startups and helps them find success. And in today’s climate, we think it’s more important than ever that the ventures that shape the future will support democracy and help to build a more informed, inclusive, and empathetic society.

Apply today. Applications are still open. You need a team, a working prototype, and a deck. We’re excited to meet you.