Can The Daily Dot Become Web’s ‘Hometown Newspaper’?

Wrapper comes off social news site

The Daily Dot is one of those startups with a concept that sounds intriguing, but also makes you wonder: What does that mean? The company has promised to become "the hometown newspaper of the World Wide Web," and today it finally emerges from its invite-only beta test.

So what does the Web's putative hometown paper look like? It's filled with stories about websites like Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and YouTube. The thing that makes The Daily Dot different from the hordes of other tech news sites, according to CEO Nick White and founding executive editor Owen Thomas, is its aim to treat these sites like communities, not as technologies, revenue sources, or curiosities. That means focusing on people, and on trying to perform the online equivalent of old-fashioned, shoe leather journalism.

As one example, Thomas (who may be best known as the former editor of Silicon Valley gossip site Valleywag, and who was also my editor at tech news site VentureBeat) pointed to the story of "dead squirrel girl," a popular YouTube video showing a young girl playing with a squirrel's corpse. Where other sites were content to repost the video, Thomas said The Daily Dot was the first to track down the girl's parents and ask them why they let their daughter play with a dead animal.

"To the extent that we can humanize the Web, that gives us an advantage over people who look at the Web as a business, as a set of technologies, or as a set of APIs," Thomas said.

For the past few months, the site has been conducting what Thomas called "the leakiest darn beta ever," where people could read stories through social networks or The Daily Dot newsletter, but they needed an invite to explore the site itself.

In its early days, the company seemed particularly focused on social news site Reddit. (See, for example, this infographic about different types of users on Reddit, which also illustrates some of the "data-driven journalism" that White seems excited about.) Thomas said he makes "no apologies" for the Reddit coverage—there was a period when the company jokingly called itself "The Reddit Tribune"—because it seemed like a good place to test out many of the team's ideas before expanding to other communities.

But will the concept work outside Reddit? White himself acknowledged that while Reddit users might proudly identify as Redditors, there aren't many Facebook users who would do the same—"No one thinks of themselves as a Facebook-er." However, he argued that Facebook users are still interested in the Facebook community. As evidence, White said that when The Daily Dot ran Facebook ads for its early stories, the headlines that emphasized the social media angle received 50 percent more clicks than those that didn't.

As it expands its coverage of different Web communities, the company is also creating rankings of the most influential users on each site, and then actively courting those users to become Daily Dot readers. Building that kind of influential audience could make The Daily Dot a compelling partner for advertisers, White said. (Social influence startup Klout, whose investors include Daily Dot co-founder Nova Spivack, is making a similar bet with its Perks advertising program.)

The Daily Dot has no venture money behind it, having launched on less than $600,000 in funding from friends and family. But you won't read that in The Daily Dot.