Audio journalism app Curio can now create personalized episodes using AI

Curio, a startup building a platform that turns expert journalism into professionally narrated content, is embracing AI technology to create customized audio episodes, based on your prompts. The company today already has a large catalog of high-quality journalism licensed from partners like The Wall St. Journal, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Bloomberg, New York Magainze, and others, which it leveraged to train its AI model, powered by OpenAI technologies. This allows Curio users to now ask its new AI helper, “Rio,” a question they want to learn more about, then have it return a bespoke audio episode that includes only fact-checked content — not AI “hallucinations.”

The company is also today announcing an additional strategic investment from the head of TED, Chris Anderson, a prior investor in Curio’s Series A round. Ahead of this, Curio had raised over $15 million from investors including Earlybird, Draper Esprit, Cherry Ventures, Horizons Ventures, 500 Startups, and others.

Anderson’s new contribution amount is not being disclosed, but Curio says he’s a “significant investor.”

Founded in 2016 by ex-BBC strategist Govind Balakrishnan and London lawyer Srikant Chakravarti, Curio’s original concept was to offer a subscription-based service that provides access to a curated library of journalism translated into audio. To do so, the company partnered with dozens of media organizations to license their content, which is then narrated by voice actors and added to the Curio app. The experience is an improvement over the news audio offerings provided by services like Pocket, where users save articles to listen to later, as Curio’s content is read by real people, not robotic-sounding AI voices.

With the addition of its AI feature, Curio is now able to curate custom audio as well, on top of its hand-picked selection of audio journalism. The company believes this could become a powerful use case for AI at a time when there are legitimate concerns about AI chatbots providing false information or making up facts when they don’t know how to generate the right answer — something that’s called a “hallucination.” Already, we’ve seen falsehoods provided by AI chatbots when both Google and Microsoft demonstrated their new AI search tools, for instance.

Curio’s AI, on the other hand, won’t return anything it “makes” up, as it’s combining audio clips from across its catalog in response to users’ queries, effectively creating mini podcast episodes that allow you to explore a topic through quality, fact-checked journalism.

The company suggests you could use the AI feature via prompts like, “tell me about the possibility of peace in Ukraine,” “what is the future of food?,” “tell me about the U.S. debt ceiling,” “tell me why Vermeer is so great,” or “I have 40 minutes, update me on AI,” for example.

Image Credits: Curio screenshot on web

However, the AI can’t return information on breaking news, as it takes time for it to translate news articles into narrated audio. But could be used to explore various topics in more detail.

“We are trying to create from, a technical perspective, an AI that doesn’t hallucinate,” explains Curio’s Chief Marketing Officer, Gastón Tourn. “And the second thing that is interesting is this idea of unlocking knowledge from journalism — from news — because when you ask questions, it actually also proposes articles from, maybe from a few years ago, but they’re still super relevant to what’s going on right now.”

In addition to the media brands mentioned above, Curio also has relationships with The Economist, FT, WIRED, Vox, Vulture, Scientific American, Fast Company, Salon, Aeon, Bloomberg Businessweek, Foreign Policy, The Cut, and others — in total, over 30 publications are supported. (The New York Times, we should note, is not one of them. And the company launched its own audio journalism app today, as it turns out.)

To get started with the new Curio AI, you’ll type your question or prompt into the box provided, as if you were interacting with an AI chatbot, like ChatGPT. (Curio relies on OpenAI’s GPT 3.5 model, we understand.) This feature is available both on the web and in Curio’s mobile apps.

To create the personalized audio episode for you, Curio crunches through over 5,000 hours of audio, but this all takes just a few moments of processing from the user’s perspective. This results in a custom audio episode that includes an introduction along with two articles from Curio’s publications.

Curio itself is a premium subscription service priced at $24.99 per month (or $14.99/mo if paying for a year upfront). However, the AI feature is free to use, for the time being. The company says that’s because it wants to get “Rio” into the hands of as many people as possible, so it can learn. For instance, it’s looking to understand what length users prefer for these personalized episodes, though right now it’s leaning toward shorter articles.

