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The Young Turks’ Cenk Uygur on YouTube, 1 billion views and the truth

The Young Turks claims the title of world’s largest online news network, and it just backed up that fact by passing 1 billions views on its YouTube channel. We recently spoke with the network’s founder and CEO Cenk Uygur to learn how the company got online news to work.

Uygur called the past few years with The Young Turks an “awesome journey”. He started TYT in his living room with “a couple pieces of radio equipment”, launching first on Sirius satellite radio in 2002 before moving online in 2005.

He added that people doubted along the way that TYT would become as successful as it has.

“It’s not often that you get to do something that people believed wasn’t possible…I feel very happy about it,” he said.

Even with the network’s ups and downs over the years, Uygur said figuring out how to make online video work has been the “most challenging and fun game” of his life.

The path to 1 billion

When I asked what the key to TYT’s success was, Uygur pointed to trial and error – what he called “one of the oldest cliches in the book.”

“Don’t be afraid to fail,” he said. “I’m probably underestimating when I say we’ve tried at least a hundred different things. We learned what worked, what didn’t work.”

Uygur also noted that the company’s decision to pour its resources into developing a YouTube audience instead of focusing on hosting videos on its own site was a crucial one.

“Back in 2005-2006, conventional wisdom was that you put things up on your own website, you don’t concentrate on portals like YouTube because it only pays you a percentage,” Uygur said.

At the time, creators were also obsessed with making a single video go viral, but the TYT team approached things differently. Callingon a baseball metaphor, Uygur said the network played for consistent hits instead of home runs. Back then, The network averaged eight videos a day.

In the end, Uygur says the strategy paid off with search engines, as TYT’s videos began ranking higher during news events.

“We wound up getting home runs anyway,” he said.

Independent voices

When I asked whether the Internet had changed the rules of the game, Uygur said that he hoped we’re not in a “rare moment in time” where true independent voices are able to speak up.

“I hope the media establishment doesn’t figure out how to put gatekeepers online,” he said. “Right now, you’re rewarded for speaking truth to power.”

Uygur added that the company managed to achieve a billion views because, unlike corporate media outlets, it was able to “actually tell the truth.”

“You want to talk about a competitive advantage, it doesn’t get any better than that,” he said.

The Internet provides a symbiotic relationship for TYT, according to Uygur. He said that the audience actively plays a part in producing the show by fact checking, correcting and providing feedback.

Uygur has spent time in the so-called establishment. He did a short stint at MSNBC, but it didn’t work out. He was willing to cooperate on matters of style, such as wearing a tie, but he wasn’t willing to compromise his message.

“I got the best ratings they’d ever had at six o’clock, but apparently the other considerations were more important,” he said.

Beginning in 2011, The Young Turks partnered with Current TV to produce a show for the television network, but the show is in limbo right now. Al Jazeera purchased Current at the start of this year, announcing plans to shut down Current and open up its own operation in New york.

Uygur said that wherever he works he lays out his ground rules: “If I get editorial control and we can deliver the truth, God bless; if not, sad day, we don’t deal with you.”

He continued: “It’s honestly terrific to be in a situation where you can lay down those rules. For most of my career, nobody was in a situation like that. I’d do it anyway and get fired immediately, but if we hadn’t had the Internet come up as it did, I would have just continued to get fired at different places and probably never broken through because of the gatekeepers.”

Reality’s liberal bias

We were curious whether The Young Turks’ business model would have worked regardless of political persuasion.

Uygur said there was room for different perspectives to be successful online if they serve their audience authentically, but he conceded that conservatives have a harder time online.

“As Stephen Colbert famously said, ‘Reality has a well-known liberal bias,’” Uygur quipped.

“The Internet is one giant fact-checking machine,” Uygur said. “On the Internet, you come with your BS and I wish you good luck. We embrace that. But if you’re a right winger that doesn’t believe in science or math or facts, they’re going to eat you alive.”

In contrast, Uygur views TV audiences as still being partisan, while online viewers are tired of Republican/Democrat games.

Show me the money

As for monetization, Uygur said the process was exceedingly difficult.

“I remember when we got to a million views and I was ecstatic and then I got like $10 bucks in the mail,” he joked before clarifying that it was actually probably a bit more.

TYT had to be extremely frugal with growth in order to stick with the independent online news model.

“We’re probably conservative to a fault financially. It’s not in our DNA because we’ve had to tread water for 11 years,” he said. “You’ve got to be a lot more efficient, you’ve got to be smarter with how you run your business. Time rewards those who get it right and punishes those who don’t know what they’re doing. If you’re online, you’ve got to be incredibly careful not to overspend. At the same time, you’ve got to know when to do an expansion, it’s a balancing act.”

“Money is now pouring into online video so it’s an incredibly growing field and it’s growing by leaps and bounds, not every year, but every month. If ever there was a time to invest, this is probably it. This is when you can get the most return because of the growing audience and money involved.”

TYT makes the majority of its money from YouTube. It also runs a member program on its website that grants access to extra content like podcasts and a daily post game. ”Our members kept us afloat for a long time, so we’re absolutely beholden to them. They’re integral to our success,” he said.

“[YouTube is] a very good company to partner with. We got lucky that what I believe to be the smartest company online, Google, is the one that wound up having the central hub for online video.”

What’s next for the Turks

Uygur says he’s not content just to lead the online news market: ”I have always said from day one and people thought I was nuts for saying it, but now it seems a bit more reasonable. I’ve always believed we’re going to be the top news show, period. And news network, period.”

“Let me blow people’s minds by saying, “Yes, we can be bigger than CNN,”” he added. ”We don’t have anywhere near the resources that they have at this point, but I’m working on it.”

“We’re not that far off because we’ve already conquered the biggest medium there is, period,” Uygur said, while noting that the goal could take as long as 20 years to reach.

“We just have to make sure we don’t blow it. Right now we’re in a very, very good position. We have to take advantage of it as we grow into the future…As long as we grow smart, we should be in great great shape.”

While TYT is best-known for its political commentary, the network has been expanding into other verticals as well. Both its TYT University and TYT Sports channels are already profitable.

Meanwhile, its new Pop Trigger channel about pop culture is off to a record start: ”Pop Trigger is our fastest growing show ever. They’re over 3 million views already and it’s only been five-six months. In terms of subscribers, viewers, revenues, it’s the fastest growing channel ever for us. We’re incredibly encouraged and we’re thinking of adding even more shows to Pop Trigger, more channels, more contributors. We’re definitely in expansion mode because the expansion’s going really well.”

With YouTube’s audience of more than 1 billion monthly viewers, The Young Turks is in a pretty good spot to rack up another billion views for its news network. Beating CNN is going to take some serious work, but if I were going to bet on any company going forward, I’d bet on the one that’s winning the Internet.

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