January 7, 2015

Vocativ, the media startup launched in 2013 charged with scouring the “deep Web” for story ideas, announced Wednesday a reorganization of its executive ranks ahead of renewed investment in the company.

Scott Cohen, the current CEO of Vocativ, will step down to take on a role at a company owned by Mati Kochavi, the founder of Vocativ, according to a staff memo to employees from Kochavi. His new job will be “centered on sports and entertainment,” and will involve “Big Data and the Internet of Things,” according to the memo.

In his place, Vocativ will institute a decentralized leadership structure where authority is divided between three executives — chief operating officer Danna Rabin, chief business officer Steve Alperin and newly appointed chief content officer Gregory Gittrich.

Each executive will have authority over their respective divisions, but they will be advised by and report to a newly created executive committee, which will be chaired by Vivian Schiller, a current advisor to the company who was formerly head of news partnerships at Twitter.

The new structure will give the executives “breathing room” to make decisions in their bailiwicks and help preserve the company’s ethos as a nimble startup, Schiller said. Executives will have hiring and firing authority for their respective staffs.

“I’m really there to help them look around corners and give them strategic guidance around both operational and strategic decisions throughout the company,” Schiller said.

The company will also go on a hiring spree, bankrolled by Kochavi and a small group of investors, to grow and restructure its newsroom. The editorial hiring will be overseen by Gittrich, who was previously the founding general manager and editor of NBC News Digital. The total staff at Vocativ, which currently totals 50, will grow between 25 and 30 percent in 2015.

The effectiveness of Vocativ’s ability to mine the deep Web — the vast swath of the Internet unreached by search engines — for story ideas has been met with skepticism in the past, including from some inside the company. In July, an article in Capital New York quoted “several current and former staffers at Vocativ” who said that the software is not an effective generator of story ideas. They further said employees “continually misled the company’s leadership” about the usefulness of the software with regard to unearthing scoops.

Gittrich and Schiller, however, say they’ve seen the software work and are bullish about its potential to drive the site’s news content.

“When I look at the deep web technology and the data expertise that are already at Vocativ, I’m confident that it’ll be at the center of everything we do, from in-depth reporting to breaking news to investigative projects,” Gittrich said.

A company spokesperson pointed to several articles, including a story pointing to the minting of a new currency by the Islamic State group, as proof of Vocativ’s ability to gather, index and analyze the deep Web to come up with elusive stories.

Going forward, Vocativ will reorganize its newsroom around multimedia teams comprised of reporters, editors, Web developers, data scientists, video producers and audience development experts. Those groups, similar to multidisciplinary teams at Vox.com, will “obsess” over beats, including national security, hacking, gender and relationships and breaking news, Gittrich said.

Those teams will also generate content designed specifically to live on various social media platforms, including Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and Instagram, focusing on honing coverage for each type of social media. Gittrich says he wants to boost engagement on those channels as well as increase unique visitors, which totaled 4.2 million in December.

The investment in Vocativ’s newsroom comes at a time before many of the company’s revenue strategies have come to fruition. The site currently does not feature any advertisements, although Vocativ does get some revenue from television licensing, Schiller said. The future revenue strategy includes some combination of video distribution and syndication, sponsored content and native advertising.

Schiller wouldn’t say whether Vocativ has yet reached the break-even point in terms of revenue, but said most media startups aren’t “wildly profitable” at the one-year mark.

Here’s the memo:

Dear All –

In just a little over a year, we have established Vocativ as a new brand, committed to delivering a unique combination of our exclusive technology, data science, and journalism. This was, and is, an intellectual and professional effort that demands both creativity and commitment. Our objective is to help shape the future of news.

We’ve had many accomplishments, and several stand out clearly:

  • We built a proprietary deep-web technology that allows us to discover original stories, hidden perspectives and unheard voices around the world.
  • We published nearly 3,000 articles, over 150 videos and 35 data visualization projects.
  • Over four million people visit the site each month, with millions more watching our videos on YouTube and MSNBC monthly.
  • An upcoming premium cable TV series will bring Vocativ’s great stories to millions more.

Concluding our one-year anniversary and with the goal of making Vocativ a powerful and influential brand in 2015, we spent the last couple of months working on a strategic plan with our board members as well as our advisor, Vivian Schiller. As part of this process, we did an on-site evaluation of our technology and analyst group, reviewed our data capabilities, examined the performance of our editorial content, studied the competitive landscape and took an in-depth look at our target audience to come up with a plan for our future. 

As we enter our second year, we’ll build on what’s working and pivot from the parts of our business that do not differentiate us. This means more focus on our powerful technology, more innovative approaches to visual and shareable storytelling, and more attention to developing audience and building a revenue base.

With this in mind, we are restructuring our executive ranks around three key leaders as follows:

Gregory Gittrich is joining us in the newly created position of Chief Content Officer. Greg will set our content strategy, lead our consumer product vision, and direct our editorial, creative, data and audience acquisition teams. Greg is the ideal leader for Vocativ, as he has both vision and expertise when it comes to building newsrooms that connect with the digital generation. He will be focused on shaping our voice and re-envisioning how we tell stories to reach young audiences around the globe. Going forward, the Verne analysts, our data scientists, and our video units will all be part of Greg’s team, integrated into the overall editorial and product operation.

Danna Rabin will continue to serve as Vocativ’s COO, overseeing technology, marketing, business development and operations. Danna has made tremendous progress since joining Vocativ last June. She and her team have developed Verne into a viable new product, initiated and developed the Dynamic Index, and expanded the Verne Analyst group, all while creating new operating processes and efficiencies to help us achieve our goals.  Danna also kept us honest by bringing a culture of transparency to the company. By analyzing our results on a daily basis we can identify where we are strong and where we need to improve.

Steve Alperin will continue to serve as Vocativ’s Chief Business Officer. Going forward he will focus on B-to-B partnerships. With Steve’s support, the video units will be integrated into the broader editorial team under Greg’s auspices. Steve’s and his team’s partnership with MSNBC in built a foundation upon which we will surely grow. 

To oversee this strong management team, I am forming an Executive Committee, which will be responsible for steering the company toward our strategic vision. Vivian Schiller will chair this committee, while continuing in her role as strategic advisor. As part of this role, Vivian will serve as a resource and provide oversight to Greg, Danna and Steve, while also advising me. Since she began working with us in early November, Vivian has helped design and plan our strategy and execution, bringing more focus to our content, especially around the intersection of journalism and tech. We will announce the rest of the executive committee in the near future.

As part of this restructuring, Scott Cohen is stepping down from his role as Vocativ CEO to join one of the group’s initiatives, centered on sports and entertainment content fueled by Big Data and the Internet of Things (IoT). I’m grateful to Scott for his important contributions from the inception of Vocativ in 2012 until today. We’ll be organizing a celebration of Scott’s contributions and tenure soon. Look for an invitation in the next week or so.

I would like you all to gather today at noon to discuss our plans and so everyone can meet Greg.

This is an exciting time for the company, as we embark on our next phase of product launches, continue to develop our cutting-edge technology and grow our audience — all while having strong focus on hiring additional talented reporters, editors, producers, developers, analysts and technologists.

Vocativ is increasingly renowned for its innovation and passion, and your dedication and hard work are what is making it possible to spread our wings. 

With gratitude and friendship,


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Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism…
Benjamin Mullin

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