Causes grew to a jaw-dropping 200 million users as one of the first 10 Facebook platform apps. Started by Facebook co-founder Sean Parker, it was meant to turn a generation into activists and philanthropists. Causes acquired Votizen to augment shallow clicktivism with a way to remind friends to vote. But after Facebook went mobile and the web platform waned, Parker arranged Causes’ sale to his newer civic tech effort Brigade, for which he’d led a $9.3 million Series A and later fed more money. Brigade’s ballot guide was used by 250,000 people in the 2016 election, leading to 5 million Get Out The Vote messages sent, but the startup’s apps for connecting with campaigns or debating political issues never went viral like Causes.
Now both Causes’ and Brigade’s stories are coming to an end. In February, we caught wind of Brigade selling off its high-grade engineering team to Pinterest in an acqui-hire while it sought a home for its IP. Today, Brigade announces its technology and data have been acquired by politician-tracking service Countable. Terms of the deal were not disclosed, but it’s unlikely that Brigade’s Series A investors earned a return.
“While we didn’t reach the ultimate mountaintop, I think we moved the entire civic tech space forward,” Brigade CEO Matt Mahan tells me. “Countable offers a unique opportunity to bring greater scale to some of our best ideas, and our previous work will in turn accelerate their already impressive progress.”
Countable lets people view summaries of upcoming legislation, contact their representatives about their opinion and track the officials’ votes. “Brigade was founded with the non-partisan mission to reinvent how Americans participate in politics. When they decided to bring their journey to a close, Matt and Brigade’s leadership team sought a mission-aligned company to acquire their technology, and a responsible place to point any members of their community who were eager to remain civically active and engaged,” says Countable CEO Bart Myers, whose tech has powered 35 million civic actions. “They approached Countable — an obvious fit for our commitment to lowering barriers to civic entry and empowering meaningful action, and we’re excited to provide a home for their technology moving forward.”
Mahan admits that a potentially fatal wrong turn for Brigade was pivoting its product to “debates” in 2016. “We quickly learned that this level of openness resulted in less substantive discussion, more personal attacks and fewer participants willing to add their voices: the opposite of our goals. By removing too many barriers, debates empowered the loudest and most aggressive voices in the room,” he tells me. The startup course-corrected to focus on making real political impact with petitions and tools for contacting representatives.
By 2018, Mahan realized that “after two election cycles Brigade had not achieved the user scale we know is required to fundamentally transform our politics . . . For a company set up to be a civic moonshot, this was simply not good enough.” Parker’s team did not provide TechCrunch a statement or commentary on Brigade’s decline. The startup’s San Francisco-based engineering team was too pricey for civic tech companies to afford, but those that could pay the steep price didn’t need Brigade’s IP. So after approaching a half-dozen potential acquirers, Mahan split the company, selling the team to Pinterest and the tech to Countable. The cash and stock deal will make Brigade investors shareholders in Countable, and Mahan is taking an advisory role.
To further their contribution to the democracy innovation community, Countable agreed to let Brigade open-source its voter matching software before the sale. This allows apps to tie a user to their official voting record to offer personalized features, like reminders of upcoming elections, petitions for local issues and ways to contact their elected officials. Seth Flaxman, the CEO of civic tech software developer Democracy Works, which built TurboVote, says, “This is extremely difficult technology to build and can help TurboVote determine which of our 6 million users needs more help registering to vote. They are passing the baton, making it possible for nonprofits like ours to build off their progress.”
But there was one more loose end to tie up. Causes sucked in a ton of Facebook user data in the early days of the platform before restrictions were put in place (too late to stop Cambridge Analytica). So Mahan tells me, “Brigade proactively reached out to Facebook and worked with them and a third-party consultant to conduct a comprehensive review to identify and delete user data that was not essential for providing the existing app experience. In all, we deleted billions of rows of data that ethically we felt should not be transferred.”
As one of the most well-funded civic tech startups, Brigade’s breakup could cast a shadow on the space that includes MoveOn and Change.org. Consumer-focused apps for improving democracy are tough to monetize. It may fall to more sustainable democracy-focused startups like grassroots mass-texting app Hustle or nonprofits like Avaaz to arm the public with the equipment and knowledge necessary to participate in the political process. Given the deep polarization and animosity between nations’ political parties around the world, we need all the tools to amplify truth and civility we can get.
