The venture is being called #Waywire, and the hashtag appears in the name as a nod to its emphasis on social media and reliance on digital platforms, including as a branded app. Waywire will also subsist mostly on user-generated content from viewers in addition to its own original programming.
Waywire is expected to launch in beta mode later this summer but without advertising, which won’t kick in until the venture amasses a significant audience. Only a handful of shortform video programs will be available at launch, including a thrice-daily newscast no longer than five minutes.
The goal is to give a millennial audience raised on technology an alternative to the reigning, older-skewing news establishment, one that deals with substantive issues devoid of partisanship or tabloid interests.
Waywire will also avoid a political leaning of any kind and will instead be a forum for users of many different viewpoints. “We saw that, in places where technology and social media led to revolutions, they understand that most media is owned by handful of individual corporations,” said Nathan Richardson, Waywire co-founder along with Sarah Ross. “We want to be a platform for users to contribute whether left, right or center.”
The venture’s execs declined to specify how many people will be staffed out of Waywire’s newsroom in Manhattan, which is currently a temporary space with fewer than 10 employees. Waywire has collected only $1.75 million in financing, a modest sum for a media venture at any scale, but will continue to seek funding.
The seed capital round was led by First Round Capital and Schmidt through one of his venture capital firms, Innovation Endeavors. The venture is not associated with Google. Also aboard is Troy Carter, best known for being Lady Gaga’s business manager, and John Ham, co-founder of live-streaming service Ustream. Oprah Winfrey and LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner have also been reported as investors.
Waywire is the brainchild of Booker, an up-and-coming politician who has achieved a national profile in part because of his innovative usage of social media platforms like Twitter, where he has over 1 million followers. Booker developed the idea with Sarah Ross and Richardson, veteran digital media execs who first met while at Yahoo and are aboard as co-founders.
Booker will also be an on-air contributor to the network to “discuss America’s most significant challenges” but will not have a say in Waywire’s programming or have a day-to-day management role.
But in the interest of avoiding the appearance of impropriety and given Booker isn’t giving up his day job for Waywire, his ownership stake will be maintained in a trust overseen by former New Jersey governor Thomas Kean — a nod to bipartisanship given his conservative credentials.
“Cory is a full-time mayor of a city that has great needs,” Richardson said. “We want to make sure he stays focused on his job, which is running Newark 24/7.”
But that trust is active only for as long as Booker is in office, raising the possibility that he is using Waywire in part to advance his political interests. Booker has been mentioned as a future presidential possibility, and he’d be far from the first politician to leverage media to keep his profile up. He wouldn’t even be the first mayor with a media empire to call his own, given the eponymous organization founded by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Richardson batted down the suggestion that Waywire was a politically motivated measure for Booker.
“Cory has always been embracing disruptive ways to change the world,” Richardson said. “While some politicians choose to write a book, he understands this generation is much more interested in a two-way dialogue that is more free-flowing through the social Web.”
Booker knows all too well the excesses of the news media. In an appearance last month on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” a critical remark he made about President Obama’s campaign ignited enough of a firestorm that he was forced to fire his communications director. Waywire is his way of creating an antidote to the mainstream media.
If the Waywire concept invokes a feeling of deja vu, it may be because bears some similarity to Current TV, a cable channel co-founded by former vice president Al Gore in 2005. Like Waywire, Current sought to make socially conscious programming palatable to younger viewers by being digitally oriented and enabling the submission of user-generated content on its website.
But Current ended up dumping that format after years of struggling. The network seemed to finally achieve some momentum over the past year by transforming into a liberal-leaning similar to MSNBC but was dealt a harsh blow when Keith Olbermann left amid circumstances currently being hashed out in a pair of lawsuits.
Waywire is hoping to ride the wave of programming enterprises looking to make an end run around traditional TV distribution by being available as an app on the growing number of Internet-connected TVs. Another venture led by billionaire Carlos Slim, Ora.tv, is taking a similar tack and made former CNN newsman Larry King its first on-air hire.
Another well-known digital brand coming to this space this summer is the Huffington Post, which is launching a more ambitious online network next month, HuffPost Live, that plans to program 12 hours per day.
At this stage Waywire isn’t expected to pursue brand-name news personalities, though Richardson said hires will be made that are recognizable figures in the social-media world that would appeal to millenials.
While Waywire is not seeking carriage as a cable news channel a la CNN, it will license some of its programming from yet-to-be-revealed premium partners likely drawn from TV and online brands.