Why the Tab is turning to 'old fashioned' on-the-ground reporting and scoops to engage young readers

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

The Tab's London editorial team at work

If there was a media organisation that could credibly claim to be unsurprised by the huge young turnout at the General Election and Jeremy Corbyn's Labour “surge” then it was the Tab, the digital news service aimed at students and new graduates in Britain and America.

It had seen it coming for weeks. As undergraduates flocked to hear the Labour leader speak at campus rallies, The Tab live-streamed the excitement as students scrambled for vantage points and afforded Corbyn the status of a sage. “We reported what were were seeing - tons of students going to political rallies who had never been before,” says Joshi Herrmann, the Tab’s editor-inchief. “There was this huge feeling of youth engagement and we didn’t join in the smears [of Corbyn].”

Much of the established media has been disconcerted by the recent turbulence in British and American democracy, and the credibility of its pundits and leader writers has been severely tested. But for a bespoke youth-orientated brand like the Tab, the current political energy is a boon.

Young people, many of them stung by the Trump and Brexit votes last year, are looking to play a more active role in politics and the news brands that are best-placed to benefit are those that have not previously incurred their mistrust.

Gaining ground the 'old fashioned' way

The Tab is growing traffic. Last month, its website registered a record 11m unique visits, up 200% year-on-year. When Herrman left a staff job at the London Evening Standard to join the site 18 months ago its audience was 2.9m monthly uniques. It has a core team of 35, split between offices in Shoreditch, London, and Williamsburg in Brooklyn, New York – two of the most fashionable media spots in those cities. At 28 years-old, Herrmann is the oldest member of the staff, which has an average age of 23.

Crucially, the Tab has a wide network of volunteer student journalists running “bureaux” at campuses across the UK (and representation at around 50 universities in America). This, says Herrmann, is what makes the Tab different. “It’s rare for news organisations now to have someone in Birmingham, and Leicester, and Glasgow and Leeds. But because we have got all these local sites we have that and it gives us a breadth of reporting that not a lot of news organisations have.”

It’s a major differentiator between the Tab and most digitally-native outlets. “A lot of the trend in the Internet era has been for journalists to be less and less on the ground and more and more in offices, mainly for financial reasons,” says Herrmann, who is anxious that the Tab builds a reputation for scoops. “The reason some of these exclusive stories surface in The Tab is that there are people on the ground knocking on doors. It’s kind of old-fashioned in that respect.”

Older news organisations might question the credentials of reporters who live in student digs and halls of residence (the Tab gives training in its two newsrooms in lieu of pay), but since it was founded, eight years ago this month, the Tab has produced journalists that have gone on to work for such prestigious outlets as the BBC, Reuters, the Financial Times and British Vogue.

A new kind of news network

In its promotional material, The Tab pitches itself as “A new kind of news network”, illustrated with a shot of a young demonstrator holding aloft a smoking flare. “Tab stories ignite conversations on campus: we livestream from protests, expose bullshit and discrimination and tell you which kebab shops are worth your money.”

Its spirit seems to hark back to the protest era of 1968. But the Tab started in the hallowed environs of the University of Cambridge, founded by undergraduates Jack Rivlin (now chief executive and based in New York), George Marangos-Gilks (now a director) and Taymoor Atighetchi. Herrmann, who is based in Brooklyn but comes back to London for one week a month, was an early Tab editor while at Cambridge.

It sits in a youth news media space alongside the likes of Unilad and the Lad Bible (both of which have student roots and claim to have large female segments to their massive audiences on social media) but has very different aspirations journalistically. “I have a grudging respect for their business models because they might have built the tabloids of the future,” Herrmann says, suggesting that the Tab is not really a tabloid, and emphasising that its audience is highly-targeted at a demographic of educated 18 to 24 year-olds.

​“We are really just interested in this generation and we are super confident we are going to overtake Unilad and Lad Bible and Vice and Complex in that demographic in the UK really soon.”

With the bulk of its reporting resources out on the campuses, rather than in a newsroom, the Tab is less-suited than Unilad and Lad Bible to the traffic-driving formula of sourcing and repurposing a mass of youth-friendly stories. “I see the real dividing line in the media as between organisations who care about breaking original stories, and ones who just repackage stories other people have unearthed as ‘content’,” says Herrmann, placing his own outlet in the former category. The Tab has a sizeable presence across its various Facebook pages but has resisted spending money following its young audience to other social media platforms, notably Snapchat and Instagram.

The name, the Tab, has given an opportunity for some of its journalistic targets to respond with claims that it is devoted to red top muck-raking. In one of its more notable American scoops, The Tab revealed that married Louisiana politician Mike Yenni had been sending explicit texts to a teenage boy. As the story was picked up by mainstream American media, Yenni tried to claim that the Tab was partly fictional. Herrmann responded by saying the politician had lied to voters.

The editor says he is proud of the story and cites it as an example of “the kind of adversarial, scoopy, old-fashioned stuff we like to publish and pursue”. Although he distances the Tab from the likes of Unilad and Lad Bible he defends a red top approach as being part of a new zeitgeist, noting that the new HuffPost editor-in-chief Lydia Polgreen has promised to revive the best campaigning traditions of the American tabloids.

University scoops

The Tab’s tone (the editor compares it to the former New York gossip site Gawker) has been an important distinction between it and established University media, which Herrmann says had become too cosy with the institutions it covers. “Universities have for decades been used to dealing with one student newspaper, [of which] they generally are the main patron and advertiser, and give office space to it. Therefore they became accustomed to expect favours,” he says. “Our reporters are writing for students, not faculty or alumni. They don’t owe anything to the university administrations or the student unions, they are very independent and take that very seriously.”

Inevitably, the university authorities are “not our biggest fans”, he says. Last week he was involved in heated emails with the University of East Anglia (UEA) after the Tab published a scoop detailing how the university had inadvertently leaked highly personal details of 320 undergraduates deemed to have “extenuating circumstances”. UEA later apologised “unreservedly” for the error.

In another scoop, widely followed up by the UK national media earlier this year, The Tab exposed a Cambridge student burning a £20 note in front of a homeless man. The video was shared on Snapchat and forwarded to The Tab. The story, says Herrmann, “was a pretty horrifying insight into student life at Cambridge and we reported it very seriously”.

The Tab hopes more students will provide it with video stories taken on their smartphones, rather than simply posting to their own social media accounts. “Often students feel quite cowed by university administrations. Shamefully university press offices pressure students into not publishing stories, coming up with spurious legal definitions,” says Hermann, promising contributors the protection of the Tab’s “legal muscle”.

In America, where the Tab is less than two years old, it has broken significant stories, including Malia Obama’s plans to study at Harvard and the content of racist memes circulating at the same university.

A website vertical aimed at female students and called Babe, has been so popular that it has launched as a stand-alone brand. It claims to be for “ballsy” young women “who don't give a fuck" or "who dgaf".

An audience of undergraduates and recent graduates should offer advertising opportunities for publisher Tab Media Ltd, and a growing commercial team is producing branded content for clients including Spotify, Deliver and Uniqlo. “We have probably got one of the most focused audiences in the media in terms of age [but brands] don’t know how to reach them in terms of messaging and voice,” Herrmann claims.

The Tab is different from digital publishers who are chasing lifestyle advertising categories because its lifeblood is news. “This digital media company started because a bunch of people enjoyed doing news and it has always had that news thing; the people involved in it enjoy breaking stories,” he says. “When I joined, I saw it as a huge opportunity to build a young people’s media company that felt fresh and original - it’s ambitious and it’s growing fast.”

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell

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