Substance Over Clickbait

Hidden Compass co-founder.

Today, there are more choices than ever when it comes to where we get information. But, as everyone knows, not all news sources are of equal quality. And it often seems like the most profitable media outlets are the ones peddling the most garbage.

According to founder Sivani Babu, Hidden Compass aims to “unite audiences with the humans, causes, and possibilities behind award-winning stories and groundbreaking expeditions, treating audiences and journalists as valuable partners in a new age of exploration, and paving the way for a financially sustainable future for journalism.” This is the company’s origin story.

Born From Adventure

Sivani and her co-founder Sabine were both freelance journalists before starting Hidden Compass. That, and their love of adventure, provided shared experiences to bond over and the inspiration for their company.

“[We] had adventures all over the world — escaping political unrest in Bolivia, sailing the most brutal sea on earth to explore Antarctica,” they say. “One day, [we] met in a bookstore… and instantly bonded over [our] frustrations and hopes for [our] profession and industry.” 

Eventually, those frustrations and hopes led to them founding the initial iteration of “Hidden Compass” – a small quarterly magazine. But they weren’t done – in 2018, while walking across Scotland, the two co-founders began talking about what a bigger mission and vision for Hidden Compass could look like. 

“[We] looked at publications that [we] had been reading for years and analyzed how those publications were either struggling or how the quality of what they produced had changed dramatically with the rise of the internet – the rise of clickbait,” they say. “There had to be a better way.”

Upon returning to the US, Sivani and Sabine took inspiration from the food industry, which had experienced a similar transition, and “began working to leverage the participatory nature of the internet – looking to patron-supported structures as a viable business model in the journalism and media space.”

Journalists and Explorers

Sivani describes Hidden Compass as “an independent journalism outlet and modern exploration society that is taking on this era of junk food media and clickbait.” It does this, she says, by “putting humans first, by uniting our audiences with the humans [and] the causes and the possibilities behind the award-winning stories we publish, behind the groundbreaking expeditions we back.” Hidden Compass also strives to “bring people back into that place where they feel like they’re participating in journalism and storytelling and exploration.”

To encourage would-be explorers, the company offers an annual Pathfinder Prize – a $15,000 grant. “We get proposals from all over the world,” she says. “We have an advisory panel that selects the finalists, but then our members get to hear live pitches for those expeditions, and then they vote on who we fund each year. And then they get to follow along on that expedition and be part of learning what these explorers learn.”

Hidden Compass has safeguards in place to maintain journalistic standards. “The process of verifying the information is key, and we also have these conversations internally,” Sivani says. “How much… can we allow people to be involved before it compromises journalistic integrity?….” That wouldn’t involve, for example, allowing members to dictate what the company covers. But they do help choose pre-vetted expeditions. “Does that actually compromise journalistic integrity for us? We’ve decided that it doesn’t,” she says.

Keep the End in Mind

Sivani has this advice for early-stage entrepreneurs when it comes to storytelling: know the journey to want to take your audience on.

“A story is about leading people through a set of facts and getting them to where you want them to be,” she says. “Storytelling is transformation at the end of the day. If you don’t know where you want them to end up, you can’t tell the story. It’s about being very intentional and very clear about where you want people to end up and treating it like it’s both a science and an art. It’s not just about what you want to say. It’s about what they need to hear. And the only way you’re ever going to know if it works is to actually talk to the people that you’re telling the story to.”

She also advises not to go solo. “I’m not saying [you have to] go out and find a co-founder or anything like that, but who do you trust to start talking to and having that feedback with and iterating with, and who can provide that sounding board? Because the conversation that happens is going to spark ideas. And from there, if you’re doing those things and paying attention to what is emerging from that process, you’ll start to see the pieces of a story emerge.”

Next Pathfinder Prize, More Stories

Sivani says Hidden Compass is currently wrapping up its first Pathfinder Prize and will be premiering a related short documentary at the end of the year. The winner of the next prize will be selected this year (proposals were due July 20, 2023).

“We’re [also] excited down the road to start publishing more stories, not in the quantity over quality way, but we’re looking to expand and do some… stories that are still feature length, but maybe a little bit shorter than the ones that we’re currently doing,” she says. In addition, there will be “more opportunities for our allies to participate. So we’re growing, we are seeing the traffic come in on the website, which we’re really excited about.”

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