Headshot of Max Towey, RocaNews co-founder and CEO

This week we hear from Max Towey, Co-Founder and CEO at RocaNews. RocaNews is a start-up building a community around the news that lowers the blood pressure; they believe alarmist and partisan coverage has been responsible for much of the news avoidance we’re seeing today. Towey tells us how RocaNews is aiming for balanced and informative coverage of just a few stories a day, and are hoping to rebuild the younger generation’s trust in news. He also explains how they built up over 1 million followers on Instagram, why an email newsletter is one of their most successful products, and why it’s so important to lower the temperature around political discourse.

In the news roundup the team asks whether hyperpartisanship is making its way across the Atlantic, based on a (very scary) report about a universal drop in trust in US news media. In the news in brief, we look at whether Europe is working smarter not harder when it comes to the podcasting industry; why has the Guardian hopped into bed with Google for funding; and discuss the latest bid for attention from manchild Elon Musk around Twitter.

Here are some highlights:

Founding RocaNews

It began in the pandemic. Come April 2020, our lives were the news. Everybody was inundated with news all day. And at that point, it felt like the problems we and our peers had felt with the news media reached a fever pitch level in terms of the alarmism the partisanship where you go on two different channels, and you feel like you’re observing two separate realities. Not so much just that sort of typical issue of partisanship and bias, but also how news was delivered; cable news, paywalled websites, print journalism still.

As news junkies ourselves – and [co-founder] Max comes from a newspaper family in New York – I was reading the newspaper when I was a young kid, you know, it’s sentimental, but it’s outdated. So we thought more about what do you get? What does the news company that reaches us and our friends look like?

We spent all pandemic thinking about that. I called up my best friend from college, Billy, he was working in Wall Street at the time, he quit his job, we all quit our jobs. And we set out to start this company. We launched late August of 2020.

Growing Instagram to 1 million+ followers

We actually had a website from day one, and virtually no Instagram. Instagram was an afterthought, which seemed crazy because one of our realisations in December 2020 was, ‘Wait a second, why are we doing the website thing, our friends are on Instagram and that’s where all the millennial and upper Gen Z generation spend most of their time is on Instagram.’ So we were like, shouldn’t there be good news on Instagram? And that was our first big growth area.

What happened was people who spend a lot of time on Instagram, once they heard about this account that would do just four stories that you need to know every day, and then a deep dive on a random random subject… once we developed this formula, it sort of it caught on. We were very lucky that people liked it, and we innovated a tonne. We changed how we did stories a lot. But [our followers] ended up going from 10,000 to then 100,000. And then by last fall, a million.

Balancing types of news stories

We will not shy away from important conversations and coverage on the world’s most important stories. And it’s true, terrible things happen all the time. Our job is to not sugarcoat them, or put a positive spin. Tragedy exists, it’s terrible, and it’s our duty to cover it. And we do that with facts, and we do it as is fitting.

What we believe is there’s an obsession with those stories for many legacy outlets. You go to a homepage on a normal day, and it’s hard to find a single headline that doesn’t have doom, crisis, catastrophe, devastation somewhere in its headline. And there are tragedies all the time. But they’re also some incredible breakthroughs in medicine, in science, and culture. There are some fascinating developments, some heartwarming stories, some positive news.

And so I think it’s the obsession of the darkness and of the world that we believe is not a reflection of the world. So our job is to hold the reflection, it’s not to make the world seem like one giant candy shop, because it isn’t, but instead to cover tragedy, barely and fact-based and then also try to balance it out with some interesting stories. And cover things that give us hope.

Aiming to reverse polarisation

Our hope is that the best way to do it is by lowering the temperature. I think what makes it so difficult is everything is ratcheted up. You think of the volume system in US politics and US political discourse feels like it’s 100 out of 100 at all times. And we believe that there’s an unhealthy obsession on politics. Of course, it’s relevant to people’s lives. But that doesn’t mean it deserves 24/7 attention. It doesn’t mean you should build your identity around it.

There’s been some incredible research on how the people who place politics as the source of their meaning in life tend to be unhappier. Arthur Brooks, writer for The Atlantic and professor at Harvard, a lot of his research is just that if politics is the main centre of meaning, it’s going to lead to more unhappiness. And we believe that the media has been very irresponsible and pitting groups against each other and feeding this partisanship in vilifying groups and playing to their base which is led, obviously, to this.

We believe the only way it can come back together is by lowering the temperature because the 24/7 food fight culture just can’t work. It’s not going to work. And unfortunately, I think history would say when it does this, there might be like, an event that would have to shock the system, or break the system, and you’d have to build renew anew. But we believe that there’s hope by lowering the temperature and I think by not participating in that saying, ‘No, this isn’t acceptable.’

Main story:

Americans’ confidence in newspapers and television news has plummeted to an all-time low, according to the latest annual Gallup survey of trust in U.S. institutions.

  • As you’d expect, partisanship is seen as the biggest driver in the lack of trust. Just 5% of Republicans said they had “a great deal or quite a lot of confidence” in newspapers, compared to 35% of Democrats.
  • The media trust gap between Democrats and Republicans began to widen during the the Bush and Obama administrations, but grew dramatically during the Trump era and has continued to widen.

The UK has news trust issues but not on quite the same scale as the US (yet).

  • The Sun is the UK’s least trusted news brand, with 67% of people saying they didn’t trust its output.
  • BBC still the most trusted but had a dramatic drop from 75% of respondents trusting coverage in 2018 to 55% in 2022.
  • Overall, 34% of people trust the news in the UK (there was a big dip in the 2020 report where we fell lower than the US at 28% and 29% respectively but some of that has since recovered).

News in brief:

  • The European podcasting scene is lagging behind that of the US – at least in terms of the huge amounts of money being poured into acquisitions and exclusive content. But this article on The Fix points out that European publications are using podcasts for a different purpose – to steadily grow younger audiences and bring them into publishers’ ecosystems in a sustainable way.
  • Twitter is getting set to sue Elon Musk after he junked the $44bn takeover deal that he’d proposed. He says Twitter wouldn’t give him the information he needed to judge how many fake accounts were on the platform. Apparently the terms of the deal require Musk to pay a $1bn break-up fee if he does not complete the transaction, Twitter’s board doesn’t seem to be planning to accept the payment and will instead take legal action to push the deal through.
  • The Guardian has become the latest big UK publisher to sign a licencing deal for Google News Showcase, following other publishers like BBC News, Sky News, The Telegraph and the Daily Mail. News publishers provide three stories a day for their dedicated ‘panel’ in showcase. Google says there’s a consistent formula to the payments but didn’t share numbers – at the moment in the UK, 93% of the titles are local news publishers. There’s an excellent piece in journalism.co.uk looking at the possible viability of the platform for small publishers.

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[…] lives were the news,” Max Towey told the Media Voices Podcast. “Everybody was inundated with news all day. And at that point, it felt like the problems we and […]