Later, Curio may add more features — like the ability to share your episodes with others or get suggestions based on what other users are asking about.

“We don’t see AI as a curation tool,” notes Tourn. “We see it more as a discovery tool. We think what AI does is unearth content that is super interesting and finds ways to relate to it, but the curation is still human and the voices are still human.”

The company today has a smaller customer base of over a thousand subscribers, and a million-plus app downloads, but the AI addition may prompt the app to gain more traction as users explore this unique use case for AI.

Audio journalism app Curio can now create personalized episodes using AI by Sarah Perez originally published on TechCrunch

After a 29-year run, Vice files for bankruptcy

Vice was valued at $5.7 billion just six years ago, eyeing a potential IPO. Now, the trendsetting media company has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

The company’s lenders — Fortress Investment Group, Soros Fund Management and Monroe Capital — have agreed to purchase the company for $225 million. That’s only about 4% of the company’s 2017 valuation. Vice also has the right to sell to a higher bidder.

“This accelerated court-supervised sale process will strengthen the company and position VICE for long-term growth,” said Bruce Dixon and Hozefa Lokhandwala, VICE’s co-CEOs, in a press release. “We will have new ownership, a simplified capital structure and the ability to operate without the legacy liabilities that have been burdening our business.”

This unfortunate turn of events for Vice has only darkened the storm cloud over the digital media industry. In the last month alone, the Pulitzer Prize-winning BuzzFeed News was shuttered as part of layoffs that impacted 15% of the company. MTV News was also just shut down as part of cuts that impacted 25% of workers at its parent company, Paramount. As for Vice itself, the company recently cancelled its TV program, “Vice News Tonight,” as well as verticals like Vice World News, Vice Audio and Waypoint.

Vice’s financial issues are not a pure reflection of the media business at large, though. A combination of bad management choices in the “pivot-to-video” era, as well as the company’s overall “boy’s club” work environment, created a perfect storm for the Vice’s decline. The company made severe managerial missteps and allegedly fostered a culture of sexual harassment. When these allegations were made public, founder and CEO Shane Smith stepped down, though he claimed to not know that president Andrew Creighton reportedly paid off an employee to settle a sexual harassment claim; Smith’s successor, Nancy Dubuc, stepped down abruptly this February amid the company’s financial turmoil. Meanwhile, Vice co-founder Gavin McInnes, who left the company in 2008, went on to start the Proud Boys, a far-right group.

According to Vice’s financial reporting, the company has about $834 million in debt. During the sale process — which the company believes will take a few months — Vice will have access to more than $20 million in financing from its lenders to continue operations.

After a 29-year run, Vice files for bankruptcy by Amanda Silberling originally published on TechCrunch

Austin Russell became the youngest self-made billionaire in 2021; now he owns Forbes

Austin Russell is on quite a run.

The 28-year-old founder and CEO of Luminar, which develops vision-based lidar and machine perception technologies primarily for self-driving cars, told the Wall Street Journal earlier today that he is buying an 82% stake in Forbes Global Media Holdings in a deal that values the company at nearly $800 million.

According to the WSJ, Russell’s stake includes the remaining portion of the company owned by its namesake family, which sold 95% of the company to the Hong Kong-based investor group Integrated Whale Media back in 2014. Forbes was essentially on sale from the moment it called off its merger with a special-purpose acquisition company in June of last year, after the market soured and investors lost their appetite for SPACs.

Luminar itself had better timing; it went public via a SPAC merger in 2021 when retail investors were still clamoring for shares in mobility tech companies. By the time Forbes was calling off its own SPAC plans, nearly every mobility SPAC was trading below its offering price.

Luminar has not been immune to the broader downturn. Valued at $3.4 billion when it hit Wall Street, its market cap is now roughly $2 billion.

It just three days ago reported slightly wider than expected losses.

