Matter Ventures Aims To Launch “The Next Great Media Institutions”

12/3/12Follow @wroush

Once upon a time, public radio and TV stations were the new kids on the media block, disrupting the commercial media world by offering educational, cultural, and community-based content of a type that just wasn’t available from the privately owned networks. But that was 60 years ago: the nation’s flagship public stations, WGBH and KQED, went on the air in 1951 and 1954, respectively.

So, when it comes to keeping the public informed and connected, it’s a reasonable guess that the next big disruptions won’t come from inside today’s mature public-media bureaucracies, but from outsiders. Still, those same bureaucracies hope to have a hand in the way media culture evolves.

That’s the basic story behind Matter Ventures, a San Francisco-based investment fund and startup accelerator that uncloaked today. With $2.5 million in backing from KQED and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Matter plans to use the now familiar vertical or “impact” accelerator model (think Rock Health, Greenstart, Imagine K12, or Code for America) to help roughly 10 media startups per year get off the ground. The hope, says Matter CEO Corey Ford, is to find participatory platforms “that will have the impact that Twitter has had.”

Startups that win a berth at Matter will receive a $50,000 investment. Applications for the first class opened today.

Ford (pictured above) says he hopes to attract entrepreneurs who believe in the spirit and mission of traditional public media, but who are experimenting with different technologies, business models, and audiences. “This is not about reinventing public media,” Ford tells Xconomy. “It’s about people who are building early-stage ventures that have the potential to make society more informed, empowered, and connected.”

The idea of an accelerator for participatory media companies has been in the works for some time. Matter Ventures is actually the rebranded version of the Public Media Accelerator, an organization first announced in late 2011 by the Cambridge, MA-based Public Radio Exchange (PRX).

Jake Shapiro, executive director of the Public Radio Exchange

Jake Shapiro, executive director of the Public Radio Exchange

The original concept, hatched by PRX executive director Jake Shapiro and Knight Foundation director of journalism and media innovation John Bracken, was to have entrepreneurs move to Cambridge for a three-month course of intensive product development and mentorship. “We wanted to build a disruptive playground,” Shapiro says. “A place where entrepreneurs can ask themselves ‘What if you tried to build the next great, meaninginful media institutions from scratch today, leveraging the technologies we have, making it relevant to people in today’s society, and seeking out new business models?’”

Last spring, however, the idea morphed in two important ways, according to Shapiro.

First, Shapiro recruited Ford, a former producer for the PBS/WGBH series Frontline who was based in the Bay Area, to lead the accelerator. Ford has a Stanford business degree, has taught courses in design-centered entrepreneurship at the Stanford d.school, and worked most recently as the creator of the Runway incubator program at Eric Schmidt’s Innovation Endeavors fund.

“That was a major turning point,” says Shapiro. “We originally pulled Corey in for an advisory group seat, but we realized pretty quickly he was an incredibly good fit to lead this thing, given his background in public media and in entrepreneurship and in actually running an accelerator.”

Second, executives at KQED said they wanted in on the venture—and they agreed to split the cost of the program’s first two years with the Knight Foundation, which had originally pledged the full $2.5 million on its own.

Given those two developments, it made more sense to set up the venture in San Francisco, which is already home to numerous general and specialized accelerators (including at least one, Turner Media Camp, that’s focused on the media business). But Shapiro hopes that the program will succeed so well in its first two years that it will then be possible to get the program’s backers to “double down” on their initial grants and open a parallel program in the Boston area or elsewhere. “Given where PRX is, we see ways this could take root in other cities where there is a critical mass of public media partners and investors,” Shapiro says.

What kinds of companies does Matter Ventures hope to attract? That’s an important and potentially fraught question. As both Shapiro and Ford acknowledge, there’s an interesting tension between the non-profit ethos of the traditional public media world and the profit-driven, gold-rush mentality so prevalent inside Silicon Valley startups. But Ford thinks it will be a productive tension—and that by tapping startup culture, public media proponents might find new and more sustainable ways to reach readers, listeners, and viewers.

“What this space needs is business model innovation, above all else,” he says. “That’s why we are making investments in entrepreneurs following a for-profit strategy. With those constraints, we are more likely to come out with business-model innovation than if we are backing non-profits whose model is to go to foundations. There’s nothing wrong with that, but we want to support other kinds of innovation.”

As examples of the sorts of companies that he hopes Matter will cultivate, Ford points to two existing participatory-media startups in San Francisco: Storify and Neighborland. Storify, founded by former AP writer Burt Herman, offers users tools for assembling tweets and other social media updates into narrative timelines that can be embedded in blog posts and other media. Neighborland, co-founded by former AOL and Yahoo design director Dan Parham, gives residents of local neighborhoods a way to collaborate around community projects such as new playgrounds or bike lanes. “When you look at these guys you don’t think ‘public media’ at first, but if you look at the outcomes, I think they fit squarely into public media’s mission,” says Ford. “And to get something like that you need to start from a blank-slate perspective, not from an institutionalized perspective.”

To take a more hypothetical example, imagine that a team of entrepreneurs came along with an idea for a mobile app to help media organizations and other institutions run Kickstarter-style fundraising campaigns as an alternative to the old-fashioned (and incredibly annoying) pledge break. “That would be interesting, and we are in a position to help accelerate something like that,” Ford says.

Shapiro, for his part, doesn’t think Matter will have trouble finding more entrepreneurs like Parham or Herman who are motivated by their ideals and their love of media or journalism as much as the prospect of material success.

“A lot of this will come down to finding people who really have their sights set on their goals in life,” Shapiro says. “I think a lot of people just want to do something big and important and lasting that makes a difference in the world. For-profit entrepreneurship happens to be a very powerful platform for doing that.”

Matter Ventures will operate from a renovated garage at 421 Bryant Street, just a block from San Francisco’s famed South Park, where Twitter and many other iconic companies also got their starts. Ford and Shapiro will make all investment decisions at the fund, without screening or signoff from KQED or the Knight Foundation, Ford says.

Though there’s already a large and growing population of startup accelerators around the Bay Area and the nation, Matter Ventures will be the first and only one “at the intersection of media and entrepreneurship,” Ford says. “Being vertically focused means you can bring together a specific community focused on this space, develop strategic partnerships, and be the place that stands out, just like Rock Health would stand out for somebody focused on health-tech.”

He doesn’t think of Matter as competing with Turner Media Camp, which mainly recruits companies that might have strategic overlap with Turner Broadcasting and other parts of the Time Warner empire. “Media Camp is about Turner, and we are squarely focused on the entrepreneur,” Ford says.

In our conversation this morning, Ford returned several times to the idea that Matter—while it’s backed by traditional public media institutions—is not aiming to reinvent them from within. “This is not about saving the institutions of public media,” he says. “It might do that, but that is not the goal. The goal is to have sustainable, meaningful media institutions in the world, and if this is something that helps support more traditional [public media] institutions, maybe by providing a service that makes them better, great. But if it’s something that creates new institutions, that’s fine too.”

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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