Unpresuming and frantically busy, two recent George Washington University graduates sit at a desk in the Chinatown WeWork in D.C. behind a pair of brightly lit laptops. Between phone calls and taps at their respective keyboards, the two young men, Myles Field and Josh Strupp, steal a glance outside the window and into the District’s absorbing 7th street corridor that neighbors the Verizon Center.
Strupp and Field are the co-owners and executives behind a generation Y-focused, bootstrapped new media publication that is grossing 5K to 10K unique visitors a day, called The Rival. Field leads business development operations and Strupp is the editorial head. They are on pace to hit 90,000 unique visitors a month, Field tells me. The total employee count is nearly 200, including all writers, editors, directors, strategists and HQ members, though freelancer/contracting titles play a large part.
The still-young, trendy news publication, following in the wide footsteps of Barstool, BuzzFeed, Elite Daily and so many of its peers, looks to capture the voice and attention of college students on campuses across the U.S. The Rival operates as a network made up of multiple, campus-specific, child publications. And the staff is comprised of current students at each campus, while administrative, business and editorial strategy is orchestrated between Washington and specific, senior directors on each campus.
This general news distribution model is similarly deployed by the American City Business Journals (ACBJ), DC Inno’s parent company, in that specific, city-wide journals and journalists are plugged into and producing content related to their respective localities only.
The Rival currently operates on nine campuses, including the University of Miami, Howard University, George Mason University, Indiana University and The University of Notre Dame, among others.
Founded in March 2014 by Strupp and Field with the support of a small team of ten full-time GW student-employees, The Rival was born out of a desire to subvert the material and structure behind the university’s legacy student newspaper, The Hatchet. The goal of The Rival, according to Field, is to provide an avenue for alternative, student reporters to write in an informal, unfiltered and free-ranging fashion. On a quick review, you’ll notice the differences between The Rival and a digital student paper almost immediately, namely in the headlines, content and overall design. It’s more attune to the type of articles found on Elite Daily but with a mix of original campus reporting, national news satire, entertaining slideshows and gifs.
The website design can be best described as a mix somewhere between Quartz and Vice Motherboard, with the addition of nascent advertising appearance cut into banners and side-boxes.
“The idea came from no one reading our campus publication, even though they were targeted to students. In [Strupp’s] journalism classes he kept learning that it was a dying industry, young people don’t read news or read it enough. We wanted to change that at GW and then after enrollment in the [GW] business competition, we decided to take our winnings and go nationally,” Field explained.
Though the number of writers per market varies, there’s an average of 20 per outlet, Field said. This number fluctuates greatly, however, based on respective graduation dates and the time commitments available per author. About 2 articles are published per weekday per university/outlet, with roughly 80 to 100 articles being featured across the network per week.
A trending tab, directly to the left on each outlet’s homepage, shows popular content thats heating up across all the subsidiaries.
A new version of The Rival, supported by a freshly renovated website and customized backend system engineered by an outside developer, launched just before Halloween. The previous domain, rivaldc.com, will now guide visitors to therival.news, offering news and article from more authors and an easy menu to view syndicates.
In terms of website traffic, The Rival has experienced particular success recently in North Carolina, at Duke University, because of the strong campus culture and close knit community exhibited by students there, Field told DC Inno. He added, that these types of campuses appreciate an insider opinion, direct from the dorm room halls and authentic to the experience, which in many instances cannot be written by the student paper for any number of reasons.
“This model … it really resonates with readers,” Field said.
According to the co-owners, there’s a real demand and opportunity for fun, disruptive and alternative content within the college environment. And there’s not a dedicated system outside of the more generic options like Medium and Google’s Blogger to answer it from the student author angle.
The marketing strategy for The Rival has been primarily underlined by on-ground, guerrilla style, flyer hands outs and a robust social media presence that connects with current students. “We believe that a bottom up approach to marketing is what will attract the biggest audience at
each school. At GW, our marketing ethos was simple; speak the language of GW students, be creative and be edgy,” Field said.
Students apply to become The Rival writers through an online process that includes a resume drop and questionnaire. They must also provide a portfolio of previous works. Whether applicants are hired is a decision shared between the co-founders and campus specific directors.
Daily article production and outreach is primarily directed by a communications and editorial directors per school, who are also current students. Articles submitted by writers are reviewed and edited by their directors. These senior staff members are in contact with Strupp, an alum of GWU’s journalism program, on an almost daily basis. Upon graduation, the current model encourages directors to pass the baton down to a promising staff writer.
“Our competition is existing official and unofficial newspapers at the campus level. Hercampus, Elite Daily, Barstool, Buzzfeed; any publication that is trying to target our 18-24 age demographic,” Field said.
At the moment, there are 180 The Rival writers, nationally, Field told DC Inno. The preferred team size per market is 25 writers, five editors and two directors, though it will change dependent on the size of the student population at each university/outlet. GW, American and Duke are the leading the producers of articles, today.
Field explained The Rival’s hierarchy as such, “the breakdown is 90 percent hands off and 10 percent hands on. We give the Directors complete power over their content in order to keep it hyperlocal. Once or twice a month we’ll do a consolidated effort to cover one subject across all campuses.”
The first batch of content on new The Rival (2.0), post-Halloween, ranged from gonzo-style, first person accounts of drunken nights out to fraternity costume contests. The Rival’s “journalists” are all unpaid freelancers and active campus members, Field explained. At the moment, no one is making a salary, but Field and Strupp said they hope to one day then can pay writers and directors across the country—providing what could be a convenient alternative income for many participants.
Today, writing for The Rival is more of an exercise toward self-expression and to boost a resume than a form of self-employment.
The revenue brought in to support current operations comes via online advertisers and partner sales channels. A tab, near the headline toggle menu at the top of the website, brings a series of odd and quirky coupon codes to smoking products, millennial clothing companies and online education services.
“We already have connections with dozens of national businesses, student start ups, non profits and much more. Right now we are giving away free ads to charitable and non profit organizations, and only charging commercial businesses for sign ups they receive via our site. We have a solid advertising strategy in place that include display ads, advertorials, sponsored polls, and Rival Offers, which is a page entirely dedicated to student deals,” Field said of the company’s advertising efforts.
He added, “we [The Rival] will begin charging full price in 2016. As we gain popularity at our 9 pioneering schools and as we expand to new schools, we will be able to gather a larger market share. This will enable us to experiment with innovative advertising and revenue strategies.”