In May 2012, Jack Rivlin appeared to be taking a fairly conventional route into journalism.
A Cambridge graduate, he'd completed a postgraduate in journalism at City University, shifted as a night reporter on the Evening Standard for six months and was applying for national newspaper graduate schemes.
But he chose to abandon this path. Instead, Rivlin and his friend George Marangos-Gilks, who had studied for a business masters after completing his undergraduate, decided to roll-out a tabloid news website they'd founded at Cambridge in 2009.
At the time, Rivlin admits, it was a "leap" that Marangos-Gilks had to persuade him into taking. It was also a decision that was advised against by his Evening Standard news editor – "Once you turn your back on Fleet Street, it’s bloody hard to get back in" – and his City University tutor.
"But I just way rather wanted to do this," says Rivlin. "And it was just such a good opportunity. I was ready to do it, I was quite excited, and now obviously it seems like quite an obvious decision.”
Rivlin and Marangos-Gilks secured £200,000 from angel investors through their Cambridge college in 2012 and launched at ten new universities that year.
Today, The Tab has 48 staff, including 28 journalists. It has an office in the same building as Business Insider in Shoreditch, East London, and in New York. The website has editions in 40 UK universities and 45 in the United States. It also this week launched a new national website in the UK aimed at recent graduates. Rivlin says he expects to attract 1m unique users in the United States this month and 4m in the UK. The Tab is not profitable, but has attracted a total of £3m in investment.
Challenging 'stuffy' university press
Rivlin (pictured above, right) and Marangos-Gilks (left) launched The Tab at the end of their second year at Cambridge in 2009.
They both had editor positions on the Cambridge Student, one of two university newspapers. Rivlin says they were both "super-proud to have our names in print" but "pretty quickly realised that none of our friends were reading it".
He says: "And no one’s really reading it because student newspapers have put the people writing first and not really bothered to think about the audience, in my experience.
"So they tend to be filled with stuff about Middle Eastern politics, dry university press releases, Hollywood film reviews – which are all worthy topics, but there isn’t that much which a 19-year-old can add on them. Particularly if they have no contacts or experience in those fields.
"Meanwhile, there are loads of stories at university which go completely uncovered… stuff that people actually care about."
Initially, they were keen to launch it in print but it was decided this would be too expensive.
Being online-only proved to be a "key advantage", says Rivlin, giving The Tab the ability to break and cover news before print rivals.
He says that in 2009, The Tab was attracting 25,000 page views a day on average.
When the founders left, the website continued under editors including Joshi Herrmann and Phoebe Luckhurst – both of whom went on to work for the Evening Standard before recently returning to The Tab in senior editorial positions.
Developing a 'golden class'
Rivlin has big plans for The Tab, with numerous launches planned this winter.
The technology team, for instance, is working on a new app that will make it easier for people – students initially – to contribute to The Tab. Rivlin says: "Stories are the currency of society, really, not just journalism but the absolute currency. And everyone’s constantly trying to find ways of getting the unreported stories that no one else has. And if we can build a network where people can spontaneously contribute those without having to dispatch someone to Princeton’s campus or to Raqqa, Aleppo or something like that, I think that’s seriously powerful."
The Tab is also offering internships at its New York office and is trialling a system in which student contributors win cash prizes for highly-shared stories. Meanwhile, last month The Tab announced the launch of an 'academy', which is aimed at helping The Tab's student contributors – who are unpaid – get work experience and make their way into the journalism industry.
Why? "Obviously one of our primary concerns is getting good people into journalism, and it obviously makes people want to work for The Tab," he says. "But it is really important to us to see people doing well."
Speaking of where some of The Tab's alumni are working now, he adds: "It’s so amazing to see the talent network spreading like that. I guess it’s a bit like, people say there was that golden class at Google or whatever, and you see them go out into the world. And it’s pretty awesome to think that in five years a lot of journalists will have come through The Tab."
US expansion, UK national website launch
The biggest new schemes for The Tab currently are expansion in the United States and the launch of a national website for 20-something graduates in the UK.
