Overstory Media Group founders Farhan Mohamed (left) and Andrew Wilkinson
As it sets out to grow to 50 brands in the next two years, B.C.-based Overstory Media Group is betting that its community-focused approach will pay off in the long run
As anyone who works in print and online journalism will tell you, the past decade or so hasn’t been kind to their trade. Faced with dwindling ad revenue, rounds of layoffs, fickle readers and relentless pressure to do more with less, many reporters and editors have bolted for the greener pastures of public relations and corporate flackery.
Farhan Mohamed can relate. Last May, Mohamed quit his job as editor-in-chief of Daily Hive, the online news publication he had joined in 2012 as a business student at Capilano University. “I was experiencing what a lot of people in the industry are experiencing: the exhaustion and stress, overcomplicated processes, never enough time,” he recalls.
But Mohamed didn’t turn his back on the business. With investor Andrew Wilkinson, he co-founded Overstory Media Group, which officially launched yesterday. Victoria-based OMG is bucking the trend by hiring journalists across the country, with plans to grow to 250 staff and 50 brands in the next two years.
The 30-employee company, whose name references a forest canopy with its network of branches, already owns a handful of online properties. Among them: Victoria news outlet Capital Daily, Vancouver Tech Journal and Decomplicated, which helps decode Canadian media headlines.
Mohamed compares OMG’s approach to that of old-school community papers, which were trusted sources of information that showed up on your doorstep. Focused on three kinds of community—geographical (where you live), industry (where you work) and interests (pretty open-ended)—the company delivers curated e-newsletters to readers’ inboxes.
“Part of that routine is giving them something to look forward to, but then they also know what to expect,” Mohamed says. “And they are getting that curated experience of original content, people that are spending the time and going and finding information that you need to know.”
Getting out of the page-view game
Mohamed settled on that model during his time off, when he realized that there had to be a better way find what you need online than by Googling or by surfing social media.
“There wasn’t anything that was coming delivered to me that was high-quality,” he says. “I also wanted to get out of that page-view game and the constant pressure that you have to publish something every 20, 30 minutes because you need more views, you need more stories up, you need more hits,” he says. “You’re never going to win at that.”
Mohamed remembered his teenage years in North Vancouver, when he published a newsletter for an audience of a few hundred people. “I wanted to go back to my roots and see if we could make a sustainable media organization that was focused on high-quality content, focused on things like newsletters and working with some of the best people in the industry.”
He started talking to Wilkinson, co-founder of Tiny, a Victoria-based venture capital firm that invests in online businesses such as designer community Dribbble and women’s network Girlboss. Wilkinson launched Capital Daily, which started as a newsletter, in 2019.
Mohamed found that they shared a commitment to community-focused and investigative journalism, and to building a business that will last. “He’s someone who says, We need to be taking bigger swings,” Mohamed explains. “And so we were both on the same page, and both of us said, What if we did this together?”
To serve various communities, OMG plans to ask them what they need to survive and thrive, Mohamed says. “Let’s look at it with that in mind and talk to people, say, What is it that you’re missing? What do you want to know, and who do you need to spotlight and uncover?”
Power to the (content) people
For anyone who wants to stay in journalism, the arrival of OMG sounds like good news. “I was chatting with one person recently, and I said, What’s your five-, 10-year goal?” Mohamed recalls. “And they said, Well, I want to be in this industry for a little bit longer, and then I want to go to communications so I can make more money.”
That’s exactly wrong what’s wrong with the business, he maintains. “I’ve seen this firsthand, and I was part of the problem, where you’re underpaying and you’re overworking, underappreciating and undervaluing,” he admits.
“We’re trying to flip that around and say, The power is in the hands of these content creators and in the hands of the journalists,” Mohamed adds. “Everything is all around how do we give the power to these local markets, to these local teams,” he says. “If the local brand is going to thrive, then you’re going to see direct success from that.”
Especially if investigative work is part of the mix, getting a media brand up and running is expensive, Mohamed observes. “So that’s where we say, Come under the umbrella. We’ll help you, we’ll give you the tools, the resources, the leadership, the direction. Ultimately, you have editorial control over what you do, but we’re going to make sure that this business succeeds and this business works, and we’re going to put our full effort into making that happen.”
As part of its focus on industry communities, OMG brought on Vancouver Tech Journal, which William Johnson launched as a side project. The company hired Johnson full-time this year, added a reporter to the publication and is looking to grow its team, Mohamed says.
“A community like that is a prime example of where opportunity lies, provided that it’s all around the content and focused on how do we connect with more people but how do we tell more stories,” he notes. “In the business community, it’s not just about the acquisitions and the raises, but everything before and after that. So let’s have those conversations.”
Our eyes are everywhere
Asked how OMG plans to make money, Mohamed replies that each of its brands will work with a small group of community partners. “And then at a certain point if it makes sense, we’ll have a paid membership, we’ll have a job board, we’ll have events, virtual and in-person. We’ll do whatever the community needs in order to connect.”
The company will also put quality content first, he pledges. “If you go to one of our websites, you’re never going to see a display ad on that site because we’re focused on the experience,” Mohamed says. “I think if we do that, in the long run, yeah, we’ll make the money, and we’ll be able to grow the company. But this isn’t one of those, We’re just trying to hack the system and make a ton of money so we can leave in the next two to three years.”
OMG is confident that its model for journalism is the way forward, Mohamed says. “What we’re betting on definitely is that communities matter, and that whatever we do has to stem from around them,” he asserts. “We’ve seen success already. We’re learning from some of the things that we’re doing and some of the brands we’ve already launched within the past few months.”
As his new business expands, it won’t confine itself geographically, Mohamed reckons. “Our eyes are everywhere and anywhere,” he says. “I think there’s a real need, and there’s no boundaries on what that looks like.”