On launching VALERIE, a new online magazine

By Covering Business     January 24, 2014

Daria Solovieva

Daria Solovieva (MA, 2010) is co-founder and managing editor of VALERIE, a new magazine now online in its beta release. VALERIE’s mission is “to showcase the work of talented female writers, bloggers and photojournalists to bring our readers independent news, perspectives and innovative ideas from around the world.” The emphasis is on economic, social and political issues that impact women, and together with co-founder Ivy Ng (who was a classmate at Columbia), Daria is building a network of correspondents, contributors and editors around the world, and lining up funding. The official launch is planned for later this year.

Daria began working as a journalist in 2005, reporting and writing for publications, including The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, in the U.S., Somalia and Russia, and attended the Columbia Journalism School in 2009-2010. Subsequently, she studied Arabic in Jordan under a Gordon and Maggie Gray fellowship and covered business, the energy sector, and current events, first from Jordan and since 2012 from Cairo. She spoke with adjunct professor Rob Norton in December.

When did you decide to start VALERIE?

The idea for a media startup came about when I was in a workshop with Ken Lerer [co-founder of the Huffington Post] during my time at Columbia, where I first began thinking about what makes a media company successful and how you go about setting it up. But it really developed as I was covering entrepreneurship in Egypt over the last two years. There’s been a lot of entrepreneurial momentum since the revolution three years ago – a lot of energy, expatriates returning from other places – including angel investors, entrepreneurs, investment bankers – and people starting their own business for the first time, which is not something that had a lot of traction in the past. Some of those hopes were dashed, but many of those entrepreneurs are still here and there is still a lot going on.

Google sponsored a start-up contest called Google Ebda’ [The name means “begin” in Arabic; first prize was $200,000 in start-up funding, and finalists were given mentorship help.] I was covering the competition, and tracking a few of the companies that were finalists. The idea for Valerie was already brewing in my mind, and I realized it was something I could do. A lot of people with less experience than I had were putting together amazing projects, including Columbia alumni.

What do you see as the editorial opportunity for VALERIE?

Media is becoming increasingly niche-oriented, tailoring content more specifically for targeted audiences. We want to offer insightful, empowering information for intellectually curious, professional women.

According to one study, an additional 1 billion women will be joining the workforce over the next 10 years. Globally, more women are earning higher degrees and contributing to the economy. Yet the mainstream media is not catering to their professional needs and interests. Instead, women are treated as a category so you don’t have consistent, detailed coverage. Many great stories just go uncovered because they do not fit into the traditional media’s established paradigm.

Could you give an example of a recent story that reflects your approach?

Sure. We just published a profile of Elena Pogrebizhskaya, a former journalist and singer who is now a film-maker in Russia. She’s doing really fantastic work, including a recent documentary on conditions in Russia’s orphanages and how many children are incorrectly diagnosed as being mentally disabled. Since the government banned U.S. citizens from adopting Russian orphans in 2012, the situation has gotten even more worrisome.

We also interviewed a student leader in Chile who is challenging the newly elected president, who is also a woman. The student leader is a part of a growing number of women in Chile who are taking on leadership roles.

Once you decided to start the magazine, how did you go about it? 

I found that there were mentors and other people from different sectors who are happy to offer their time and advice. I spoke to angel investors and entrepreneurs – there is a network of investors in Egypt who have worked both in Silicon Valley and elsewhere in the U.S. as well as in the Middle East. They have great perspectives about what might work and not work. Many understood the opportunity right away. I spoke to one experienced female mentor, and as soon as I explained the concept she said that it was exactly the kind of resource she had been looking for. The response was largely positive.

It’s also interesting that female investors and journalists are very quick to catch on. I can explain the idea in five minutes and they completely get it. With many male friends and advisors it becomes a much longer and more detailed conversation about why women need to have a separate news site, what the newsroom statistics are like. Many are genuinely surprised.

I also reached out to the founders of new media companies, like World Politics Review and VICE Media. VICE is hugely interesting because they went from being a small, counter-culture magazine in Canada to one of the biggest success stories in media. Some people have put a valuation of $1.4 billion on VICE recently. They are one of the few media companies that’s expanding globally.

What can you say about your business model?

We’re in our soft launch. Our strategy was to put the idea out there so that we could approach people who might want to contribute or join the community, and we are also tracking our audience through Google Analytics, to see what the demographics are and what kinds of stories are performing well. We’re also building our presence on Twitter and Facebook. The main focus right now is on fundraising, and we are approachingdifferent sources.

How do you see Valerie growing as you hit the hard launch and continue?

We want our coverage to be more global. Right now, most of our audience is in the U.S., but it’s growing in many places, especially in Europe. Members of the team are in many countries. I’m in Cairo, our web designer is in New York. We have an illustrator who’s in Brazil, and editors In New York, Monrovia and Cairo. Altogether, there are about 20 people involved right now, including regular contributors and bloggers in places like Russia, Pakistan and South America. We have good coverage in the Middle East. We want to increase our presence in Asia and South America. Having a wide network is key for timely coverage. For example, one recent story that resonated with our readers was about Germany’s introduction of quotas for women in the board room; another was a piece on Janet Yellen’s nomination as chair of the Federal Reserve Board in the U.S. We want to be able to respond to current events and cover them from a female perspective in a timely way.

Also a lot of women and journalists write to us to say they’re excited about the project, which to me shows there is a hunger and demand for more female voices and a different way to cover global news.

Photo credit: Hayssam Samir

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