Understanding the Industry – Interview with Newsela CEO Matthew Gross

Welcome to our new article series called “Understanding the Industry.”  This will be where we look at businesses who are focused in the education industry and have a compelling story to share. These companies have established themselves by helping educators, and have wisdom to offer new and existing providers that will encourage innovation and effective problem solving for the education market.

About Newsela

For this post, we’re looking at the web platform Newsela. The company is an education technology startup dedicated to transforming the way students access the world through words. Their team combines powerful technological know-how with real-world experience earned in the classroom, the newsroom, and the boardroom. They publish high-interest news and nonfiction articles daily at five levels of complexity for grades 2-12, using a proprietary, rapid text-leveling process. By combining relevant and interesting nonfiction content with standards-aligned assessments, Newsela gives educators the primary solution to dramatically improve students’ literacy skills for the 21st century.

They provide adaptive reading materials in all subjects, mainly categorized into English Language Arts, Science, Elementary, Math, and Social Studies. They provide categorizations including personalized suggestions, text levels, reading skill levels, language, special features like teacher resources and annotations, and a reference to the original content provider – which includes all the major media outlets worldwide.

I fielded questions to Matthew Gross, CEO of Newsela, who provided these insights:

How did Newsela get off the ground?

Newsela was born from the reality teachers face every day: they must find content to support their instruction that engages their students, aligns to standards, and is accessible to every learner in their class. This search takes hours of teacher time every week, so Newsela was created to support them and provide engaging content that checks all of their boxes.

Why is this platform so successful in the market?

Newsela initially caught on because we were addressing an unmet need for teachers in the early days of the Common Core: quality nonfiction digital content that was engaging and accessible to all readers. We started with current events. Then we stayed successful because we have been systematically adding the best content from top sources across genres and subjects, including ELA, social studies, science, career and technical education and, most recently, social-emotional learning. Teachers increasingly rely on Newsela as the place where their students do most of their classroom reading.

What advice would you give to those looking to break into this segment offering a web based product/service?

Many entrepreneurs in K-12, especially those focused on classroom instruction, make a fatal mistake: they rely too much on their own experience as students, or their children’s experience, or what they read in the news. The problems they see with education are divorced from what teachers see as problems. My advice? Listen closely to teachers of all stripes, because once the bell rings and the classroom door closes, they’re in charge of every minute of instruction. Those teachers have plenty of real-life problems that are silently yearning for solutions. Go solve them.

What is one of the biggest challenges you face working in the education industry?

Finding talent. We’re growing our team incredibly quickly: we’ve doubled in size over a short period of time. The challenge is that our bar for talent is as high or higher than other leading tech companies in other sectors. So hiring at the pace we need to reach our potential has been tough at times. Great product developers, engineers, and SaaS sales and marketing and finance talent from the tech world sometimes feel nervous about switching to the education sector since they’re not familiar with the space. They shouldn’t be. Ninety-nine percent of the challenges they will face at Newsela are similar to those they would face across all sectors.

Thank you, Mr. Gross, for your perspective and wisdom!

What should you take away from this interview to understand the education industry?

  • Teachers need engaging resources that are accessible to all learner levels
  • Stay current with the trends of what content teachers are looking for
  • The teacher voice is critical to your business’s success
  • The Educational technology industry needs as robust a talent base of engineers, sales, and marketing professionals as other industries.

The State of the K-12 Market Report 2018 series is where you can find MDR’s current research and data about the education industry. The first report is The K-12 Education Landscape, released in April. Our second report, about teacher’s access to and use of technology in the classroom, will be published in July. That report will explain teacher use of the Newsela platform, among other providers in the Education Technology industry.