Xconomy Detroit Tracks Innovative Ventures with Innovative Journalism

Xconomy is a journalism startup with a look and feel that’s part trade pub, part community blog and part old-fashioned news wire.

Focused on coverage of high-tech innovation, the site was launched in Boston in 2007 and has added editions and staff in Seattle and San Diego. All three cities are natural targets for a niche full of venture capital, angel funds and reinvention of the world as we know it.

On Tuesday, Xconomy launched in Detroit, a city that co-founder, CEO and editor-in-chief Bob Buderi acknowledges “would not be on our list” were it not for special circumstances.

Among them: the Michigan roots of Xconomy Chief Correspondent Wade Roush and Co-founder, COO and Executive Editor Rebecca Zacks. Says Roush: “Nobody thinks of Detroit as a hub of innovation, but it’s going to have to become one if it has any hope of rebuilding its economy.”

Buderi, a former technology editor at BusinessWeek and former editor in chief of MIT’s Technology Review, described Detroit’s situation as “an American story that will play out as a story of challenge and innovation — a city that’s down but not giving up.”

A launch-day post by the site’s Detroit correspondent, Howard Lovy, reflects much more of “stake in the place” than is often exhibited in traditional journalism. In each of its cities, Xconomy recruits contributors (called “Xconomists,” of course) to write op-eds for the site. Tuesday’s launch in Detroit includes proposals to rejuvenate the local economy from the head of the city’s TechTown center for entrepreneurship and from a Harvard professor who has helped start companies now worth more than $20 billion.

Detroit’s unusual media landscape

The venture reflects an intriguing new wrinkle in the already unusual media landscape in Detroit, where the daily newspapers provide home delivery only three days a week and Time Inc., purchased a $99,000 home to house Time magazine’s bureau chief and maintain work space for visiting correspondents from all its magazines. The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, meanwhile, is helping finance broadband Internet access and computer training for 5,000 low-income households in Detroit.

For Xconomy, what closed the gap between a nice idea and Tuesday’s Detroit launch, according to Buderi, was money from the Kauffman Foundation, often described as the world’s largest foundation focused on entrepreneurship. The alliance represents an unusual hybrid of a foundation and a for-profit news venture teaming up to provide coverage that would probably never happen otherwise.

Buderi refused to say how much money Kauffman provided, which strikes me as an odd gap in transparency, but which Buderi says is “a simple matter of not wanting to reveal such a detailed picture of our resources.”

Lesa Mitchell, Kauffman’s vice president for advancing innovation, describes herself as an avid, daily reader of Xconomy who believes the site can help link up the Detroit area’s “connective tissues” between inventors, entrepreneurs and big companies. In a telephone interview, she said “you can literally feel” that kind of linkage in places like Boston and Silicon Valley, but not in Detroit.

Mitchell (no relation) talks about the eco-system of a city’s innovation community the way journalism entrepreneurs talk about the environments they’re trying to help sustain with their coverage. It may be a stretch to compare Detroit’s crippled economy to the dilapidated business models for news, but they both certainly require enormous reinvention.

What’s interesting about Xconomy’s coverage of innovation is the innovation it brings to its journalism. The site reflects the insiderish feel of, say, Politico, but with some of the familiarity that you might expect from a small town paper.

“Continuous beat reporting”

Luke Timmerman, 34, Xconomy’s national biotechnology editor, says his work as “a local beat reporter in three cities” scattered across the country reminds him more of his first, small paper in Wisconsin than his stints at Bloomberg News and The Seattle Times.

In a telephone interview, he said he files two or three stories a day for Xconomy, a pattern that secures his standing with sources as a guy who’s not only paying attention to what they’re doing and saying — but publishing it quickly.

He acknowledges that Xconomy does not invest as much time as he enjoyed as an investigative reporter at The Seattle Times, where he once spent four months on a story.

“The idea of that one big Sunday narrative piece that says let’s not worry about every turn of the screw … makes for a well-written and edited publication,” he said, “but it creates a distance between the newspaper and a lot of the institutions it covers.”

He describes what he does as “continuous beat reporting,” especially well-suited to the 24-7 cycle of Web publishing. It’s an approach to journalism that includes a broader definition of news than he found in newspapers. By way of example, he describes his crowd-sourced work on a list of former employees of Boston’s Genetics Institute. He posted the story March 22, and updated it as recently as Sunday (April 18) with additions to the list that former colleagues are both helping create and are using to reconnect with one another.

Each city’s edition includes a local blogroll and Timmerman says the site tries to avoid the “not invented here” bias that still discourages some news organizations from linking to competitors. He points out that an Xconomy syndication deal with The Seattle Times means his byline still shows up in his former paper.

Asked about compensation, Timmerman said “the popular conception that people can’t make a living” online is turned on its head by an Xconomy paycheck that delivers 50 percent more than he was making at the Times.

Bob Buderi: “If they’re good stories, there are no space constraints.”Among the lessons CEO Buderi says Xconomy has learned so far: Stories published online don’t necessarily need to be short. “It turns out that long, in-depth stories work fine,” Buderi said. “If they’re good stories, there are no space constraints — and that’s an incredible feeling.”

He said the site breaks long stories into multiple pages and tracks the traffic to each page to see how deeply users are reading into the story. “Sometimes we’ll see 80 percent of the readers getting to the fifth page,” he said.

Xconomy pushes for innovation on the commercial side as well, pitching advertisers on 12-month deals that involve local promotional events as well as conventional tile advertising on the site (and avoid the need for all those repeat sales calls). He said those deals range from several thousand dollars a year to six figures, depending on the market and services provided.

Buderi said the site resists the temptation afflicting some niche publications to lower the wall between advertising and news, insisting that Xconomy’s ethics guidelines preserve the integrity of its content.

Foundation support as a PR expense

The financial assistance provided by Kauffman is interesting on several levels. Some news startups are considering the so-called low-profit model as a way of making it easier for foundations to provide them with grants. In this case, Kauffman’s Mitchell described the foundation’s payment to Xconomy as more of a public relations initiative than a traditional grant.

“In the case of PR (as an example) it is not out of the ordinary for a foundation to hire an expert to run a very specific program,” she told me in an e-mail Tuesday. “So in this case we wanted to use the model of Xconomy as a for-profit company reporting on innovation and (entrepreneurship) at a community level to highlight all of the entrepreneurial activities happening in Detroit.”

Lovy, Xconomy’s Detroit correspondent, said he will file from his home in suburban Ferndale for now. He says his coverage will likely differ in several respects from that of his colleagues in the site’s other cities, noting that “there is relatively little deal flow” in Detroit.

“A great deal of what I expect to report will be attempts to get things moving,” he told me by e-mail. “Government and universities are important to the story, along with talented entrepreneurs who have recently found themselves out of work and have no choice but to launch their own companies.

“Also, I’ll likely cover the region’s attempts to diversify from automotive, and show how there has always been the seeds of a diversified economy within Michigan’s ‘one industry.’ Lots of challenges here, and as a reporter it’s a fascinating story to cover.”

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