Some retail investors might not be so happy about its performance. However, Russell told the Silicon Valley Business Journal last year that he had no regrets about the SPAC maneuver, given the capital that Luminar secured through the process, money that would not have been available otherwise as private market investors began to snap shut their checkbooks.

Longer-term shareholders in Luminar may meanwhile find it concerning that Russell, described by Forbes itself in 2021 as the world’s youngest self-made billionaire, will soon be directing some of his attention elsewhere, even while it has become both fashionable to run more than one company simultaneously (Elon Musk, Jack Dorsey), as well as to be a billionaire with a media company to call one’s own (Jeff Bezos, Laurene Powell Jobs, Patrick Soon-Shiong, Marc Benioff).

They may also find it confusing. Certainly, they wouldn’t be alone in questioning the wisdom of buying a media company when so many outfits are fighting to stay relevant amid an atomizing landscape and when advertising budgets have been hit hard by an accelerating pullback by advertisers.

Then again, Russell has been focused on Luminar since 2012, when he dropped out of Stanford to start the company, aided by a $100,000 grant from renowned investor Peter Thiel. (The Thiel Fellowship program, founded in 2011, continues to give $100,000 to select students who are eager to spend two years on their idea instead of “sitting in a classroom.”)

Russell has enjoyed the fruits of his work in the ensuing years. He purchased an $83 million Los Angeles spread in 2021 that has since been featured in the hit show “Succession.” He also reportedly paid another $10.6 million for a 13,000-square-foot mansion in Winter Park, Florida, near Luminar’s Orlando headquarters.

But after spending his entire career focused on Luminar, he could well be looking to expand on how he invests his time.

As Y Combinator Paul Graham once said, as he expressed his distaste in funding founders who are especially young, sometimes the worse thing that can happen to a person is that his or her startup succeeds straightaway.

“[I]f you start a successful startup, like, the footloose and fancy-free days of your life are over. You’re working for that company.”

In a statement to the WSJ, Russell said simply: “Forbes is something I had always looked up to as a brand and as a media empire.” He also told the outlet that he doesn’t plan to get involved in Forbes’s day-to-day operations but that he wants to both grow the outfit and emphasize “philanthropy” within the business.

TechCrunch reached out to Russell a bit ago; we hope to have more insight into this move soon.

Austin Russell became the youngest self-made billionaire in 2021; now he owns Forbes by Connie Loizos originally published on TechCrunch

TikTok partners with top publishers on its new premium and brand-safe ad slot, ‘Pulse Premiere’

TikTok is partnering with big-name publishers, including NBCU, Condé Nast, DotDash Meredith, BuzzFeed, and others, in an effort to pull in more premium ad dollars. At this week’s NewFronts, the video entertainment company announced a new premium ad product that would allow marketers, for the first time, to position their brand ads directly after TikTok’s publisher and media partners’ content in over a dozen categories including lifestyle, sports, entertainment, education and more.

The ad slot, dubbed “Pulse Premiere,” offers a sort of brand-safe space within TikTok’s social video network, as they’re guaranteed their ads will run immediately after what TikTok refers to as “suitable TikToks” from premium publishers.

The move could address potential concerns over ad placement amid user-generated content that, in years past, has caused disruptions to YouTube’s ad revenue, as bands have had to freeze ads due to offensive and obscene material ranging from hate speech to child safety issues, and more.

With TikTok’s new offering, marketers can be assured of their placement as the content will run only alongside trusted publishers. In addition to NBCU, Condé Nast, DotDash Meredith, and BuzzFeed, the company is also partnering with Hearst Magazines, Major League Soccer, UFC, Vox Media and WWE on the new program.

In addition, marketers will be able to use TikTok’s ad platform to tie their campaigns to tentpole events through Pulse Premiere, the company says. Meanwhile, for publishers, the new ad slots will help them generate increased revenue from their TikTok investments by way of a revenue-sharing agreement.

TikTok declined to share how much the new Pulse Premiere ad placements will cost, saying only that they are “premium ad placements.” It also didn’t detail the revenue share for participating publishers.

