Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

Upworthy Raises $8 Million for Clickbait With a Mission

upworthyCan you build a successful website by repackaging work done by other people?

Of course you can!

What about building a successful website by repackaging other people’s work, in service of a “mission-driven” agenda?

Yup, you can do that, too.

Upworthy, which didn’t exist 18 months ago, now claims more than 22 million visitors a month, all drawn in by stuff that the site didn’t make itself. What Upworthy does do is attach a new headline to the story, or video, which it tests against dozens of other headlines it tries out for maximum clickability and shareability.

Then it sends its stuff through social networks, primarily Facebook. Boom: Near-instant success.

That kind of traffic story would get anyone noticed, but Upworthy gets a bit of extra attention because of its heritage. It is co-founded by Eli Pariser, the former managing director of MoveOn.org, and Peter Koechley, the former managing editor of The Onion. And it was initially backed by bold-faced angels including New Republic owner Chris Hughes and Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian.

Upworthy also gets more attention because the for-profit company has an agenda — it wants to raise awareness about the things Koechley and Parser think are important.

For whatever reason, Pariser and Koechley are uncomfortable describing themselves as liberals or progressives. But if you look at the stuff they produce and promote, that sort of resolves itself.

Here, for instance, is the story the site was featuring on Sunday — a YouTube clip of a George Carlin HBO special, highlighting a bit about the Persian Gulf War, with this headline: “Why We Might Bomb Syria Is Explained Perfectly By — A Dead Comedian?

In any case, the site’s political bent hasn’t kept it from raising money. Last year, it raised $4 million in two seed rounds; now it has raised $8 million in a round led by Spark Capital, the VC firm currently basking in the glow of its early bets on Tumblr and Twitter.

Upworthy said it will spend that money on the tech and know-how that makes its stuff so click-worthy. But unlike the Huffington Post and BuzzFeed, two other sites that have parlayed clicks into original reporting budgets, Pariser and Koechley sid they won’t be ordering up their own stories on Syria, gay marriage or climate change.

And, while lots of investors have asked, the Upworthy guys said they have no intention of taking the traffic-making formula they’ve already built and making it “extensible,” which means that the site won’t be moving into sports coverage, or side-boob coverage. They also don’t plan on licensing out their knowledge to other sites.


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There was a worry before I started this that I was going to burn every bridge I had. But I realize now that there are some bridges that are worth burning.

— Valleywag editor Sam Biddle