RocaNews Builds A Youthful News Alternative On Instagram, TikTok
Like millions of other Americans during the early days of the pandemic, Max Frost and Max Towey tuned into CNN and Fox News for updates on the crisis. The recent college graduates and co-hosts of the policy-focused Banter podcast, produced by the American Enterprise Institute, a D.C.-based think tank, did not like what they saw.
“COVID brought the worst out of our news industry,” Towey says. “That’s when we felt: ‘Our generation needs some new alternative. Let’s give them one.’”
Fed up with the partisan punditry so prevalent in news — across both the TV and print media — Frost, Towey and another partner, Billy Carney, have since built RocaNews, a down-the-middle outlet delivering fact-centric stories via newsletter and Instagram, where they now boast more than 1.1 million followers. The triumvirate pulled this off by leveraging what Towey calls their collective “entrepreneurial edge,” which so far has triggered three rounds of fundraising that’s netted the young company around $5 million from angel investors.
“Legacy news companies are making people feel out-of-touch, angry, and divided,” says Max Frost, president and COO of RocaNews. “They’re making people scared or sad about the world. We want to be the antidote, helping people to find the wonder in the world and be more informed, less stressed and less divided.”
On Instagram, RocaNews posts about four stories a day, focusing on U.S. politics, world events, tech and science, and culture. Some are serious and impactful; others are light-hearted and fun.
For example, across one recent day, RocaNews covered an artillery strike on a nitric acid storage facility in Ukraine that resulted in an “acid mushroom cloud” formation, a Las Vegas crackdown on Elvis impersonators, the lifting of strict social distancing restrictions in Shanghai and the issues surrounding uncontacted tribes living in the Amazon.
Until lately, the majority of RocaNews’ stories have been packaged in slide series posts that Instagram users can click through. The slides feature photos and/or graphics, as well as bits of text that are often bullet-pointed. Towey, RocaNews’s CEO, says the cogent format helps RocaNews stick to its mission of “fact-forward,” nonpartisan reporting. The group also stays on-brand by merely circling hot-button issues of the day.
“If you’re talking about Israel/Palestine every day, you’re gonna get criticisms for bias,” Towey says. “It’s not that we shy away from difficult subjects; we just don’t dwell on them. That formula lends itself so well [to] a newsfeed that leaves people feeling happy, curious and energized.”
RocaNews has grown more reliant on video of late, though. (Towey says, “We know video is king.”) The group sources content from subscription-accessed libraries like Shutterstock, but its video editing style — with short clips and brief injected text — borrows heavily from its IG carousel packaging model.
After hiring the Daily Mail’s founding TikTok producer, Cara Burke, RocaNews launched its TikTok channel in April. There the team has experimented in behind-the-scenes-at-the-office content, while mixing in news like that of its Instagram feed.
Burke and the TikTok account, as well as their new Instagram feed, RocaSports, are evidence of RocaNews’s growth, the founding core’s primary focus right now. (Towey says even the RocaNews investors aren’t interested in seeing revenue-stream formation — yet. That will come with added growth; however, Towey also says his team is piloting ad campaigns, and an app that he hints is expected to garner some cash flow should launch late this summer.)
RocaNews has grown from a staff of three, Towey says, and will soon employ 13, including writers, engineers, a head of video and an operations manager. There’s also a community manager to handle social media comments, online polls and other interactivity with RocaNews consumers, which Towey believes is a key element of the platform’s success.
“We don’t believe there should be this glass panel between publisher and reader,” he says. “We believe in a high level of community engagement…. It brings us joy to interact with our readers [and] get to know them better.”
Doing so has allowed RocaNews to give consumers what they want and cultivate its growing following. Towey says the RocaNews Instagram has performed well in the 18-30 demographic, but even though the founding fathers of RocaNews — all of whom are in their mid-20s — set out to build a news publication for Gen Zers and young millennials like themselves, the daily newsletter is opened by many people in older demographics, too.
“Building RocaNews has been a dream come true,” says Billy Carney, the RocaNews chairman, who worked in investment banking before partnering with the founders. “There is no reward like knowing the work you put your sweat and tears into both reaches and impacts people. We can’t wait to keep building from here.”
According to Towey, many of the early RocaNews angel investors were individuals in the orbit of the founding three, “the parents of friends” and people they networked in their first jobs out of college — which they all quit by the summer of 2020 to work on RocaNews. Later, Ori Allon, co-founder of real estate brokerage firm Compass, committed cash of his own after finding RocaNews on Instagram.
“In today’s environment of untrustworthy news reporting, one of our biggest everyday challenges is to deliver authentic, honest information to our truth-seeking audience,” Allon says. “RocaNews is committed to ensuring a more socially responsible and unbiased perspective in media reporting to transition into a better, more honestly informed society.”
Perhaps that mission is no better encapsulated than — fittingly — in the outlet’s name. “Roca” is a reference to the Pororoca wave, a tidal bore that sweeps up the Amazon twice a year, attracting world-famous surfers and other interested parties.
“We wanted something that was dynamic, unifying in one way or another and something that has to do with nature, just because we all love nature,” Towey says.
In the Pororoca wave, Towey & Co. heard all those elements, plus the idea that it might symbolize a “movement,” as the bore goes against the river’s usual current.
They shortened “Pororoca” to just “Roca” and, as Towey says, “That’s why we tell everyone to ‘ride the wave.’”
Editor’s Note: This is the latest of TVNewsCheck’s “Newsroom Innovators” profiles, a series showcasing people and news organizations evolving the shape and substance of video reporting. These profiles examine the inception of their innovations, the tools they employ and how they’re reconciling experimental approaches to news storytelling within daily workflows. You can find the others here.