January 21, 2016

The “King of Clickbait’s” domain in downtown Chicago looks more like a spare and makeshift newspaper newsroom, relocated to a warehouse adjacent to an expressway after a tornado, than Silicon Valley transplanted to the Heartland.

Yes, Emerson Spartz’s Dose Media has the open office structure that long ago became the new orthodoxy among startups with self-images as swashbuckling iconoclasts. But it is spare by any measure and, even with the pingpong table and dart board in the back, gives little hint of why Tribune Media, a big-time old media bastion, just invested nearly $25 million into a 50-person operation run by a 28-year-old who doesn’t watch much TV or read any newspaper regularly.

Make no mistake, Spartz does apparently read a whole lot: several books a week, in fact. And many of those can be on seemingly esoteric topics meant to offer a better understanding of the human and managerial conditions — and what all of us might like to click on.

In a less pejorative moniker, The New Yorker also called him “The Virologist.” CNBC conferred its Wall Street legitimacy by having him on “Squawk Box” recently. And he just made the Forbes “30 Under 30” list as he leads a team that cranks out algorithms to help spread stories likely to go viral.

Two of his sites have more than 50 million monthly visitors. As I entered, the now requisite flat screens with online traffic updates informed that they’ve got 12,707,750 Facebook likes and 10,367,870 Twitter followers.

The content that’s got him to his current status as a rising digital entrepreneur won’t win Pulitzer Prizes. He’s working a different side of the street, with intentionally visceral and upbeat tales (created by others, not him) providing his avenue to success; rather than more somber ones of criminal injustice, wayward government agencies, foreign policy misadventures or municipal political wrangling. He’s a conduit to, and maximizer of, traffic. He matches uplifting stories with headlines that will capture a few minutes of our day. His algorithms simultaneously produce dozens of different headlines for the same story and quickly assess which is working the best.

And his is a very different definition of quality. His world is about grabbing you emotionally. He’d rather plug a feel-good saga of an individual overcoming obstacles than a grim expose of a foster care system run amok.

He knows his algorithms will do far better with one type of tale than the other and thus raise the chances of his generating ad revenue and also investments from firms like Tribune Media, the TV broadcast company created when Tribune spun off its newspaper operation. It’s looking to boost traffic for stories generated by its 42 local TV stations and their websites.

He’s raised about $35 million over the past year. That may be relatively modest compared to the likes of BuzzFeed luring $200 million alone from Comcast or VICE Media getting a second $200 million infusion from Disney.

But it’s a lot more than anybody’s putting into, say, any traditional newspaper operation. And it’s allowing him to steadily grow what he wants to turn into nothing less than the “most advanced digital company” anywhere.

But ambitions match a history of precocious success for a home-schooled kid and University of Notre Dame grad who created the first successful Harry Potter fan site (MuggleNet.com) at age 12 in La Porte, Indiana, and started a raft of other sites. Those included one on garbled text messages called SmartphOWNED and one on humorous Facebook screw-ups called Unfriendable.

As people quietly went about their business, sitting in close proximity at long tables, we ducked into a small conference room.

Explain your company.

Dose is the company behind Dose and OMG FACTS, our two flagship sites with 50 million monthly unique visitors. The way our model works is to use predictive technology to identify stories worth sharing. Company editors choose the best stories and our technology shares the content with the right audiences across the Web. The theme is stories worth sharing. Content that is most shared. We measure success based on ability to inspire somebody to share the stories.

Explain that a bit more and how you changed your model along the way.

Positive content tends to be shared at dramatically higher rates than negative content. Traditional news tends to be more negative in nature than the most shared content, which is why the vast majority of our content has a positive theme to it. It’s mostly for identity reasons. Positive content is more likely what one uses to promote oneself. It’s just something we find.

Anger is the exception. If a story induces anger, share rates can be extraordinarily high. Anger is a high arousal emotion. Low arousal ones are anxiety, depression and sadness. They don’t inspire you to get out of a chair and share something. And conservatives tend to share higher degree of content that is shared out of a sense of outrage.

We realized had to change our model from a single photo per page. People wouldn’t share a link to a page with a photo. They would share the photo itself. So we moved to content more in the form of lists and story based content, so people would share the link rather than picture. Virality is fickle.

What’s your notion of helping brands and agencies create and share their own viral content? What’s not done now that could be done better?

