Thursday, November 30, 2023

How The Women Behind ‘Shit You Should Care About’ Took Over The World

You’ve seen their posts shared by your favourite celebrities and their unique media strategy has helped keep us entertained and informed during some very difficult years. We chat to Shit You Should Care About co-founder Lucy Blakiston about starting a media empire with her best friends, the risky editorial choice they made early on and why there’s power in being underestimated as a young female CEO.

The term ‘origin story’ tends to get reserved for Marvel characters but it’s a worthy descriptor for the stratospheric rise of NZ-based media company, Shit You Should Care About. Co-founder Lucy Blakiston, who was in her third year of studying International Relations, Politics and Media at time, was sitting in a lecture getting increasingly frustrated about how disconnected she felt from the information she was being delivered. She was young, smart, switched on… and paying to be there. So why wasn’t she getting it?

“I thought, ‘Maybe it’s because the news doesn’t really feel like it was made for me?’” Lucy says. “I texted Rubes and Liv – my two hometown best friends, still my best friends – and said, ‘I think we should start something called Shit You Should Care About, where we can literally talk about anything people should care about, whether it’s pop culture or Harry Styles or the environment.”

That was in 2018. That text thread of Lucy, Ruby Edwards and Olivia Mercer became Shit You Should Care About and what started off as a blog has since become mini media empire – daily newsletters, podcasts, social media – and with an Instagram following of 3.6m… really not so mini. And now, the team of three have come full circle and are touring the country, leading the lectures they used to attend to meet the audiences they’re writing to – and talking about how they’ve managed to capture both the zeitgeist and the news cycle in one bright, warm and wise package.

“It’s quite easy to go into a room and think, ‘It’s fine that no-one here gets it, because we do… and so does our audience of three million people.’”

“I found it a fun way to make sense of the world and help other people do the same,” Lucy said of the brand’s overall strategy. The year 2020 was a landmark for the brand; with everyone at home – and overwhelmed by the world around them – SYSCA grew in popularity both in NZ and then abroad. With the pandemics, the Black Lives Matter protests, the US election and the NZ election, it was a recipe, Lucy says, for “make it make sense.”

Very early on in the process, the team made two key editorial decisions: Firstly, they wouldn’t appear in the brand or in the social media. “We were coming on to these platforms to disrupt the influencers we kept seeing… it was never, ever going to be about us.” And secondly,  the ‘Shit You Should Care About’ wasn’t just going to be, well, dark shit – it would celebrate the joy in the world as well. Both of these decisions were bold at the time – and came with some pushback – but have ended up becoming defining features of the company.

“At the start, that really rubbed people the wrong way,” she says of the SYSCA mix of light and dark. “People would message us saying, ‘You putting a Harry Styles story right after a story about the environment just really discredits all the work you do,”” Lucy says. “And I would always think, ‘How does making something not terrible to read discredit everything we do?’ I never saw the logic there, so we kept putting the bad with the good. So people kept feeling safe, even while reading the most tragic of story.”

Another big part of the success is the fact that the women behind SYSCA are the age group they’re talking to – all in their early to mid 20s, they are the older half of a generation who have always been incredibly informed about the world around them – and all of the bad parts they are inheriting.

“We’re moving into a world that doesn’t feel like it’s built for us, or built to last. So we need to be very loud.”

“I have so much hope for the future, purely in terms of how many young people I see reading our newsletter. Like, what teenagers are waking up in the morning and choosing to read a newsletter about world events?” Lucy says. “Half of me is really proud, because obviously it’s fun enough to read, that people are. And then the other half of me is like, when I was at high school, I would never have chosen to do this.”

She wonders if Gen Z are so informed because there feels like there isn’t a choice. “We’re moving into a world that doesn’t feel like it’s built for us, or built to last. So we need to be very loud.”

So when your day job is trying to make today’s news cycle understandable and digestible, how do you not get burned out… particularly when, in Lucy’s case, she’s up each morning at 5am to get out the daily newsletter. But it’s that editorial balance, she says, that keeps her enthusiastic.

“We have always been so strong in who we are as a media company, we never want to make the news depressing to read. And because we’re trying not to make the news depressing to read, it needs to be not depressing to write. So I am always looking for the good to balance the bad.”

The SYSCA team have managed to exceed expectations in terms of the old adage ‘don’t work with your friends,’ in that Lucy says working with Ruby and Olivia is nothing but a joy. “We are friends first, business mates second.” And they’ve also changed expectations on running a successful business while being in their early 20s.

“None of us are trained in running a media company and there aren’t many companies out there like ours, so everyone is a little bit mystified by it and a little bit like ‘we don’t understand you, how are you making money?’” Lucy says. “But because we know that we’ve figured it out, and we know that we’re really happy and proud of what we do, it’s quite easy to go into a room and think, ‘It’s fine that no-one here gets it, because we do… and so does our audience of three million people.’”

Lucy says it’s not a feeling that bothers her; in fact, she quite enjoys being underestimated as a young, female CEO. “It’s nice to surprise people – it’s nice to walk into a room and have no-one expect that you know what you know, or that you can understand what they’re saying – and you can clap back if you need to! There’s something quite powerful in that.”

When it comes to the milestone moments that stand out to Lucy in the rise of SYSCA, it’s less about the famous people that follow them (although… everyone does) and more about the personal agency that the company has allowed them. “In 2021, when we all became full-time employees of Shit You Should Care About, that was huge for us,” Lucy says. “And when we launched our supporters’ programme – we adopted a phrase ‘normalise paying for the media that you love’. Teaching young people – who have always had content for free – that if you want quality, you have to pay for it… that’s been amazing.”

Oh sure, they also got to host some Harry Styles listening parties on behalf of Harry Styles. But the bigger picture is still what keeps them going. “Honestly, this job feels like a daily win. I get 50 to 100 responses a day, from people who love what we do. I hope I don’t ever get used to that. I don’t ever want to take that for granted.”

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