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From AJR,   September 2010  issue

From Covering Parties to Hanging with an Algorithm   

WEB EXCLUSIVE
Megan McCarthy’s journey to Mediagazer, a media news aggregator with a heavy tech flavor.


By David Saleh Rauf
David Saleh Rauf (drauf@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant     

Megan McCarthy's career as a reporter blossomed from a single e-mail.

Eager to change jobs, she pounced on an opportunity when Nick Douglas — the former editor of Gawker Media's Bay Area gossip blog, Valleywag — posted a help-wanted ad.

"I wrote a note saying, 'I know nothing about tech, but I used to be a bartender in Palo Alto, so I know all these locations, and I know how to get into anywhere,' " she recalls. "He wrote me back and said, 'That sounds great. Why don't you go to one of these events and report back on it?' "

That's how McCarthy went from stuck behind a desk as an administrative assistant to covering the Silicon Valley party scene.

Not a bad career move, considering that her beat at Valleywag required a lot of hobnobbing with technology entrepreneurs at shindigs across the Bay Area.

"It was a little ridiculous," she says. "There was nothing extraordinarily debaucherous, but it definitely doesn't seem like anybody should be making a living off that."

McCarthy's storytelling days didn't last long. After about a year at Valleywag, where she helped the Web site break stories like the MySpace acquisition of photo-sharing site Photobucket, she jumped to Wired News for a short stint, and eventually left the reporting business altogether.

Nowadays, McCarthy doesn't write stories, she collects them. And Twitter, RSS feeds and an Internet-crawling algorithm are her best sources.

McCarthy, 32, is the founding editor of Mediagazer, a news aggregator that is developing a reputation for shining a spotlight on new models and technologies shaping the future of journalism. It's an offshoot of the industry-leading technology aggregator, Techmeme. And in the seven months since its launch, Mediagazer is racking up a growing base of Twitter followers, more than 4,400 as of this week, and attracting interest from industry experts.

"It definitely has some presence," says Damon Kiesow, a digital media fellow at the Poynter Institute. "It certainly has found its spot in my constellation of sources. But it's one of 100 or 200. Still, getting that spot is an important victory in some respects."

Photo by Scott Beale

The Web site's goal, McCarthy says, is to provide a link between the convergence of traditional media and technology. Any facet of media that's "touched by technology" is a candidate to get showcased.

It's an especially important role, she says, because there are still plenty of people in traditional media trying to grasp technology. And there are those who are well versed in technology who are trying to transition to media.

"We wanted to showcase those trends. Anytime you have a story about the disruption that's happening within media..those are the stories that I think people ought to know about," McCarthy says. "It's not just looking back on these properties that are dying. I'd much rather be looking forward at the things you need to know about to take advantage of the next wave of media."

The site's content is a mix of Romenesko meets Engadget . Stories from the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and other traditional media outlets are frequently linked to on the homepage. So are stories from tech and social media blogs like GigaOm and Mashable.

For example: The Web site prominently displayed roughly two dozen links to stories about AOL's acquisition of technology blog TechCrunch when the deal was announced last week. Also featured last week: a piece from Los Angeles Times media writer James Rainey about Republican candidates gaining valuable face time on Fox News during the current election cycle, and one from Slate media critic Jack Shafer about newspapers trying to win back traditional print advertisers.

"Anyone who is interested in media can take one look and in 30 seconds know what's going on," McCarthy says.

McCarthy is the only human working on the site full time. She was hired in 2008 by Techmeme's founder, Gabe Rivera. Techmeme by far is the most successful of the news aggregators he has launched, clocking in at three million monthly pageviews. The site employs a hybrid editing approach that combines an Internet-trolling algorithm with a human editor to continually update the site.

Techmeme always required a human to watch over the algorithm, Rivera says, but McCarthy was tapped to be its first full-time editor because of her technology background and ability to handle massive amounts of information.

"She knew the space, and I knew she was comfortable with processing a lot of information and finding good stories," Rivera says. "I recognized she was already functioning like an information router, finding stuff that Valleywag might want to post about."

It wasn't long after Rivera hired McCarthy that he decided to create Medigazer using the same recipe — a combo of algorithm and human touch — that helped make Techmeme a success.

McCarthy was assigned to get the Web site off the ground, and she continues to spearhead its development. "I think Megan was getting itchy to do something else," he says. "And, ultimately, I think she was more interested in Mediagazer type of stuff than Techmeme stuff."

McCarthy works on Medigazer from her apartment in San Francisco. Her only partner is the Rivera-designed algorithm. She spends her days surfing the Web for stories the algorithm hasn't noticed, checking Twitter and instant messages feverishly, and prioritizing content, which updates about every five minutes.

It's not exactly a glamorous position. But those who know McCarthy say it suits her perfectly. "She's the cyborg of news, the borg queen of the blogosphere," says Owen Thomas, executive editor of VentureBeat and McCarthy's former editor at Valleywag. "Megan is not a storyteller. She's a natural story collector. Increasingly, that's a role that has value."

Despite being totally immersed in the media industry these days, McCarthy doesn't have a deep journalism background. After graduating from Denison University in Granville, Ohio, in May 2000 as a history major, she floated from Boston to Honolulu before moving to California in 2004 and taking a job as a nanny for a cousin.

Her first reporting gig came two years later with Valleywag, but that was after years of frustration at dead-end jobs. "I was the worst administrative assistant in the world," she says.

