Postmedia Labs: a startup within a major news organization

Duncan Clark at his workspace at Postmedia labs
Duncan Clark’s Postmedia labs is more startup than old-school traditional news organization.

Postmedia Labs looks and feels  your typical startup.

The office, complete with three full-time employees and two journalism school interns (introduced as ‘the two Rebeccas’), is anything but grand.

The office is in a converted bicycle factory in east-end Toronto, which it shares an office with another start up, Checkout 51. For our interview, Duncan Clark, VP: Strategic Initiatives at Postmedia, took me down the hall to a communal boardroom.

Compare this to the lush office space of Postmedia Labs’ mothership, Postmedia’s head office is north of the city in Don Mills. Think big corporate, big money quasi-suburban campus rather than the downtown urban workspace where Clark is pumping out his big ideas.

For Clark, setting up Postmedia Labs away from Postmedia was critical.

“This needed specific and deliberate space,” Clark said. “When you’re looking at establishing something that is culturally different, there’s a benefit to working outside.”

“The established way doesn’t work anymore. We need to be a lean startup. A successful startup can have very low costs and take small, incremental risks.”

Clark said the name Postmedia Labs was chosen deliberately, exploring ways the media company can evolve and experiment.

“We’re meant to be a research and development department… the vision is that there be lessons for the whole company,”

“Any good company has to move forward with R&D. This is a responsible project, we moved to east end of Toronto [where rent is cheaper], and there are three of us looking after this,”

Gastropost's mantra, hung on the wall 'old school'
Gastropost’s mantra, hung on the wall ‘old school’

A community of food lovers

Clark and Chris Tindal, Postmedia’s Director of Project Development, set up ‘the Lab’ in the summer of 2012 (they are now joined by Leora Katz, Strategic Product Manager and two interns).

They soon launched Gastropost, which brought together a community of food lovers (don’t you dare call them ‘foodies’, Clark learned early on) in the Toronto area. Attracting an established group was always part of the plan.

“We knew the only way to get this going was to pick an established community. Se we sat around a table, and said ‘hey, food in Toronto is exploding right now, there are some amazing food blogs… Let’s be a part of, there must be something we could do to add value,” Clark said.

“I think that’s a big mistake that news organizations make when they try to centre community-building around the existing product. You can’t focus the approach, you have to ask people in the community.”

The initial process was to embed themselves within the food community. Clark and Tindal met people in Toronto’s food scene (chefs, critics, restaurateurs and asked what they thought Postmedia Labs could do to add value to their experience in Toronto.

By having members tell Clark and Tindal what they’d like Gastropost to be, they will find more value in the project.

Gastropost has had a few IRL events, including a pasta night at LA’s Cafe and Bar, where the chef created dishes inspired by contributors’ favourite pastas. The group also holds monthly meetings with a small advisory board of people who centre their lives around food, be it professionally or as their hobby, who help keep Gastropost focused.

(All are also Gastroposters, and there’s a rotating seat in which a different member is included each time.).

How it works within its community: each Wednesday, Gastropost sends its community of food lovers a project to tackle (the week I visited Postmedia Labs it was condiments). Its audience will post its  ideas, in either photo or text form, on GastroPost’s site, or through Instagram pics.

Some of the best contributions will find their way into the National Post‘s print product, designed and printed with the rest of the Postmedia product, providing a measure of validation for Gastropost’s members, Clark said. But most missions are shared only online.

(Note: While Postmedia Labs is physically housed a fair distance from Postmedia and the National Post, Clark credited collaboration with the team at National Post and said “it was crucial to the launch and continuing success of this. “)

Sources of revenue

Rather than display advertising, which Clark said is declining as a choice for advertisers, he is looking at “finding ways for brands to engage with Gastropost in a transparent way that adds value.”

The first experiment was a brand partnership.

Before Christmas, Gastropost partnered with Kraft’s Philly cream cheese. This is interesting, as the brand isn’t a regular advertiser with Postmedia. Philly cream cheese posted suggestions that GastroPost’s food lovers take cheese cakes to holiday parties, with some recipes. (As an added value, the initiative was paired with Checkout51, and users could obtain a $4 cash back voucher.)

“We were very transparent with what it was,” Clark said. While he wasn’t sure how his community of food lovers would feel about the partnership, it was embraced.

Gastropost users posted pics of cheesecakes, talked cheesecakes… and talked about the Philly brand.

Types of community content

It’s clear that Gastropost’s content is on the soft side of the news spectrum. When this was mentioned to Clark he said that they “very deliberately avoid labels.”

Gastropost by the numbers

Gastropost has more than 2,000 members, seeing a large amount of growth in the last months of 2012. Each month, it sees activity from about 30-to-40 per cent of its members.

“It’s an engaged community,” Clark said. “There is no Gastropost without an engaged community.”

Turning it into a business

Postmedia Labs may not have the same urgency for success as its officemate startup Checkout51 – which is more entrepreneurial venture  – but Clark said the same drive to succeed is there.

“We’re only six months into our existence and we’re already looking at a way to turn it into a business.”

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