Back in May we sat down for a chat with Duncan Greive, founder, editor and publisher of The Spinoff, "a little TV website which has lately been nursing big dreams". He mentioned his dastardly plans to expand its editorial coverage and its network of sponsors. And he was confident the model "could end up being a good vehicle for a plurality of native advertisers". Now, as it celebrates its first birthday, he's taken a big step in that direction, launching five new sections—sports, books, politics, media and society—and hiring eight new staff to help fill them up.
Since it began as a content marketing property sponsored by Lightbox, The Spinoff has quickly gained a loyal following with its Power Rankings, podcasts, videos, recaps, stunt journalism, opinion pieces and its 'we love you, but we'll give you a jab if we need to' approach. Greive says it has attracted 54,000 uniques per month for the last three months. And he said he was confident there were enough companies that were similar to Lightbox that could see the benefit of partnering with a start-up media brand and trying something new to generate demand.
"So here we are: thanks to the support of our original sponsor, Lightbox, and some new ones – PGA Tour Live, Premier League Pass, Unity Books and U Music – we’re able to bring you this new, broader vision for The Spinoff," Greive said in an introductory post. "... It’s been a wild few months: first figuring out what exactly to do, then how we’d fund it, and finally who we could recruit to bring it all to life."
Expanding the editorial focus was obviously a way to increase its audience, but it was also a way to avoid exposure to the whims of just one commercial partner. He said he was very conscious of that vulnerability—and very conscious that writers with good intentions tend to overlook the importance of sales staff to help keep the lights on. As a result, it hired a commercial manager Fraser McGregor, who worked on No and Pavement, to create a diversity of income streams and ensure it could continue to operate if it lost a partner.
He's immensely proud of what the site has achieved in a short time and he's happy to have the new sponsors on board, but like many start-ups, it's not making money because it's being invested back into the business. Even so, he's very confident in the concept and he believes there is scope to launch new sections in the future. Although, as he says, "we will never open a new section unless we feel we've got the perfect writing talent for it".
He says the display advertising on the site is effective because it is there constantly and it's about showing "that this brand brought you this content", but it won't be adding any more display zones to the site. Its commercial model is to have one main sponsor across a vertical, but he says it might also look for other sponsors for specific products within those verticals (like, for example, a special podcast).
You could compare The Spinoff's trajectory to that of Buzzfeed and many other online media businesses, which have grown a big audience, moved into new areas and then invested in 'proper' journalism. And Greive says he thinks it's now much easier for new media companies like this to compete with 'legacy' publishers. There is a much lower barrier for entry and, in some ways, he feels as though they're on equal footing with the big players in the online space (or possibly even at an advantage because they don't have the infrastructure to support, the old-school thinking to overcome or the numerous mouths to feed).
"It feels like a really exciting time in media at the moment in terms of consumer behaviour and brands' openness to new ideas," he says.
Greive told us one of its goals is to try to find a way of articulating to brands that some of the money they currently spend trying to get their PR into the media would be better spent in an environment where the audience is more engaged. And the new sponsors obviously agree with that. At present, he says it is focused on building up The Spinoff so "it's a powerful and respected voice in New Zealand" and then use that reputation to find some gold in them thar content marketing hills. It already has a division dedicated to that, with The Spinoff Custom creating content for brands in text, video or audio and in a variety of formats, including the 1972 magazine for Barkers and premium travel writing for Flight Centre. And he says it wants the custom content to be of the same quality as its editorial content. And if the client isn't willing to trust them, he says the plan is to "respectfully decline the offer".
"If you want bland and uninspiring, if you want to fill up a bunch of channels just to say you're doing it and have it look like it's a thing, you can. But if you want people to genuinely engage with it, it requires a bit of bravery and trust. And we're really lucky that our partners understand that."
And he believes that the number of brands who understand that is going to grow.
As for the new hires, Jose Barbosa has come on board as staff producer and Greive's creative "Swiss army knife"; Steve Braunias, one of the country's best writers, is books editor; Toby Manhire, another of the country's editorial heavyhitters, is politics editor; Alex Casey, the site's first staff member and soul of the site, is TV editor; Scotty Stevenson, Sky Sport rugby commentator and ex-editor of Sky Sport The Magazine, is sports editor; Calum Henderson is staff writer; Don Rowe is staff feature writer; and Catherine McGregor, who is based in New York and will also work on its custom content operation, is staff editor. Many of them are connections from his previous roles with Metro and North & South and "they're friends as much as anything else." And, in conjunction with its freelancers, Greive says he's in heaven with that level of talent.
He says there are desks for all the new staff members in its Britomart office when they're required and he's enjoying the collegiality of having lots of writers around, but many of them are maintaining their other freelance gigs and working part time.
"The mix of youth and experience above is very deliberate, and a core part of what we want to do here," he wrote. "We intend to create an environment which puts experienced writers alongside the next generation, to encourage mentoring and professional development and generally try and do some of the things which have gotten much harder to do in magazines and newsrooms lately. We will also grow to have a far more diverse set of personnel than that which we currently have. I’m very conscious of the white and male skew right now. It’s not a reflection of who we’ve published to date, or how we see ourselves evolving. And trust me when I say that we are not done recruiting – so we will change markedly in that regard."
The new sections are opening with what he says have become a site signature, Power Rankings, with MediaWorks staff, politics, the ITM Cup and the Little Kitchen range all coming in for some editorial attention. And he says it will also "publish more feature writing, make more video and publish more serious criticism".
He says The Little Kitchen post was the funniest thing on the site today. And while the motivations to write it were pure, he says it's a good example of its approach and if New World was a sponsor (hint hint), he doesn't think anyone would have an issue with it.
"That kind of thing is really good fun to write, it's fun to read and it works for the brand. That's the dream, right?"
Greive says the past year has been the most exhilarating of his professional life "and the way people have embraced our work has been truly humbling". And, like any good committed entrepreneur, he and the new team are ready to give it a crack. As he finished off his post: "We might exceed our wildest dreams or crash and burn horribly. As of today, we don’t know how it’ll play out. We just know we’re going to give it everything we have, for each other, for our sponsors, and for you."