“At Condé Nast the power of our brands allows us to create culture-defining content for 1B of the most engaged audiences across many relevant platforms,” said Pam Drucker Mann, Global Chief Revenue Officer & President, U.S. Revenue & APAC at Condé Nast, in a statement. “TikTok has become one of our most valuable partners, providing us with a variety of tools to ensure that our brands are driving these conversations on their platform. Our advertisers know that culture is the new KPI, and the Pulse Premiere solution finally enables clients to match media buying with how consumers are consuming our brands, like Vogue, GQ and Vanity Fair, on TikTok,” she added.

Pulse Premiere is built off TikTok’s initial Pulse offering launched last year, which allowed marketers to place their ads next to the top 4% of content on the platform. The program was the first ad product to offer a revenue share with content creators, TikTok noted at the time. The company says its data indicates TikTok users are 2.6x more likely to interact with a Pulse ad versus a comparable ad on another video platform. It also notes that Pulse campaigns increased brand recall by +9.8%, on average, and awareness by +6.8%.

However, in follow-up reports by Fortune, Insider, and others, creators reported extremely low earnings from Pulse — seeing revenue not even exceeding $5, in some cases. Among those creators interviewed by Insider, the revenue per every 1,000 video view on Pulse, or RPM, was in the range of just $6 to $8. One likened to nothing more than a small bonus for having a video go viral, but it’s clear creators are not meant to rely on the ad rev share to fuel their businesses.

Instead, TikTok offers other monetization tools for creators like livestream gifting, subscriptions, and a creator fund — though the latter has also been charged with paying out low amounts. Today, many creators make money through brand ad deals and sponsored content, not through the platform’s own tools for monetization.

The ad product will roll out to U.S. advertisers in the second half of the year with other markets to later follow.

TikTok partners with top publishers on its new premium and brand-safe ad slot, ‘Pulse Premiere’ by Sarah Perez originally published on TechCrunch

Roku touts its new ad products, including an AI that matches campaigns to TV moments

In Roku’s recent quarter, the company posted better-than-expected revenue of $741 million, but worried investors with its warning of an uncertain ad market and declining average revenue per user. Today, at the IAB NewFronts, the streaming media company introduced its latest ad products to potentially help it address the latter, at least. These included new opportunities to advertise on Roku’s Home Screen, within its original content, and even in its screensaver, among other things. It also hyped its use of contextual AI for automatically running ads right next to the most relevant moments in shows and movies on The Roku Channel.

The company explained that its new artificial intelligence capability searches across the Roku library for “iconic plot moments” that would match a brand’s message and place their ads in real time. To work, marketers will first tell Roku their campaign’s theme. The AI searches the library to match the campaign with key moments. For example, when Tim Gunn says “make it work” in “Project Runway,” an apparel brand could insert its message.

Roku also announced a new slate of Roku Originals, which will include an entrepreneurship docuseries, “Side Hustlers,” produced by Hello Sunshine —  Reese Witherspoon’s media company that sold in 2021 for $900 million to Candle Media, the company run by former Disney execs Kevin Mayer and Tom Staggs, which now has its hand in numerous pies across the streaming landscape. Digital bank Ally was also involved in this production that focuses on people turning their side hustle into their main business.

Image Credits: Roku

Other new Originals arriving this year include “Celebrity Family Cook Off,” a series executive produced by Sofia Vergara and hosted by Manolo Gonzalez Vergara and “Carpe DM with Juanpa,” which will feature social media star Juanpa Zurita, among others.  Roku said it’s also renewing “The Great American Baking Show,” featuring Paul Hollywood, Prue Leith, Ellie Kemper, and Zach Cherry and “Honest Renovations,” featuring Jessica Alba and Lizzy Mathis.

The company claimed its Originals were delivering better than cable, and even better than broadcast audiences every day. 

The streaming company additionally used its time to pitch marketers about how to reach its now 71.6 million active accounts on its service via new ad products and placements.

