Election seasons bring with them fresh waves of media upstarts, and the newest entrant in this cycle's media-contest-within-a-presidential-contest is Cafe.com, a startup whose funding, and, more intriguingly, business model, comes from the world of e-commerce.
Cafe is the third in a group of sites run by a parent company called Some Spider, which is owned by Vinit Bharara, a co-founder of Diapers.com, which sold to Amazon in 2010. Its editor-in-chief will be former Clinton aide and Salon Political Editor Blake Zeff. In an early hiring coup, they poached two top hands from the New York Times' excellent tech team, Paul Smurl and Rajiv Pant, to build their platform.
The site will aim, Zeff said in an interview along with his three colleagues on Tuesday, to speak to Americans about politics through stories deeply rooted in identity. That will mean talking about politics and policy from certain perspectives — Zeff cited ethnicity, gender, occupation, and age as possible angles Cafe will take. And, he said, it will mean putting tech resources into features that allow readers to figure out what, for instance, a tax proposal would mean for them.
But the most distinctive thing about the nascent site isn't its editorial approach. It's the way in which Bharara's e-commerce roots have shaped his approach to media. Cafe is one of three sites he owns, along with the established Scary Mommy, which he purchased, and The Mid, which is focused on people who — well, you're not supposed to use the term "middle-aged."
Bharara described his approach as a "blend between Vox, BuzzFeed, the New York Times, and Amazon."
The business model, he said, is rooted in part in watching Scary Mommy raise six figures' worth of money for charities, using the collective power of an intense, engaged community.
"We're trying to create these big blocs of communities," Bharara said. Rather than simply serve readers display ads, the challenge is to "act as their union rep, go to the brands, and figure out a mutually advantageous way" to sell readers products. In the case of Scary Mommy, that could be diapers; on Cafe, Bharara suggested he might connect readers to advocacy groups. The site's revenue would come from vendors, not readers.
Media companies once dreamed of being the home base for engaged, passionate communities, but that has declined alongside the rise of mobile, and of Facebook and Twitter. Bharara said offering "benefits and services" to readers could help build communities in a way that the social networking giants are overlooking.
Facebook and Twitter are, Smurl argued, missing an opportunity to deepen their relationships with users, and to make money selling them things. "They're so focused on growth that they are to some degree sowing the seeds of their own disruption," he said.
Cafe aims to launch this fall with 10 to 15 editorial staffers and plans to grow. The site, Zeff and Bharara said, will not explicitly identify itself as progressive, though both men are Democrats.
"We're not going to [be] studiously nonpartisan like, 'On the one hand, he said she said,'" Zeff said. "But the brand of the thing is not 'Come here, all ye liberals.' We think that if we have really good product we can reach a whole lot of people who frankly don't have a political affiliation."
Bharara and Zeff also addressed a minor complication of running a political website: Bharara's older brother, Preet, is the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, and has transformed the state's politics with a series of aggressive investigations.
Vinit Bharara said he'd told Zeff to give his brother no quarter.
"You'd have to [write it] if there was a story that was negative about Preet," he said. "It isn't even conceivable that we not go there."
Smurl made the comment about social platforms sowing the seeds of their own disruption. An earlier version of this story mistakenly attributed it to Bharara.