Interview with Kate Beckman, Founder, Fresh U
For podcast release Monday, September 26, 2016
KENNEALLY: Freshman year at college is a time for excitement and anxiety. From coursework to chilling out – not to mention texts from helicopter parents – students quickly discover what high school never prepared them for.
Welcome to Copyright Clearance Center’s podcast series. I’m Christopher Kenneally for Beyond the Book. On campus, the rigid hierarchy of class years still reigns. A freshman student must wait his or her turn to make the team, whether on a field or in the campus newsroom.
As a freshman at Syracuse University in the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Kate Beckman saw a market opportunity for first-year journalism students impatient to contribute their reporting and analysis of student life. In 2013, during her own freshman year at Syracuse University, Kate Beckman created a freshman-only publication. And in 2015, she launched Fresh U nationally. Now in her senior year as a magazine major at Syracuse, Kate has led Fresh U to a media partnership with Teen Vogue, and she manages contributions from over 300 freshman-year writers across the country. Kate Beckman, welcome to Beyond the book.
BECKMAN: Hi, Chris. Thanks for inviting me on the show.
KENNEALLY: We’re very happy you can join us, because an article about your work and your publication caught our eye because it really shows what a digital native can do with just a little bit of energy and some real imagination and initiative. And beyond that, I think it also told an interesting story that the journalism of today and tomorrow is going to be as much about the business models as it is about the reporting. So I want to talk with you about all of that, because you’re there on the front line as a senior there. For the listeners, tell us a little bit about Fresh U, which is touted as for college freshmen by college freshmen. What’s the appeal of that formula?
BECKMAN: Yeah. So Fresh U is a publication that’s geared towards college freshmen. And our kind of niche approach to content is that it really covers that time in your life that’s that unique time from when you get accepted into college to when you get on campus and that first year, where there’s so many unique experiences that are first experiences. So Fresh U – we really cover that unique year of someone’s life, so it’s all the first like living with a roommate for the first time, being away from home for the first time and having to deal with managing school and your own schedule and even your money on your own. So Fresh U really covers that time in your life that isn’t just college life in general – because there are so many unique aspects about college, obviously – but it focuses in even closer on that time when, for the first time, you’re on your own.
KENNEALLY: Right. And so there’s a lot going on in freshman year, as you say, Kate. There’s the emotional aspects of it and there’s the practical aspects of it. And Fresh U tries to cover all of that.
BECKMAN: Yeah, exactly. We have articles that range from how to deal with homesickness, how to do laundry, how to study effectively – and there’s just elements of – there’s the kind of service aspect that’s telling people how to deal with these things, and then there’s the relatability aspect, where it’s freshmen writing about their emotions moving away from home – the stages of moving away from home, the stages of getting to know your roommates. So we offer that service aspect, which is giving people advice, but also the fact that freshmen are reading other freshmen and knowing that they’re not alone in their feelings.
KENNEALLY: Right. And I suppose the newsroom – as I mentioned in the opening – really is a hierarchical place. And to rise to the top, you have to start at the bottom. And so were you frustrated yourself as a budding journalist that you couldn’t get your work published? Or were you really thinking about this real market opportunity?
BECKMAN: I think, for me, I was thinking of the market opportunity, because Syracuse University has so many publications, ranging from The Daily Orange, on-campus magazines, so they do have a lot of options to get published. What I saw was that there was an opportunity and a market that wasn’t being served. So for me it was more thinking, oh, there isn’t something that does focus on this unique time in life. So even though you could get published other places, none of it was talking about freshman year and what it feels like to be a freshman. So I saw that, and I thought that other students would probably want to be writing about this – and have the opportunity to have an editing position with that.
KENNEALLY: Right. And what’s interesting – and I think there’s a lesson here for publications everywhere – is that, as we move deeper and deeper into the digital era, it’s the niche publications that are going to really find strength. The old days of The Boston Globe trying to cover everything – those may be behind us, just as it would be for The Daily Orange or The Daily Dartmouth or whatever it might be.
BECKMAN: Yeah, and I think that’s a really good point. Especially for a startup publication, I think those kind of legacy publications like campus newspapers are going to continue to exist in the sense that there’s always going to be news on campus. But I think, if you’re coming on to the scene and you have this idea, you have to have that hyper focus and you have a reason why people would care about your publication compared to any other college-focused publication.
So when creating Fresh U, a few people have asked me, well, why not expand it to all college students? Why focus on just freshmen? And what I say to that is there are so many publications that focus on college life in general, and I think the articles tend to get lost in just the sheer amount of content that exists on the Internet – that that’s why I think having this freshman focus does set us apart from other publications. Especially a startup publication – you have to have a reason why people would care about your new publication compared to another publication.
KENNEALLY: Right. Well, again you are an interesting hybrid of journalist and entrepreneur. And let’s talk about the entrepreneurial part of what you do, because that first year out it was a publication for the campus of Syracuse, and you were involved with an online fundraising campaign. You really had to be very entrepreneurial to make this startup work.
BECKMAN: Yeah. So my freshman year, we did run a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for the print magazine. And when I was a freshman, I didn’t really realize the business aspect was so entangled with the journalism part. And looking back, I realize it really was focused on producing something that had to do with business and taking initiative.
