Following the 2016 election, Temple University alum Tamer Morsy was one of the many Americans struggling with the reality of rampant misinformation.
His undergraduate and graduate degrees were focused on biochem and engineering, but he became fascinated with how the news industry and social media were intersecting, and especially how information could be manipulated to actively mislead people.
After speaking with a lot of folks running news organizations, he found that the youngest generation of news consumers — often college students and young adults — were looking for accurate information but didn’t know where to find it. At the same time, legacy newspaper leaders would mention that their average subscribers were around the age of 60, and they their orgs were struggling to bring young readers into the fray, Morsy said.
So the entrepreneur took aim at bringing the college newspaper — many of which still rely on print circulation for much of their readership — into the centerfold of young peoples’ news consumption. Starting in 2017, he began working on a project that would turn into SpotlightNews, a startup bundling college and professional news outlets. For a few dollars a month, students could get unlimited access to its library of content. (The business model reminds of Philly-headquartered NICKL, which bundles news subscriptions to companies.)
As you might guess, the name comes from the infamous Spotlight news team at the Boston Globe, which is indeed one of the papers included in the bundling service — and yes, the outlet was “down” with the name, Morsy said.
Morsy and cofounder Rand Arnold were planning for a March 2020 launch, but delayed because of the pandemic. The team is now looking to launch on Aug. 25, first at Penn State University. Johns Hopkins University will follow, and has signed on for 20,000 subscriptions for its university community, Morsy said. In addition to individual publications around the world, the org has signed with McClatchy, which oversees a network of papers across the country. The SpotlightNews library currently houses 300 publications with unlimited readership for customers.
“There was a lot of skepticism in the college space. A lot of the college newspapers had tried to develop their own apps,” Morsy said. “But once we showed the publications we had on board, and what it would look like, it snowballed to getting others.”
The student subscription will costs $4.99 a month, and general consumers will be able to access it for $9.99. Of that, 70% of revenue goes back to the publication partners, Morsy said. The library will exist mainly on SpotlightNews’ app, although it does have a desktop version. Users have the ability to follow certain topics or publications in their newsfeed.
Morsy, who made Forbes‘ 30 under 30 list in 2020, is relocating back to the Philly area from California in the next few months, and said building a tech company here is important to him. It’s close to New York media companies, as well as to family outside of Scranton. And there are Philly institutions, like the Knight Foundation and Lenfest Institute, that Morsy said he’s excited to connect with, too.
The company has raised a little more than $500,000, and is in the process of raising a seed round, the cofounder said. It will go toward making some more hires to its team of four, likely including a position that will promote SpotlightNews to students and manage the promotions and partnerships with publications.
“I do believe that a lot of the issues that our world faces today are because of lack of access to news and information,” Morsy said, “and our goal is having local newspapers thrive again.”