Stacker is a five-year-old media company that lets brands sponsor data journalism and offers publishers free, and good quality, digital content.
Stacker’s journalists cover news, money, sports, entertainment, science, lifestyle and travel. Content ranges from serious investigative work (‘How wildfires have worsened in recent years’) to light-hearted listicles (‘100 best movies of all time’).
Stacker also uses national datasets to create localised stories that work across multiple markets. For example, the same dataset can create stories for both WeAreGreenBay.com (‘Wisconsin is the #9 state with the highest Black homeownership gap’) and Black Hills Pioneer (‘South Dakota is the #7 state with the highest Black homeownership gap’).
The company is growing fast. It reports having an annualised revenue run-rate of around $10m, and it is profitable. Stacker has more than 30 employees, and soon expects to hit 50.
To understand more about Stacker, and its growing role in the US local media industry, Press Gazette interviewed chief executive Noah Greenberg and managing editor Nicole Caldwell, who leads a team of eight in-house data reporters and works with many more freelance reporters. We also spoke with Tim Kelley, director of digital engagement at Lee Enterprises, one of Stacker’s many large partners in the local news industry.
Stacker’s start-up story
Prior to co-founding Stacker in 2017, chief executive Noah Greenberg was head of publisher partnerships at Graphiq, a data visualisation firm.
Greenberg says his launch thesis for Stacker was: “There was so much structured data out there that we thought wasn’t being properly made available in journalism… There weren’t a lot of outlets just making that data understandable and accessible. And so we started a newsroom that could do just that.”
Initially, Stacker partnered with news aggregation giants MSN and Yahoo, which paid for the content through their licensing schemes.
In 2019, Greenberg says his team “realised there was really a need for this type of content across local outlets – across news organisations, whether they be newspapers, whether they be on the digital side, or broadcasting”.
However, recognising the financial troubles of the news industry, Greenberg says he “did not want to have newspapers as our paying clients”.
Instead, he launched Stacker Studio, which allows brands to effectively sponsor content, enabling news outlets to use it for free. “What we realised around then was there were a lot of really big corporate institutions looking to fund and underwrite journalism as a form of marketing.”
How Stacker works with brands
So, how does the relationship between Stacker and brands work?
Greenberg provides a hypothetical example. “Experian might say: ‘Hey, we’d like to be responsible for stories in personal finance.’ Our newsroom will brainstorm a dozen ideas. Experian says: ‘These three.’ We create the piece in full. Then it is licensed to Experian to go on their blog – but also made available on our newswire saying that it appeared on Experian first. [And] in the intro, it would link back to where it was originally published.”
And how does it work in practice? One case study on Stacker’s website provides a good illustration.
Sunday Citizen, a luxury home goods company, sponsored Stacker research into “How stress affects the way Americans sleep”. The article appeared on Sunday Citizen’s website and was then distributed on the Stacker wire, as well as Stacker’s own news website. It was picked up by dozens of publications, including Newsweek and SFGate, each of which credited the sponsor for the research and linked back to its website.
Caldwell says: “Once a client is signed, we get the information on who the client is and what kind of business they’re in. We have a big brainstorm with the content team, the data reporters as well as our writers and editors in-house. We will conceive of ideas that are related to the real estate market or pet food or climate change or anything in between.”
Caldwell says clients will typically be given 10-20 article ideas to choose from. Once they’ve decided, Caldwell says her team will “analyse the data, write the story, edit it, fact-check – all of the normal newsroom stuff – package it up. And then the client is allowed to see the piece before we publish, but only in terms of ‘do we agree there are no factual errors or overall problems?’”
‘We have a serious priority for transparency’
Greenberg and his team are aware that Stacker’s set-up could create ethical concerns for publishing partners. Therefore, says Greenberg, “we have a serious priority for transparency obviously because of the model”.
Stacker’s website sets out clearly its editorial standards:
“Every Stacker story is created using reliable information from vetted, credible sources and objective, data-driven reporting that has been fact checked by our newsroom. Studio clients and Stacker readers can rest assured that these principles serve as the common thread through all Stacker content.
“Stacker’s editorial team maintains the final say on every story we publish. Even when research is underwritten by a third party, Stacker content will never advertise or promote products, services, or brands.
“We promise full transparency. Every piece produced through Stacker Studio clearly communicates the underwriter and cites the original source data and research methodology in the article. We do not integrate promotional content into our pieces.”
Greenberg also says that Stacker is committed to “a one-to-one ratio of stories that we’re working on with brands and other stories that we want to put out on the wire”.
In other words, 50% of Stacker content is ‘sponsored’ by brands and appears on their websites. The other 50% is not directly associated with a sponsor.
Stacker believes that this set-up ensures its content choices are not dictated by brands.
“Our focus is on telling great stories,” says Caldwell. “So if there’s a client who’s like, ‘I don’t want to work with you because you cover the climate crisis,’ we’re not going to have them as a partner. So there is not a self-censoring that is occurring by any stretch.”
What do publishers think?
The Stacker model may seem unconventional to journalism purists and traditionalists. But it appears to be working – for Stacker itself, for brands, and for publishers.
Greenberg says that Stacker content is currently distributed across around 900 individual news websites every month. Large partners include Hearst, McClatchy and Nexstar.
One of its major local news partners is Lee Enterprises, which has titles across 70 US markets.
Tim Kelley, Lee’s director of digital engagement, says that his company has used around 130 Stacker articles over the past month, each one distributed to 70 markets via different sites. Much of the content is localised for specific markets.
Stacker’s feed is integrated into Lee’s content management system along with larger wire services like Associated Press.
“We take most everything they do,” says Kelley. He estimates that Stacker content currently attracts around 4m page views per month. “It’s highly engaging stuff… It’s very common for the majority of our top regional syndication items to be from Stacker.”
Kelley also says Stacker content has allowed Lee to lift traffic burdens placed on local reporting teams.
He says that, in the past, demand for traffic and “evergreen” content was a “drain on local newsrooms – it did pull [reporters] away from covering core daily news stories.
“So when Stacker came along and was able to do the same data-driven kind of stuff, with the visuals provided in the format that we wanted, we were able to just go back and tell the local editors: ‘It’s okay to go back to doing what you were doing before because we have another source for this material.’”
Greenberg says this is appreciation is not unique to Lee Enterprises.
“What’s been fascinating this year has been hearing how having a steady flow of content from someone like Stacker enables a newsroom to tell the reporter go actually interview that person, actually show up to city council, as opposed to having that five-story-a-day quota,” he says.
“With the feedback we’re getting from news outlets, it really feels like there’s an opportunity to build the new age newswire.
“So, AP for breaking news, Reuters for financial content – that doesn’t exist for local coverage, it doesn’t exist for data journalism. And it doesn’t exist for the features and evergreen pieces that these outlets need to augment their in-house reporting.”