The pitch, delivered by Roku Media President Charlie Collier, touted Roku’s reach in the U.S.

“Americans spend more time on Roku than any other TV platform. which means they spend more time here with Netflix and Hulu and Disney+ and even more time streaming CBS, NBC ABC, and Fox,” Collier told the audience. “Think about this: 50% of all Super Bowl streaming took place on Roku this year,” he added.

Image Credits: Roku

During the event, Roku shared some of its latest ad deals. It noted that its screensaver “Roku City,” which floats a cityscape on the TV screen while the TV is idle, will open up to brands. While before, the city screensaver would point users to suggested content to stream, it will now be able to feature other brands, as well. This summer, it will feature McDonald’s brand as part of the artwork, for instance, as its first brand partner on the new ad offering. The screensaver is used by nearly 40 million homes, Roku said.

The company also introduced new discovery experiences that allow brands to host content in areas like Home & Garden and Sports experiences that curate content from across TV on the Roku Home Screen. Now, when users turn to Roku search, they may see a featured collection that’s “presented by” an ad partner — for example, Walmart was shown “presenting” the Home & Garden collection.

Image Credits: Roku

Image Credits: Roku

Roku also shared that Instacart was its latest Commerce+ partner, joining others like Walmart, Best Buy, Cox Automotive, DoorDash, Kroger, and more on its shoppable ads and other retailer-focused initiatives.

Commerce+ is designed to shorten the path to purchase for consumers, Roku explained.

For example, Wendy’s offered Roku users $5 off powered by DoorDash via a Home Screen ad, then used DoorDash data to help measure the impact of their ad spend. The campaign grew Wendy’s order size mainly among new and lapsed users and delivered a positive return on investment many times over, the company said.

Other news for marketers included Roku’s introduction of a Primetime Reach Guarantee, which it claimed to be a “first” in streaming. Essentially, the guarantee commits to brands they’ll be able to reach more TV households in primetime than the average program airing on a top-five cable channel on traditional TV.

“We’re uniquely positioned to make brands unmissable in TV because Roku is not fighting for turf in streaming—we are the turf,” said Alison Levin, Roku’s Vice President of Ad Revenue and Marketing Solutions, in a press release. “We’re bringing the entire power of the platform, not just the pieces, to give marketers more of the scale, delight, and flexibility that they love in TV.”

Roku touts its new ad products, including an AI that matches campaigns to TV moments by Sarah Perez originally published on TechCrunch

Twitter adds more ‘government-funded’ labels to global news outlets

Twitter is rolling out more “government-funded media” labels on the accounts of international news outlets. These include the Australian Broadcasting Company (ABC Australia), Australia’s Special Broadcasting Service (SBS), New Zealand’s public broadcaster RNZ, Sweden’s SR Ekot and SVT, and Catalonia’s

“For more than 90 years the ABC has always been and remains an independent media organisation, free from political and commercial interests,” ABC wrote on Twitter, in response the change.

Meanwhile, representatives from SBS worried that the label might lead Twitter users to believe that the outlet is editorially controlled by the government, which is not the case.

“While we appreciate Twitter’s motivations with regard to transparency on its platform, we believe a ‘Publicly-funded media’ label better reflects the hybrid public-commercial nature of our funding model and the fact that SBS retains full independence from Government in our news editorial and content decision making,” a spokesperson said in a statement.

Twitter gave the BBC this “publicly-funded” label, which seems less misleading than “government-funded.” Yet Twitter still applied the “government-funded” label to NPR, a network receiving 1% of its funding from the US government (and at first, Twitter labeled NPR as “state-affiliated,” a designation reserved for publications like Russia’s RT). NPR has left Twitter as a result.

“At this point I have lost my faith in the decision-making at Twitter,” NPR CEO John Lansing told an NPR reporter. “I would need some time to understand whether Twitter can be trusted again.”

Twitter adds more ‘government-funded’ labels to global news outlets by Amanda Silberling originally published on TechCrunch

More newsrooms bail on Twitter as Musk meddles with account labels

PBS and a handful of other news organizations have joined NPR in stepping away from Twitter, the social media platform once synonymous with breaking news.

