Lara Setrakian is on a mission to redefine the news cycle. Three years ago, when more and more outlets like the Skimm and the now-defunct Circa started popping up to take on the daunting task of summarizing the world's news in one format, Setrakian headed in the opposite direction. She left her job working as a foreign correspondent for both ABC and Bloomberg, and within a few months, launched News Deeply, a startup company that designs and operates single-subject digital news platforms.
The idea came to Setrakian, thirty-three, during her five-year reporting stint in Dubai. She described her previous job as "a dream," but felt that there wasn't enough context to the stories she was working on.
"It really sort of got to me that, by virtue of the linear model [of the news], we were never able to capture with complexity and consistency what was going on around us," she said. "No matter how well we performed, we were still limited by the format."
For instance, during the years following the Iraq War, media coverage was mainly limited to the anniversaries. "We don't really cover the ongoing war where we have men and women dying," she said. "I realized that if we're missing the situations we're in, we're definitely going to miss the situations we're not in."
So when the Syrian Civil War broke out in 2011, Setrakian had spent enough time reporting on Middle Eastern politics to know that there was going to be a hole in the news cycle.
"The line never goes up," she said, referring to a chart from the Pew Research Center documenting the coverage of Syria during the Arab Spring. "We were missing it. Syria never had its moment. It was so highly consequential and so poorly understood, and that motivated me to create a new model."
Within six months of leaving her job in 2011, she launched News Deeply's flagship project, Syria Deeply. The site provides a compendium of the many narratives that make up the Syrian War, complete with a timeline and conflict map, news, op-eds, video presentations, and interviews.
Seventy-five percent of the content on Syria Deeply is aggregated from other sources, but the remaining content is original, garnered from the site's mix of American and Syrian reporters.
While starting her own news company wasn't part of her original career trajectory, Setrakian, who speaks six languages, always knew she wanted to be a journalist. After graduating magna cum laude from Harvard, though, she worked as a business analyst at McKinsey & Company. Why?
"Because everybody was doing it, so I thought I was supposed to do that." One year in, Setrakian realized that she had another calling. "I'm a born story-teller, I'm a born communicator," she said, laughing about how she once received a performance review at McKinsey that lightly suggested she "speak fifteen percent less."
Still, Setrakian is grateful for her experience at McKinsey, as she was exposed to the corporate world in a way she wouldn't have been as a journalist. The skills she learned there, she noted, are useful for an entrepreneur.
"Consulting firms exist to reinforce operational excellence. You may think outside the box, but you also know how to build the box, so that's what it gave me."
Setrakian found that one of the most challenging aspects of starting her own company was getting over her "fear of everything." As a reporter, she said, you're allowed to have hang-ups. But as the founder and CEO of her own news outlet, she's responsible for maintaining the creative vision and energy for an entire operation. If she ever feels hesitant about reaching out for help or following up with someone, her whole team suffers.
Setrakian was also nervous about sacrificing the security of a high-profile job without knowing whether her idea would succeed. The journalism industry places a great deal of importance on brand reputation and the sheer number of minutes a reporter spends on air, and she had to give that up. "We forget that we're more than the companies we work for...I literally told myself, 'in order to do this work, I may end up a nobody by those standards,'" she said. "And that made everything possible."
Now, Setrakian is arguably more of a "somebody" than she was at ABC and Bloomberg. Secretary of State John Kerry has said that the work she's done to "shed light on life in Syria is very important."
Last year, Syria Deeply won the National Press Foundation Award for Excellence in Online Journalism, and as it became apparent that her framework could be used to support other topics, Setrakian launched a second site in October focused on the West African Ebola epidemic. News Deeply has also collaborated with The New York Times, Yahoo, and The Guardian, among other respected outlets.
As to whether the trend of niche online journalism is sustainable, she remains assuredly optimistic. "Every topic we've done has paid for itself. It's a question of figuring out the economy of an issue," she said of News Deeply, which has been revenue-financed since the first month of operation. "Who has the need for quality information? Is it philanthropy? Is it individual subscribers?"
Her business model isn't without its challenges, however. Because News Deeply's mission is to increase public literacy of salient issues, Setrakian is adamant that there never be a pay wall to any of the company's platforms. As a result, News Deeply relies on foundation grants and outsourcing its digital design services to other organizations, such as the World Economic Forum and the Global Ocean Commission, for revenue.
Setrakian is also vying to attract more organizations that will pay for premium subscriptions to redistribute News Deeply content to their clients, as McLarty Associates has done with Ebola Deeply.
But Jeremy Caplan, director of education at the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism, thinks that the company may face financial pressures as they expand. Grants, he said, can be a fickle source of funding, and there isn't widespread consumer demand for in-depth news on topics like Syria and Ebola.
"The jury is still out on which of the revenue streams will prove successful and whether they'll be able to forgo grant funding in projects where there are editorial expenses and consumers aren't clamoring for the content," said Caplan.
He noted, though, that the company could increase its profit margins by continuing to host conventions with other thought leaders and by generating more original, exclusive content to attract premium subscriptions. "It's clear that they have a compelling formula, and the design is effective."
Setrakian, who splits her time between offices in New York, San Francisco, and Hong Kong, does hope to go back into journalism soon, but she knows that her job now is to create a prosperous organization.
At the rate that News Deeply is expanding, it may be a while before she gets back to reporting. A third platform on the California drought, Water Deeply, launched today, and a fourth site devoted to Arctic climate change is slated to debut in the fall.
For now, Setrakian is content celebrating those successes.
"Sometimes," she said proudly, "we feel like the little startup that could."