And I think that, when you’re starting something, even if it’s a content-based thing, even if it’s media, you really have to be so focused on the business entrepreneurial part, which is finding the thing that doesn’t exist and then doing it – and then taking the resources that you have and utilizing those to push whatever it is that you’re creating forward. And I think you could have a great publication with a lot of great content, but if you don’t have the business-minded aspect to think, OK, how can I get this out to people, how can I get people interested in reading it and joining it and writing for it, then no one is going to be reading your great content.
KENNEALLY: Right. And so you made the leap, though, from just within the campus of Syracuse to the national scene. How did you manage that? What were some of the things you had to do to land on a much broader platform?
BECKMAN: Yeah. So that was that shift in mindset from just being a content publication to thinking, how do I turn this into a business? So I actually took a business class within Newhouse that helped me figure out what is market size, what are the different kind of pillars that you need to have when you’re starting a business?
And then I had to do a lot of the groundwork to take this from just a campus publication to a national scale. So that was figuring out a social media strategy for us to put – when we did launch Fresh U – put it in the eyes of all these incoming freshmen. I had to build – I had to find a developer to build a content management system. We had to assemble a team, so we would have an infrastructure in place. We had to go through the process of becoming an LLC.
So there’s all of these things where, if you’re going to really, truly launch a national business, it’s not one of those things where you can kind of improvise it. You really do have to spend months planning what you’re going to be launching, and you have to think about the long term. So you have to figure out, well, what is the potential market size? How are we going to bring in revenue when we get enough traffic? So you have to think about those aspects more than just the content.
KENNEALLY: Right. And you’ve clearly thought about them very well, because there’s a national version for Fresh U, there are individual chapters, there’s a Fresh U HBCU publication, which is for historically black colleges and universities, so you really have thought this through.
What’s the next step? I mean you’re going to graduate by next June and put your college years behind you. Will you continue with Fresh U? Have you got some plans for it? And where would you like to see it be in five years’ time?
BECKMAN: I think there’s a huge amount of potential for Fresh U to grow, because being a freshman really is a universal experience, and right now I’m focusing on making our content really quality while also managing the operational aspects. So my goal right now is to grow our traffic enough where we can get at partnerships like quality ad deals that will bring in enough revenue for me to do this as my career when I graduate, because I see – you know, in five years, I think there’s so much potential for Fresh U to continue growing and maybe eventually expand – have different factors that aren’t just focused on freshman – but by starting with this niche of freshman year, I think that’s where we can get a really solid foundation of being the source for college freshman media.
KENNEALLY: We wish you the best of luck with that, but obviously you’re going to have to start making money at some point. And you have written about it’s still early days for you at Fresh U on that score. And yet you have made a commitment to do a so-called revenue share with your writers. And free labor, particularly for writers in first year at college – that’s easy to come by. But you feel like it’s important to sort of move beyond that free labor model and to start – when you can – start paying your contributors. Tell us why. And tell us how that’s going to happen.
BECKMAN: Yeah. So revenue share was really important to me to announce, even though we aren’t making enough revenue necessarily to share with writers, because there are so many college publications that have grown to be million-dollar businesses or businesses that have gotten a million dollars in investment, and they still rely on free labor because it’s proved to be working and because nobody has really said, you know, wait – I don’t actually think this is fair. So to me, looking at that, I think overall it’s devaluing content beyond the college scale, because if the kind of bar for quality content is that it’s free, when you get into the, I guess, real world as media, they’re still going to expect you to write for free.
And I think starting it early – if you can establish as college freshmen that, if you are contributing to the monetization of a publication, then you should get your fair share of what you’re contributing – I think that’s really important to establish with college students as soon as they get into the media scene, because it feels irresponsible for these big publications that have gotten all this investment to just continue profiting off of that labor.
So to me it was – we made that announcement really to establish that, from the beginning, when we start making revenue, we want our writers to benefit as we benefit. We want them to grow as we grow. And that’s kind of just something I wanted to weave into the fabric of the company morals, because this is what I want to do when I graduate and when we do start making revenue, so that was a big reason that we made that announcement, even though it’s not necessarily a reality just yet.
KENNEALLY: And it’s interesting to me, Kate Beckman – I would imagine that it takes many entrepreneurs quite a long time to figure out that their success is built on the work of others. You’ve got that figured out still pretty early on, so hats off to you for that. We have been speaking to Kate Beckman, who is the CEO and founder of an online publication for college freshmen by college freshmen called Fresh U. And she’s spoken to us from the campus of Syracuse University, where she is a magazine major at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. Kate Beckman, thanks for joining us on Beyond the Book.
BECKMAN: Thank you so much for inviting me on the show.
KENNEALLY: Beyond the Book is produced by Copyright Clearance Center. With its subsidiaries RightsDirect in the Netherlands and Ixxus in the United Kingdom, CCC is a global leader in content workflow, document delivery, text and data mining and rights licensing technology. Beyond the Book co-producer and recording engineer is Jeremy Brieske of Burst Marketing. I’m Christopher Kenneally. Join us again soon on Beyond the Book.