A PBS spokesperson confirmed to Axios that PBS had “no plans to resume tweeting” after Twitter gave it a murky “government-funded media” label over the weekend. A few other news entities appeared to have followed suit, including the prominent Boston NPR affiliate WBUR, Hawaii Public Radio and LA-based local news source LAist. As the fallout from Musk’s outburst against the media continues, that list is likely to grow.

NPR announced that it would leave platform altogether last week after Twitter misleadingly attached a label reserved for state-run media entities to its account. Twitter has since adjusted NPR’s label from “state-affiliated media” — a designation for state propaganda accounts like the Kremlin-backed Russia Today — to “government-funded media,” a new label invented for the situation.

“At this point I have lost my faith in the decision-making at Twitter,” NPR CEO John Lansing said. “I would need some time to understand whether Twitter can be trusted again.”

On Twitter’s own website just before NPR was given the label, the platform defined the “state-affiliated media” label as “outlets where the state exercises control over editorial content.” The description previously explicitly mentioned NPR and the BBC as examples of accounts the label would not apply to:

“State-financed media organizations with editorial independence, like the BBC in the UK or NPR in the US for example, are not defined as state-affiliated media for the purposes of this policy,” the policy read.

The new “government-funded media” label does little to hide the fact that Musk’s latest intervention further undermined the platform’s credibility by deliberately misleading users into believing that NPR’s editorial agenda is set by the U.S. government. The new label’s definition appears to intentionally muddy the waters, suggesting vaguely that these accounts have “varying” degrees of editorial independence:

“Government-funded media is defined as outlets where the government provides some or all of the outlet’s funding and may have varying degrees of government involvement over editorial content. We may use external sources similar to this one in order to determine when this label is applied.”

NPR derives a small portion of its funding from states and the federal government, but the organization is fully editorially independent and broadly one of the country’s most reliable news sources. But Musk’s meddling with the account was never meant to provide transparency about the company’s finances.

Like most decisions he’s made since taking over at the company, Musk’s decision to give NPR the label out of the blue wasn’t a choice made on any set of coherent policy principles, but another gesture of solidarity with his feverish fan base and the ideological echo chambers they spend time in. Musk has repeatedly attacked news organizations over their trustworthiness, even as he spread misinformation himself.

Days after purchasing Twitter, Musk himself spread a conspiracy theory that Nancy Pelosi’s husband was attacked by a sex worker he knew, not a stranger who intruded into his home. “There is a tiny possibility there might be more to this story than meets the eye,” Musk wrote in a reply to a tweet from Hillary Clinton on the topic, along with a link to a website notorious for spreading misinformation. In another instance, Musk instituted sweeping account bans on reporters who commented on his war against a bot tracking the whereabouts of his private jet. Musk has also called The New York Times and other prominent media outlets fake news.

Twitter has always been an essential source of breaking news, mixing traditional reporting from legacy media organizations with eyewitness reports on developing events the globe over. The exodus of news accounts from the platform makes it clear that whatever will become of Twitter in this new chapter, the platform is moving further away from the core utility of delivering trusted news in real-time.

More newsrooms bail on Twitter as Musk meddles with account labels by Taylor Hatmaker originally published on TechCrunch

Podcast network Maximum Fun is becoming a worker-owned co-op

Maximum Fun owner Jesse Thorn is selling the podcast company that he founded almost twenty years ago. Rather than surrendering the network to a big tech company or media conglomerate, he is selling it back to its workers.

Maximum Fun, best known for distributing hit shows like the McElroy family’s “My Brother, My Brother and Me,” will become one of the only worker-owned co-ops in media. That means that full-time employees can take a stake in the ownership of Maximum Fun, earn a share of profits and have greater input in overall company decision making. The podcast network follows in the footsteps of Defector Media, an employee-owned company founded by former Deadspin writers who quit en masse due to disputes with owner G/O Media.