On The Tab's London expansion, he says: “What we’re doing in the UK now to grow our depth is to look at the people who were loyal members of our audience but are graduating, which there are loads of. So people have a really in-depth relationship with The Tab, they visit it every day and then they graduate and at the moment we don’t do that much for them…
"We’ve now launched a national site which caters to those people. It’s Londoners, really, predominately London: people who are in the 20s who are young professionals who attended one of the top 40 universities in the country."
Rivlin says the new website (pictured above) is aiming for the "Time Out/ Evening Standard audience but with a bit more of the cynicsm, honesty and upfrontness of, say, Vice or Gawker".
He adds: "But the people we’re going after, they don’t read Vice and Gawker, they’re not even that aware of it. Because they’re probably working in PR, advertising, management consultancy, teaching, banking – those kind of people, they probably don’t visit those sites that much.
"And for me, the personal reason I think it’s valuable is, I’m a journalist who thinks about media all the time and at lunch I dunno what site to read – I read Mail Online for gossip, BBC Sport, a few other sites, but there isn’t a site that just speaks about my lifestyle. Vice is probably a bit too weird.
"So we kind of think there’s a gap there. Particularly – women are quite well catered to although I still think there’s a huge gap – but all the stuff aimed at men is either super-patronisingly laddish or just heavily focused on sport and tech, so I think there’s quite a good gap there.”
The Tab does not plan to expand beyond its 40 UK university editions, but is aiming to reach 200 universities in the US.
Rivlin says: "In the US, we are rolling out the model that we’ve perfected over time. In a way, that's quite a straightforward job, because: we’ve done it for ages, we know what works, we have a brand and a model and a playbook and we just go somewhere and sign people up. And we have the tech to make it all work beautifully."
The Tab has not yet attempted to monetise in the US, instead focusing on expanding its audience. He says: "I think really you need minimum three [million unique users a month] in America just to get a meeting. And you probably need ten to start doing meaningful business. So at the moment we’re just focusing on roll-out, which makes things a lot simpler.”
'Stone Age' Fleet Street
The UK's biggest newspaper websites, Mail Online and The Guardian, have expanded successfully (in terms of online traffic) into the United States.
But in the other direction have come new media start-ups such as Buzzfeed and Huffington Post, as well as more specialised titles including Business Insider and Politico's Europe edition.
The expansion of The Tab into the US, therefore, appears to stand out as a start-up that has expanded from the UK.
Why does Rivlin think the US appears to have had more success in launching new media brands?
"A: It’s way bigger so it’s just easier to get a big audience and make money there. There’s only two-and-a-half million students in the UK – obviously most people aren’t going after students, but there are only two-and-a-half here, while there are 20 million in America…
“The UK's such a small pond that it’s quite difficult to make money here, especially because so much is still tied up in traditional media. And a lot of it is because we have a really big, strong traditional print press – which we should be proud of – and we have publicly-funded TV and everything else.
"So our media’s in better condition. Which is a great thing. But it means they suck up a lot of the most talented people, they go there rather than doing their own thing. Whereas in America, because it’s bigger, there’s more opportunity – it’s certainly much more of a start-up, enterprising culture."
Rivlin adds: “British journalists are like way more traditional – it’s still quite a conservative environment."
Is there a snobbery from British journalists and media organisations towards start-ups like The Tab?
"There definitely is. I don’t find it now, but when I was at City I remember we did an entrepreneurial journalism module and everyone was super snooty about that, like: ‘Why do I need to do this?’ I wanted to say: ‘Because our industry is dying.’
"But it’s really noticeable actually going to New York where they celebrate success – obviously, everyone knows that – but also new media is just like completely destroying legacy media and everyone’s on board with it, and they’re just light years ahead.
"Whereas in London there are so few people doing interesting stuff. Like you look at social video, which is exploding in America. And you look at London and there are so few people doing shortform news video for Facebook – why?
"And I guess it's because Fleet Street is still really powerful and still a lot of jobs are there. But it’s Stone Age in some respects.
"In one way it's nice not to have that much new media competition in London – and there are some cool businesses – but on the other it’s baffling.
"Our press is one of the things that Britain’s most proud of. But it will die and at the moment we’re not really doing anything to replace what we have."