Years after its Audm acquisition, The New York Times launches its own audio app
Several years ago, The New York Times acquired audio journalism app Audm with the goal of using it as the basis of its own audio product. Today, the media company is unveiling the result of that work with the official debut of New York Times Audio — a new mobile app that combines the publication’s top podcasts, like “The Daily,” “The Ezra Klein Show,” “Hard Fork,” “Modern Love,” “The Run-Up,” and others, with those made exclusively for the new platform. These will range from short news briefs to lifestyle content to narrated longform journalism and more.
Plus, thanks to its $25 million acquisition of the production studio behind “Serial,” the app includes content related to that deal, as well. This includes the namesake show itself, plus new shows from the studio like “The Trojan Horse Affair,” “The Coldest Case in Laramie,” and others, as well as “This American Life,” hosted by Ira Glass, among others.
The Times has heavily invested in audio programming as another way to reach its audience, and particularly those who want to engage with its journalism while on the go — like when commuting, walking their dog, running, or traveling, for example. But, typically, NYT’s content is accessed through the third-party platforms where users already stream their podcasts, like Apple Podcasts or Spotify.
Isolating that content in its own app gives NYT a more direct relationship with its audience, of course, which means it can also collect more data on user behavior, like what people stream and download. (Plus, it could sell its own ads). But its appeal could be limited given that the app will not have a podcast catalog to rival existing platforms, where people already stream their favorite NYT shows, like “The Daily.”
And, with the addition of exclusives to NYT Audio, listeners will have to constantly toggle between apps to hear all the shows they want to tune into — and that’s not necessarily something they’ll want to do.
Even Spotify belatedly realized that its exclusive strategy with podcasts was not paying off. The company once believed it could entice users with big names and could generate its own popular originals by purchasing studios, but it has since pivoted to focus more on being the hosting platform rather than the creator, laying off top podcast execs in the process. NPR also recently canceled four of its podcasts amid its own set of layoffs, which makes for an uncertain market ahead for NYT Audio.
Still, there could be some attraction for NYT loyalists or those who haven’t already made podcast listening a part of their routines, and will see this new app as a sort of value-add on top of their existing subscription. For the crowd willing to give the app a try, there will be a number of new shows to sample.
For starters, there’s a new morning show called “The Headlines,” hosted by Times reporter Annie Correal, that will catch you up on top stories in 10 minutes or less and let you hear from reporters across NYT’s newsroom. Meanwhile, a new short-form series, “Shorts,” will offer lifestyle content like recipe idea, TV and book recommendations, travel inspiration, and tips for living well.
A feature called “The Magazine Stand” will offer a curated selection of narrated longform journalism from other outlets, which is essentially what Audm had provided.
The company says that, as a result of this launch, the standalone Audm app will now be sunset. All existing Audm iOS subscribers will automatically transition to NYT Audio at the same monthly or annual rate, so they can continue accessing their existing narrated article content.
There is also a “Daily Playlist” that pieces together top stories, culture stories and other content into an hour or less and a “Reporter Reads” feature where journalists read their own work and share additional context around the story.
“This American Life,” “Serial” and other shows from Serial Productions are also included, along with sports talk shows from “The Athletic.”
The NYT’s audio app has been in beta testing for roughly a year and half before today’s arrival, and is available to all news subscribers.
The company notes it has no plans to pull any of its existing content from third-party platforms, like Apple or Spotify, as a result of this launch.
The app’s arrifval follows The New York Times’ expanded investment in its own lineup of dedicated mobile apps which now include the popular NYT Cooking app, and, more recently, an updated NYT Games (previously, Crossword), which recently benefitted from its Wordle acquistion.
“We’re thrilled to introduce more people to a new way of experiencing The New York Times,” said Stephanie Preiss, senior vice president and general manager, Audio, in a launch announcement. “Audio journalism has the power to bring stories to life, and our app now allows our audience to take The Times with them — on dog walks, while commuting — in moments when reading isn’t an option. Offering New York Times Audio to news subscribers is just one way we’re adding more value to a Times subscription, in more moments throughout their day,” she added.
The New York Times Audio app is iOS-only.
As of the time of writing, it’s moved up to the No. 5 slot in the U.S. App Store’s News section.
Roku launches new sports hub dedicated to women’s sporting events
Roku is giving sports fans what they want—better access to women’s live sports. The company announced Wednesday the launch of Women’s Sports Zone, a new centralized hub that makes it easier for users to search, discover and stream women’s sports programming, from live games, matches and events to on-demand and free content.