“For the first 10 or 12 years, I was working 60 or 70 hours a week and making $16,000 a year. And since I’ve had kids, it’s still working seven jobs at once,” Thorn told TechCrunch. “When some family situations came up that were really intense, I just thought, I can’t maintain this.”

Despite Thorn’s initial struggles, Maximum Fun now distributes over 40 podcasts, which have cultivated a dedicated fan base. Thorn said that over the years, some tech companies have expressed interest in acquiring Maximum Fun (though he wouldn’t reveal which companies). In the past, he had a few meetings about potential acquisitions, which never moved past a rudimentary stage. But when Thorn decided that he wanted to relinquish ownership, he considered these avenues once again.

“I sort of found myself coming to terms with the likelihood that if I sold Max Fun, it would mean – even if I sold it to someone who I like more than Amazon – I would still be costing people their jobs, and costing smaller shows in our network their incomes,” Thorn said. “And I didn’t want the kinds of values that we had built the company around to be abused.”

Thorn will remain at Maximum Fun as a worker-owner and continue making his own shows, like “Bullseye with Jesse Thorn” from NPR. He will also have a non-voting board seat.

“I didn’t get into this to be a capitalist,” Thorn told TechCrunch. “I wouldn’t necessarily call myself an anti-capitalist, but I have a lot of ambivalence about the accumulation of capital.”

Maximum Fun operates like a public radio station. Every year, the network hosts a fundraiser to drum up listener support, which helps keep the company afloat – other funding comes from ad sales. For now, Maximum Fun will maintain this same business model.

“One of the reasons why our funding model isn’t changing is because it’s been what’s made the company so sustainable,” said Kevin Ferguson, a senior audio producer who is assisting with the transition. “We limit the number of ads that our audience hears, and that limits the amount of revenue we get from ads, so we really do rely on folks putting in a little bit of money every month to support us.”

When listeners pledge to support the company, they list which shows they listen to, and those shows get 70% of the pledge; Maximum Fun gets the remaining 30%. Managing Director Bikram Chatterji told TechCrunch that listener support makes up about 65% of funding, while ads account for the other 35%.

But ad-driven businesses aren’t doing so hot right now, and last year, the network missed its overall fundraising goals.

Chatterji said that the structure of the deal won’t hold worker-owners responsible for the financial future of the company, but they will earn a profit share and have voting rights on big decisions; they will even have oversight over executive roles like Chatterji’s own position. The size of the profit share depends on how long an employee has worked at Maximum Fun.

“There are organizations out there whose job it is to basically help facilitate these transactions, and that the future employees don’t bear any of that risk,” Chatterji told TechCrunch. To buy out Thorn’s ownership, Maximum Fun took out a loan from a community development financial institution. Thorn said the company also worked with Project Equity, a Bay Area nonprofit that helps transition companies to employee ownership.

All full-time employees at Maximum Fun are eligible to join the co-op, which requires a buy-in fee of “three figures,” Thorn said. As of last week, 17 out of 23 full-time employees had said they plan to join the co-op (two of the 23 employees are year-long fellows, who are paid two dollars more per hour than Los Angeles minimum wage). In most cases, the hosts of Maximum Fun podcasts are not full-time employees, so they’re not eligible to join the co-op, but Thorn said they were consulted in the company’s decision. Nothing about hosts’ agreement with the network will change.

Though this is a major transition in both the company’s history and his own life, Thorn is optimistic about this new direction.

“The evidence is very clear that employee ownership makes for more successful and sustainable businesses, and that employees who own their work do better work,” Thorn said.

Podcast network Maximum Fun is becoming a worker-owned co-op by Amanda Silberling originally published on TechCrunch

How the NYT is building a modern tech stack to drive every part of its media biz

If every company has become a tech company, then The New York Times is a prime example. Although it launched as a print newspaper 171 years ago, in 1851, today that same company is very much a tech-driven media business.

