West meets east: Silicon Valley accelerator to tackle the future of journalism

Entrepreneur Corey Ford is in an interesting spot: Today he launched Matter, the startup accelerator that aims to help companies tackling the future of publishing and media. But as of yet, no one, including Ford, necessarily knows what that future of journalism looks like. So what kind of companies will Ford accelerate to build that future? Companies that change how people think and learn, and companies that do things that well, matter.

“We have a similar mission to public media and good journalism outlets, but this isn’t just about saving public media or saving journalism. It’s about building a place for entrepreneurs to build something that makes people more informed and empowered,” Ford said in an interview Monday.

In other words, Ford is taking the spirit of innovation so ingrained in Silicon Valley and applying that to public information values often associated with outlets like The New York Times or Frontline, and the “future of journalism” conversation so often heard on the East Coast amid its glut of media companies.

Values and Mindsets of media and innovation Matter screenshotYour startup might not have much to do with public radio or publishing, but you might still be a fit for Matter, which launched in San Francisco Monday. In other words, Ford wants to find the next Evan Williams and Biz Stone back when they were hanging out and coming up with an idea that would change the media world forever, when their idea for Twitter was brand new. Or David Karp and Tumblr. Or Perry Chen and Kickstarter. Or whatever else will change how people think about and share information.

Ford, who was an award-winning journalist with Frontline before teaching entrepreneurship at Stanford’s design school and starting Runway at Innovation Endeavors, isn’t going at it alone. While Matter (no relation to our former colleague Bobbie Johnson’s Matter startup) is structured like a typical accelerator, incubating companies for four months and giving them $50,000 in funding, it has backing from KQED, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and Public Radio Exchange (PRX). KQED and the Knight Foundation have each put $1.25 million into the initial $2.5 million fund, and PRX will provide strategic support. Applications for interested companies are due by Jan. 6.

In a town populated by plenty of incubators and accelerators, how does Ford hope his venture will stand out? As much as he hopes applicants won’t feel too constrained by the public media focus, he said he thinks that focus will help the companies achieve more, by bringing in advisors who understand the market and challenges it brings, much as Rock Health does with health companies. Ford also said he thinks that having a very small entrepreneur class — only five companies — and a physical work space (something groups like Y Combinator eschew) will help the teams immensely.

“I fully believe that one of the biggest values that we’re bringing, and I don’t see it talked about much in other accelerators, is the culture and community that you build around your startup,” he said. “Money is important because it equates to time and runway. But it’s really about having a place where you can show up, and be better. And be much better rather than doing it alone. Because entrepreneurship can be a lonely journey.”

Ford said they picked the name of the accelerator, Matter, to signify what they are looking for in companies, and also where journalism should go.

“We said, what we needed badly was a brand that talked about what we care about, that preservers the value of public media, that we look back and say, that matters. That stands out in the signals and the noise,” he said.