The problem we’re aiming to solve is brands and agencies spending money with publishers without necessarily knowing what the ROI (return on investment) is on the spend. We have built some fairly powerful tracking and measurement technology that enables us to prove ROI in a way that has not been done previously. It’s how we’re trying to create value. It’s about making the connection between native advertising spends and results more clear. We want to guarantee performance.

You just cut a deal with Tribune Media, or what was known for a long time as Tribune Broadcasting. Why? And what do both sides hope to gain?

There two parts of the deal. First, the financial deal. They invest in the company with the expectation it will be worth much more in the future than now. The other part is the strategic relationship. That is largely a partnership of us contributing our technology so Tribune gets access to use our technology for its business. Tribune creates a lot of high-quality content but that needs to be optimized and tested and distributed correctly through our system. We will help them with that part of the business. Tribune will help us with sales and cross-promotion.

If I’m a local station GM, why do I care?

For the GM at a station, it’s not as clear (to me) what his scorecard for success is. But higher traffic is a no brainer. They create a tremendous amount of content at the local level and some could be successful at the national or international level. Making sure it’s distributed to the right populations to maximize the viral potential is part of where we come in. We have technology that can essentially score content for its viral potential.

Why doesn’t some old media, like newspapers, seem to understand the ways a younger generation consumes media?

There are lots of reasons. I would say there is a huge philosophical divide that has created a rift in publishing between new and old media. Old media was built on a foundation of editor judgment. It was the lynchpin of the content side of the business. It was based on what editors believed should be created and what people should want to consume. New media believes the consumer is always right. New media gives people what they want. Old media gives them what editors believe people should want.

It used to be if you were editor of a local paper and were the only source of news in town, you could control what people consumed. Nobody has that power anymore. If you’re producing what people don’t want to consume, people have other options. If your goal to attract audience, you have to give people what they want.

What about the decline of community service journalism, journalism with a social mission? What you’re doing is not about that.

Everybody can agree those stories are important, and we have to continue to find a way to finance the reporting of those stories and do what is necessary to create an informed population. What’s happened, as competition increased at an exponential rate in the news world and the options for consumers have increased, it has made it so nobody has the power to dictate what stories you’re going to read. I don’t know what the solution is. As an optimist I hope there are ways. But there are economic realities and publishers who are winning are the ones taking actions the public is rewarding. Demand-driven journalism.

It’s worse because many stories are not being consumed because the money is not there to tell those stories. And that is a problem, with bad guys getting away with things they weren’t getting away with before. On the other hand, there are positive benefits. The percentage of positive content people can consume with new media is much higher than with old media. And that has positive effects for society. Local media sells many stories creating fear. Murder, rape and other things, I would say, can be detrimental to spend a good part of your day reading as opposed to ones of uplifting human potential.

Again, without painting with too broad a brush, what’s your take on why some old media just have an awful time figuring this all out? Does it have something to do with corporate structures, decision-making processes, or other stuff? Why do so many firms, with really long histories of success, now look so flat-footed?

In some cases, it’s all of the above. The biggest thing is it comes down to philosophy of data-driven journalism. Our entire business is data driven. It’s making decisions based on just what people think — editor judgment vs. algorithm judgment. Old media is mostly based on editor judgment. If our editors make the wrong decision, based on audience traffic, algorithms will correct for that. So it’s in many ways not a fair game. If the goal is to grow the size of the audience, more technology-driven publishers will win.

Think of art and science. Human judgment is powerful but judgment plus data is vastly more powerful. If the goal is social mission, like your wife’s (Pulitzer Prize winning editorial series on the death penalty system in Illinois), the series might not have a huge audience. But if the right people read it, and take action, it can have positive change. Those are the stories that our model could not finance. But it’s important that somebody does.

What do you read?

Three or four books a week. I used to read a nonfiction book a day; a lot of technology and science. Today I’m reading a hodgepodge. Sales process, engineering, books about consciousness from a spiritual and neuroscience perspective. I recent went through a quantum physics phase.

What about Obama’s State of the Union address?

I don’t follow current events much. Not much I could impact related to what Obama mentioned. So I don’t spend a lot of time reading the news. We don’t really do news, don’t consider ourselves journalists. Most of our people are engineers.

We’re a tech company first, media company second, and do content to help people learn, laugh and feel inspired.

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New York City native, graduate of Collegiate School, Amherst College and Roosevelt University. Married to Cornelia Grumman, dad of Blair and Eliot. National columnist, U.S.…
James Warren

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