Can Tech Startups Do Journalism?

On June 2015, a new, hyperspecific website named Van Winkle’s went live. It was billed as an online destination for “all aspects of sleep and various nocturnal adventures” by its editorial director, Elizabeth Spiers, formerly an editor at Gawker and the Observer. In its first week, the site’s pieces included a listicle about dream sequence clichés and a 2,800-word feature on the rise of benzodiazepine prescriptions. Its editor-in-chief, Jeff Koyen, heralded it as “the first editorial venture of its kind.” What he meant by that had as much to do with its niche subject matter as it did its funding source: Van Winkle’s was not a traditionally independent journalistic venture, but the latest product of mattress startup Casper.

“We have a long-term vision for Casper to become the dedicated brand for all things sleep, and part of owning that category is owning the best content related to it,” Casper CEO Philip Krim told The Wall Street Journal at the time, speaking pure startup. He later added: “The mandate is to create awesome content and that’s it.”

It would make sense that Krim — who had raised $15 million in funding for his company — saw inherent value in encouraging the online conversation about sleep, a topic that’s far more interesting than mattresses. The implicit idea behind Van Winkle’s was inception: People who read about sleep would then care about sleep, and eventually feel inspired to spend more money on sleep-related products. Casper drew up a budget for an editorial team that included consulting from Spiers, a small operation headed up by Koyen, a full-time staff writer, and freelance work. When it debuted, Van Winkle’s went one step further to distance itself from the influences of Big Sleep, drawing a line between Casper’s business goals and Van Winkle’s content.

“I set up clear rules,” Koyen, who previously worked for Digiday, told me. “This was the only way I was going to take the job. We never covered mattresses, good or bad. We just blacklisted it. That went the same for anything coming down their product line.”

In its efforts to stake out some editorial integrity, Van Winkle’s wedged itself into a space between journalism and sponsored content, which the American Press Institute defines as material that “takes the same form and qualities of a publisher’s original content” and “serves useful or entertaining information as a way of favorably influencing the perception of the sponsor brand.” In practice, both Spiers and Koyen say that Van Winkle’s story assignments, fact checking, and editing functioned without interference from Casper’s business side. The site once ran a 6,000-plus-word investigation into ties between sleep deprivation and PTSD in the military. The only way a reader who stumbled on the site could be led to was if she scrolled down the page and clicked a subtle line of text that says “Published by Casper,” along with the company site’s URL. It was real — if selective — journalism, even if it was funded by a brand, Spiers said.

“I think we’re kind of past the point where anybody would look at it and be like: ‘Oh, well, that story’s fantastic but I hate it because it’s being sponsored by a brand,’” Spiers said. “That’s kind of irrational given that most media is ad supported. This is just a more direct way of creating ad-supported media.”

Read more at The Ringer.