Women’s Sports Zone will provide games from the National Women’s Soccer League, US Women’s World Cup, US Women’s Open, the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) and more. In addition, fans can watch free female-focused sports content on The Roku Channel, such as the Women’s Sports Network, “The Longshots,” “Prodigy” and “Bring It!” among others.
Plus, the newly launched hub comes as the 2023 WNBA (Women’s National Basketball Association) season tips off this Friday, May 19, giving Roku users the ability to stream all games across channels like ESPN, ABC, CBS and CBS Sports Network, along with streaming services like ESPN+, Paramount+, Prime Video and WNBA League Pass.
The Women’s Sports Zone is located within Roku’s sports experience. Users can scroll down to the “Sports” tab on the home screen to find the new hub. They can also search for “women’s sports” or a favorite team or league in Roku Search or by using Roku Voice with the TV remote.
Demand around women’s sports increases year after year, with 30% of U.S. sports fans saying they’re watching more women’s sports than they were five years ago, per a 2022 study by the National Research Group. Additionally, 85% of sports fans — including 79% of men – agree that it’s essential for women’s sports to continue growing in popularity. Just by looking at the WNBA alone, viewership has grown dramatically for the league. Its 2022 season garnered an average of 416,000 viewers across all networks, making it the most-watched full season since 2006.
“The popularity and demand for women’s sports is greater than ever, and at Roku, we continue to commit to elevating this important programming for our customers,” said Kelli Raftery, Roku’s VP of Global Communications, in a statement. “At a time when it is harder than ever to find what you want to watch, our new Women’s Sports Zone makes it easier for fans to get to the content they love, and it arrives just in time for the tip-off of the WNBA season this Friday.”
Disney+ changes up its release model, plans to launch all ‘Echo’ episodes at once
President of Marvel Studios Kevin Fiege took to the Disney Upfront stage Tuesday to announce that Marvel’s new Disney+ show, “Echo,” is getting a binge release– a first for an MCU series. Disney+ will drop all Season 1 episodes on November 29.
The “Hawkeye” spinoff stars Alaqua Cox as Maya Lopez, a deaf Native American character who has photographic reflexes. She is the adoptive daughter of supervillain Kingpin (played by Vincent D’Onofrio), however, has been known to fight alongside Daredevil, who wants to take down the criminal underworld. It’s reported that Charlie Cox is returning as Daredevil in “Echo.”
This will be the fourth female-led MCU series on Disney+, joining “Wandavision,” “She-Hulk” and “Ms. Marvel.”
Disney’s new binge strategy is a surprising move for the company and follows in the footsteps of rival Netflix, which swears by its bingeable release model as it drives “substantial engagement, especially for newer titles,” Netflix previously said in its Q3 2022 shareholder letter.
Disney+ tested the waters with its Star Wars titles, starting off with “Obi-Wan Kenobi,” which was the first live-action Star Wars show to premiere with multiple episodes. Meanwhile, “Andor” had a three-episode premiere and was the longest live-action Disney+ season with 12 episodes.
It’s likely the company feels the pressure to change up its release approach after losing four million Disney+ subscribers in the recent quarter, bringing the total to 157.8 million. In the first quarter of 2023, the streaming service saw its first subscriber loss, dropping 2.4 million subs.
Disney plans to save $5.5 billion in overall costs, with $3 billion going toward content savings.
The move also comes as Marvel rethinks its game plan. Fiege previously said the studio wants to be more calculated about which MCU projects get released. It’s been argued that many fans are overwhelmed by the wave of superhero shows, and it’s time for Marvel to slow it down a bit.
“It is harder to hit the zeitgeist when there’s so much product out there — and so much ‘content,’ as they say, which is a word that I hate,” Fiege said in an Entertainment Weekly interview. “But we want Marvel Studios and the MCU projects to really stand out and stand above. So, people will see that as we get further into Phase 5 and 6. The pace at which we’re putting out the Disney+ shows will change so they can each get a chance to shine.”
So, instead of airing episodes week to week, the decision to release “Echo” as a complete season looks to be the beginning of a deliberate effort to gradually reduce the MCU release schedule.
During the Upfronts presentation, Fiege also revealed the official premiere date for “Loki” Season 2, which is coming to Disney+ on October 6.
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