The British Student Media King Who Wants to Conquer America
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because his news site is student journalism in the U.K., and now he’s crossing the pond…
By James Watkins
Jack Rivlin doesn’t look like someone aiming to create a dominant international media empire in the digital age — he’s wearing a summery button-down, shorts, beaten-up Nike Air Maxes and black dress socks when we meet in his Brooklyn office. It’s the sort of unkempt, zero-shits-given look that’s so unfashionable as to be fashionable among cash-strapped British students. The only hint that the 28-year-old has actually graduated into the world of journalism is the pen he spins around his fingers throughout our conversation — though he doesn’t have anything to write on.
Rivlin is CEO of The Tab, a university news site that has completely taken over British student journalism. Among its 18–24 demographic, only BuzzFeed has a larger audience in the U.K. And now he’s shooting to corner the U.S., with an established presence on 40 campuses since touching down stateside in 2015. Along with his new brand, Babe, focused on young women, the sites under Rivlin’s stewardship reach over 11 million monthly unique visitors, roughly split between the U.K. and the U.S. It took eight years to reach its level of dominance in the U.K.; and while it’s early days for the American franchise, Rivlin has big dreams. “We’re not going to be at every college in the U.S.,” he says. “We’re probably focused on a number in the low hundreds.” Plus, “launching Babe opened my eyes to the fact we can do more than one media brand,” he says, alluding to a future with “traditional media brands” (plural) “built on top of” the student-based Tab network. Yesterday, the Tab Media parent company announced $6 million of investment, led by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., which has taken a minority stake in the business.
“Despite the absolute glut of media on Facebook, our audience is served really fucking badly,” Rivlin explains, pointing to “bold, direct, original, scoop-driven reporting” as the antidote. Expect to see everything from a candid series on abortion rights in Ohio to a list of the best places to have sex on campus appear on its home page (or, more likely, in your Facebook feed). With a staff of almost entirely 20-somethings (16 employees in a New York office and around 30 in the London head office, as well as hundreds of largely unpaid contributors), Rivlin and his editor-in-chief, Joshi Herrmann, consider themselves too old (at 28) to be directly involved with editorial content, where they might sap its hyper-youthful authenticity.
Intelligent brands understand that we know young people well, and they should follow our advice on reaching them.
Jack Rivlin, CEO, The Tab
Rivlin founded The Tab in 2009 with two fellow Cambridge students in reaction, he says, to the “seriously dry” university paper. It was “amazingly out of touch … almost comically detached from the things people actually talked about,” says Herrmann. In addition to plenty of lighthearted content, “we were doing big stories from the beginning,” says Rivlin, including an investigation into people piercing condoms distributed by the student union. After graduating, Rivlin spent nine months at London’s Evening Standard, doing pound-the-pavement stuff, including the nighttime crime beat. His crowning achievement? Revealing the identity of Fifty Shades author E.L. James, who was anonymous at the time. “I can prove it was me who unmasked her,” he says, referring to an interview in which James described being ambushed by a journalist who “looked about 12.” “When I shave, people still think I’m 18,” says Rivlin.
He returned to The Tab in 2012 as it expanded to other U.K. universities; later, $3 million in venture funding from Balderton Capital helped it move across the pond. Transitioning to CEO last year, Rivlin is now focused on the company’s commercial direction. Two-thirds of its ad-driven revenue comes from branded content for clients including Spotify, L’Oréal and JPMorgan Chase. “Intelligent brands understand that we know young people well, and they should follow our advice on reaching them,” he says.
Though it varies with each graduating class, The Tab matched its U.K. level of popularity at several top-performing U.S. colleges last year, including Princeton, Ohio State, Rutgers, NYU and USC, but not all have worked out. (Full disclosure: I was approached by The Tab in 2015, when I was a student at Harvard and it was trying to establish a campus branch there; it is yet to truly take off there.) Meanwhile Babe, the brainchild of several female members of the team as a side project last summer, now brings in almost 5 million monthly readers, mostly in the U.S.
America may be proving a difficult nut to crack, but the market is definitely there. “Student newspapers used to be a lot more fun” before costs forced page counts to drop, says Kelley Callaway, president of the College Media Association. Plus, she says, “student journalists were really slow on the uptake” with the digital shift, leaving the sector open to disruption. Student site the Odyssey Online targets a similar audience to The Tab’s, but Rivlin says his publication is more a news site than a blog platform: “Unlike other chapter-based media, we really fucking care about news and reporting.”
Not everyone is taken by Rivlin’s claims of hardcore journalism. “Their name kind of gives it away; they’re engaging in tabloid journalism,” claims Thomas Marshall, a senior at USC who wrote a letter to the editor of the college’s student paper criticizing The Tab. To make his point, Marshall refers to an article on The Tab USC about a white woman attending a math class where she reportedly got some odd looks, sparking some controversy on campus for referring to the ethnic composition of the class (the article in question was subsequently amended).
But criticism is nothing new to The Tab: Its chapters have run contests based on chugging a pint of beer against the clock, and the Cambridge Tab runs an annual “best bums” contest in which readers submit and vote on semi-nude photos. (Herrmann defends both competitions: “Drinking is a massive part of the university experience,” and “I have no interest in enforcing any kind of censure on [students] making jokes about their arses because adults find it a bit vulgar.”)
With Rivlin pointing to Gawker as a model for its bold approach to scoops and big stories, how can The Tab avoid the same fate as the former publisher bankrupted by a $125-million court-ordered bill for invasion of privacy? “I think we’re a bit more intelligent about where to draw the line,” he says. Then, with a wry smile: “Says a guy who’s 28, and could be proven very wrong.”
An earlier version of this article mistakenly stated that the Tab USC article cited as controversial by Marshall had been deleted; it was in fact just amended.