While the transition has been ongoing to some extent for decades, the NYT brought in Jason Sobel in the summer of 2021 as chief technology officer to accelerate the transformation into a modern tech organization.

Sobel brings 15 years of pure engineering expertise to the job, including long stints at Airbnb and Facebook, where he helped to lead infrastructure. The Times brought in an engineer with this kind of expertise precisely because it needed someone to build the same kind of technology that was being built by the biggest tech companies.

In fact, Sobel said that he has found that the technical side of things isn’t all that different from his prior experience, except that everything he does is done in service of the editorial business.

“So it’s funny — it actually isn’t that different. I mean, the newsroom does make a difference in some ways. There’s obviously the strong editorial voice that’s always going to be important in the kinds of content we write and how we deliver it,” Sobel told TechCrunch.

But when it comes to building a technology organization, Sobel said what the paper of record is building actually feels quite familiar. “We have a cross-functional team of designers, engineers and product managers all working together to ship websites and apps and back-end tech. So I’ve been surprised at how similar it is,” he said.

How the NYT is building a modern tech stack to drive every part of its media biz by Ron Miller originally published on TechCrunch

TikTok rolls out its ‘state-controlled media’ label to 40 more countries

TikTok today announced it’s expanding its “state-controlled media” label to over 40 more global markets, to alert users when videos they’re seeing on the app are being published by entities whose “editorial output or decision-making process” is subject to influence by a government, the company said on Wednesday. The pilot initially began last year after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by labeling state-controlled media in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. When tapped, the label provides the user with more information about what the label means and why it’s being applied.

Since its launch, accounts run by Russian media organizations like RT, Ruptly, Sputnik, RIA Novosti, TASS and dozens of others have had the label added to their videos.

The Beijing-based video entertainment app is not being progressive with this implementation of the state-controlled media label. If anything, it’s delayed. TikTok’s peers have offered a similar system for labeling state-run media for years. For instance, YouTube in 2018 said it would begin to label state-funded broadcasters, and last year blocked Russian state-run channels from monetizing through ad dollars alongside Facebook. Meta had also been labeling state-controlled media since 2020 across its platform. And, prior to Elon Musk’s takeover, Twitter’s policy since 2020 had also been to label state-owned media. (Recently, Musk has been making jokes about the label, so it’s unclear if the policy will shift.)

In TikTok’s case, the company says it evaluates the editorial independence of an operation by considering its mission statement, editorial practices and safeguards, leadership and editorial governance, and its actual editorial decisions. It also offers an appeals process if an entity feels they’ve been unfairly labeled by its trust and safety team.

The company said it has worked with a variety of experts ahead of its pilot program, including consultations with over 60 media experts, political scientists, academics, and members from various international organizations and civil society groups worldwide.

TikTok’s handling of misinformation around Russia’s invasion of Ukraine hasn’t been fully effective, however.

The company in March said it would cut off new content originally in Russia in response to the country’s new “fake news” law about the invasion, but continued to allow several prominent Russian state media accounts to post.

And it wasn’t until now that the label is reaching high-profile markets, like the U.S. Canada, parts of Europe, China and others.

TikTok confirmed to TechCrunch the label will roll out now to the following countries:

Afghanistan, Armenia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, China, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Mongolia, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Republic of Cyprus, Republic of Moldova, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, United Kingdom, United States, Uzbekistan. 

The expansion comes amid a renewed crackdown on the short-form video app in the U.S., which former President Donald Trump had originally tried to ban in 2020 due to national security threats, only to have the ban stopped by the courts and later, the Biden administration.

But in recent weeks, a number of U.S. states and the U.S. House have now banned TikTok from government-issued devices, over mounting security concerns that TikTok shares data with the Chinese government. Forbes also accused the company of spying on its journalists and, last year, BuzzFeed, reported TikTok staff in China was accessing U.S. user data, leading TikTok to move the data to Oracle servers in the U.S.

TikTok rolls out its ‘state-controlled media’ label to 40 more countries by Sarah Perez originally published on TechCrunch