Her role at Valleywag started as an assistant to an editor at Gawker's newly opened San Francisco operation. It eventually morphed into her first full-time job in journalism, as Valleywag's designated Silicon Valley party circuit reporter, she says.

Within a year, McCarthy's reportage for the gossip blog attracted the attention of Wired News. The Web site hired McCarthy to join its online reporting staff. The gig lasted all of three months. "It wasn't the right fit," McCarthy says. "I had no idea about AP style, and not knowing what a nut graph was really hurt me."

Thomas, the former Valleywag editor who worked with McCarthy, says she took the job at Wired News to pursue a more traditional journalism track. McCarthy always "had a hunger to understand the media world," he says. "What she discovered was Wired was not looking for a student of journalism but a practitioner."

McCarthy always had great sources while she was reporting for Valleywag, Thomas says. Plus, she possessed an intangible quality for a reporter: She knew how to work a room.

"But," he adds, "it was pulling teeth to get her to file copy."

After leaving Wired News, McCarthy freelanced for six months before coming across a Craigslist ad for the Techmeme position.

As for her current adventure, she hopes Mediagazer can play a helpful role in the effort to chart journalism's future in the fast- evolving media landscape. "I'm very much looking forward to seeing how media is going to evolve," she says. "The brilliance is the new model has yet to be solidified. There's so many possibilities."

So far, media experts say, the Web site has proven successful in its mission: filtering through the Internet's noise in an era of information overload and providing meaningful content.

Just as valuable for pageview-hungry publishers: Mediagazer is driving traffic to stories that normally wouldn't receive as much attention, says Adam Penenberg, a journalism professor at New York University who uses Mediagazer to stay in the loop. "Megan certainly is responsible for some uptick in traffic," he says. "And, you know, it is all a traffic game now."

Take, for example, Nieman Journalism Lab, a Harvard University-based project that keeps tabs on journalism's evolution. Mediagazer has been one of its top 10 referral sites for months, assistant editor Laura McGann wrote in an e-mail.

Not all aggregators benefit the news outlets they mention, says Frédéric Filloux, a Paris-based freelance journalist and editor of MondayNote.com, a blog about media, technology and business. Some aggregators snatch an original story off the Internet, summarize it and "hijack" the traffic, he says. "Mediagazer is the opposite of the other aggregation-based blogs, which are abusing the fair use concept," he says.

Mediagazer is generating a healthy dose of its own traffic, McCarthy says. But she declines to release monthly statistics to "avoid spurious comparisons with other sites." Driven by press coverage, McCarthy says traffic spiked after the Web site's March launch and has leveled off since.

Mediagazer is far from the only site sifting the Web for news. There's a plethora of aggregators out there, and when it comes to media news, there's the industry standard: the Poynter Institute's Jim Romenesko.

McCarthy keeps up with Romenesko's blog and often links to his content. But she's quick to point out that the two Web sites offer a different — if sometimes overlapping?array of material. Romenesko is chock full of inside baseball for media industry watchers, while Mediagazer is heavy on technology and emerging models.

"We don't publish everything he does," she says, "and I don't think he publishes everything we do."

It hasn't stopped some comparisons. "Is Megan McCarthy the new Romenesko?" VentureBeat's Thomas asks. "Her site does seem to have displaced that old late 1990s style" of blogs with hand-selected links to content someone found interesting.

"Romenesko was the definitive tracker of the great media collapse of the latter part of the past decade. I think Mediagazer could be the chronicler of the boom, the explosion of the new forms and sources of information," he says.

Poynter's Kiesow says it is unlikely that Mediagazer will displace Romenesko as the go-to place in traditional newsrooms. "It's certainly not driving the conversation the way Romenesko does," he says.

Adds NYU's Penenberg: "What Jim did was groundbreaking. What Megan is doing is really just a smart business."

Mediagazer doesn't rely on banner ads, opting instead for sponsorships from Web companies that sell blogging software. A fourth sponsor was added to the Web site last week.

And the overhead is low, as McCarthy is the only paid employee. "It's just servers and a concept," says Penenberg, who teaches a course in entrepreneurial journalism. "From a start-up perspective, it's very smart."

Rivera, the founder of Mediagazer, decided to launch a media-based aggregator in part because of McCarthy's knowledge of the technology and media industries. He also recognized the potential to tap into a ripe market.

"I think media is an area where there's a lot of commentary, and it's a broad topic space," he says. "There are things dying, things that are being launched, all the new technologies and all the new business models. It's one of those topics that could really benefit from an umbrella site."

Mediagazer is Rivera's fifth aggregator. The business model he's established squeezes out a small profit annually, he says.

But if profit is what Rivera was aiming for, media probably was the wrong industry for an aggregator, says MondayNote.com's Filloux. The energy and automobile industries are both examples of verticals with the potential to attract more readers and revenue, he says.

"There are sectors that could be much more profitable than the media industry," Filloux says. "I frankly don't know to what extent there is a huge amount of money to make on something like this."

Rivera is convinced Mediagazer will generate enough revenue to support itself. If Mediagazer ever reaches the popularity of its sister aggregator, Techmeme, Rivera says another human editor will have to be hired to tend to the site overnight and on weekends.

For now, the immediate plans for Mediagazer include increasing interactivity with readers through Twitter, Rivera says. Mediagazer will soon start taking tips via the microblogging site and eventually plans to include tweets on its homepage. The goal: to increase readership and make Mediagazer an essential venue for media news.

"That's what I'm trying to build," McCarthy says. "A lot of people not only want to see how the sausage is made, but how the slaughter is happening, so you can avoid it or figure out how to adapt."