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Here's why these media startups chose to launch while so many other outlets are going under

New York(CNN Business) Sportico CEO Dick Glover thought Labor Day would be the perfect time to launch a new trade publication about the sports business. It's when college football and the NFL seasons are in full swing, as is golf, the US Open and baseball. Hockey and basketball training camps are just getting started.

This was Glover's plan back in February, before the coronavirus pandemic triggered the cancellation of professional sports and other live events. Instead of panicking, however, Glover saw an opportunity and seized it: He decided to fast-track Sportico's launch and bump it up to Fourth of July.

"We saw an incredible thirst for information, a lot of parched mouths so to speak, in the sports world," Glover told CNN Business. "All of the sudden there are no games to report on, no player movements and all of the things that normally make up all of the sports pages. The only thing going on was the business of it."

The pandemic decimated the the media business which was already struggling, but a handful of niche publications including Sportico are launching during this tumultuous period, giving the media industry a much-needed shot in the arm.

The Oaklandside, Rest of World, The 19th and Discourse Blog, along with Sportico, are among the new publications making their debut during the pandemic. Leaders of these five publications told CNN Business that while the economic fallout from the pandemic has impacted some of their plans, their motivations to create new outlets for journalism have only grown stronger.

Finding coverage gaps

These new publications are focused on what the founders see as topics that don't get enough attention in the mainstream media. For Sportico, that is the business of sports. Sportico owner Penske Media also owns publications dedicated to the film and television business, as well as topics such as music and politics and fashion — but none that cover the sports business.

Rest of World, launched in May, is covering the ways in which technology shapes the "lives of billions of people beyond the Western bubble," CEO and founder Sophie Schmidt told CNN Business in an email.

After living and working outside the US for nearly a decade, Schmidt said she was "frustrated" by a lack of reporting on the "extraordinary — good, bad, weird, wonderful — things" she saw.

Recent Rest of World stories introduce readers to the annual Hindu festival Magh Mela, K-pop fans on Twitter and the internet shutdown in Sudan.

The Oaklandside provides local news for the city of Oakland, California. It officially launched in June as a sister site to Berkeleyside, both under a nonprofit called Cityside, with initial funding from the Google News Initiative.

"My cofounders at Cityside had been hearing for years and years about the enormous need for a similar, in some ways, but totally Oakland-based, Oakland-rooted publication," said Tasneem Raja, The Oaklandside editor-in-chief. It secured funding in 2019.

Fast tracking plans

The plan had always been to launch The Oaklandside in June. But Raja told CNN Business that when Bay Area public health officers ordered shelter in place in mid-March, she and news editor Darwin BondGraham did not want to "sit around and wait."

The Oakland team started reporting and publishing stories on Berkeleyside even before their own site's unveiling. They also started a COVID-focused newsletter, which now has about 8,200 subscribers.

"The [newsletter's] sign-up rate was remarkable, and the open rate was and has remained remarkable. This is not my first news startup," said Raja, who just prior to The Oaklandside co-founded a nonprofit local news startup in East Texas.

The 19th, a non-partisan newsroom covering the intersection of gender, politics and policy, is on track to launch later this summer. But similar to The Oaklandside, the team at The 19th is producing stories ahead of its official launch.

Andrea Valdez, editor in chief of The 19th, said the team had been producing a weekly newsletter. But at the end of March, the cadence moved to twice a week. In addition to a publishing partnership with The Washington Post, The 19th is working with The Philadelphia Inquirer on a series called Portraits of a Pandemic, profiling women in Philadelphia grappling with the pandemic's effects.

"We quickly realized that [what we planned] probably wasn't enough, especially once we realized women would be impacted by the pandemic very acutely," Valdez said.

Rest of World, however, chose to delay its launch amid the pandemic. Founder Schmidt said that after closing the company's New York office in early March, two weeks ahead of the planned launch, they pushed the date to May. By that time, Schmidt said she contracted the coronavirus and her executive editor Anup Kaphle had his first child.

"Not only were we suddenly in lockdown, so were all the journalists around the world we work with," Schmidt told CNN Business. "We had to totally rethink how to assign stories, how to keep freelancers safe and how to report tech stories when almost all headlines in every country are focused on public health."

The job market

The idea for Discourse Blog came in March, when the pandemic hit home for Americans. Aleksander Chan told CNN Business that he and many of his former colleagues at Splinter — a publication covering politics and culture that G/O Media shut down in October — had been looking for full-time jobs.

"The industry right now is maybe the bleakest it's ever been," Chan said. "Even if we wanted to get another media job anywhere, there aren't any, so we decided maybe the best bet is to invest in ourselves and create our own jobs."

Discourse Blog started with former Splinter staffers posting stories on a WordPress site. A few weeks later, the team switched to Substack, a newsletter platform that allows for paid subscriptions. All eight founding members are co-owners and will split the revenue evenly.

"We're not the next Dow Jones or anything or Condé Nast 2.0," Chan said. "But maybe we can be this small sustainable thing that eventually supports just us."

Sportico, The 19th and Rest of World have managed to fill many of their open positions, even as the pandemic forced other news organizations to lay off workers or furlough them. Schmidt said Rest of World's recruiting process actually "sped up."

"When we realized that there would be a huge number of new journalism school graduates looking for work, we spun up a paid fellowship program in six weeks and reviewed hundreds of applications," Schmidt wrote in an email.

The Oaklandside took a different path and chose to cut back on hiring. While the outlet now has a team of seven, including a Report for America fellow, Raja said she decided to delay hiring for two positions: a public health and environmental impacts reporter and a city hall and policing reporter.

"The pandemic affected our revenue projections, so in March we ripped up our budget and redid our revenue projections," Raja said. "We said the responsible way forward is to continue to grow but grow more slowly than we had originally planned."

One of The Oaklandside's most read pieces so far is an investigation into UPS delivery delays in the community. The newsroom also has been closely covering the civil unrest including interviewing Black activists about the recent protests. The Oaklandside also analyzed Oakland's history of curfews and why the local school district established its own police force.

Charting success

Glover of Sportico said the initial success metric he's tracking for his site — which has been live for about a week — will be "qualitative, not quantitative." Glover wants to produce sports stories that are read by commissioners, owners and C-level executives — an editorial goal that appears to be aligned with Penske's Hollywood trade publications Variety and Deadline.

Raja of The Oaklandside said her team is tracking success in two ways. First, reporters and editors assign one of the site's founding values to each story before it's published. They plan to analyze that data and share it publicly as a way to hold themselves accountable to the community. Second, they are focused on growing its member base of donors, which reached nearly 600 as of Thursday.

Valdez of The 19th said their goal is to drive the dialogue around women's issues.

"It's bringing conversations to the fore that might be happening in living rooms or between women," Valdez said. "We do very much want people to know who we are and see us as a resource for stories that are important to them."

On Twitter, Chan of Discourse Blog has been sharing details about the launch of paid subscriptions, which started Monday. Out of the newsletter's 3,642 subscribers, 419 converted to paid subscribers between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. on Monday, which grossed more than $26,000. Chan told CNN Business that as of Thursday, the email list has grown to 4,268 subscribers with 1,010 contributing a total of $63,415.69.

"We're not making huge, huge bucks," Chan said. "But I hope the numbers we're sharing and the progress we've made is compelling to people interested in breaking out of a corporate media job and doing their own thing."

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