How do you improve the Daily Beast?
“I want us to lean harder into who we are,” says Noah Shachtman of the Daily Beast. That means that if the Daily Beast is in the business of scoops — more scoops. “If we’re painting in bright colors now, I want to paint even brighter,” says the 47-year-old Shachtman.
Sounds like a vision: Much, much more of the same. Shachtman’s imperative comes from new heights, too. He is progressing from executive editor of the Daily Beast to editor in chief, a position vacated by John Avlon, the smooth-talking journo who splits his time between the Daily Beast and steady appearances on CNN — where Avlon will be moving full-time as a senior political analyst and anchor. “The past 10 years have been an incredible journey and I’ve loved every moment of leading The Beast, but it’s time for a new challenge,” said Avlon in a statement. “I’m looking forward to joining CNN full-time as a senior political analyst and anchor while I also embark on my next book, Lincoln’s Farewell. I could not be more proud of what we’ve built, or the hungry, passionate team of reporters who are the heart and soul of The Beast.”
That the Daily Beast would pursue a policy of continuity is something of a success on its own. Launched in 2008 under the direction of British-born magazine vet Tina Brown, the Daily Beast plowed through a ruinous merger with Newsweek, some amateur misfeasance and a concomitant level of very average journalism. Toward the end of Brown’s tenure — she exited in 2013 — readers may have been challenged to identify the quintessential Beast story. “Tina was losing interest in the Beast. I looked at it every day and I wondered about the enthusiasm levels of the people who put it together,” said media watcher Jim Romenesko.
Taking the reins from Brown, Avlon pursued unsophisticated strategies in making the Daily Beast matter. He hired strong writers and editors, including Shachtman, who came on board in January 2014. And he forced the publication to make tough choices on coverage, an essential step when considering staffing disparities. The New York Times has 1,450 newsies on staff, including opinion types. The Post has about 800. CNN claims to have about 3,000 employees around the world.
The Daily Beast? It has an editorial staffing level in the 40s. No way, then, that this outlet is going to furnish, say, step-by-step coverage of all the key races in the 2018 mid-terms. “We’re going to highlight the most colorful characters that are making the biggest impact,” says Shachtman, “and we’re going to try to catch them doing dirt.”
The site has picked its spots well. Folks who read the indictment of Russian troll groups stemming from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s office wouldn’t have been surprised if they’d read the Daily Beast’s earlier coverage on the topic, which exposed, for example, how Russians had used Facebook to promote divisive rallies in 17 U.S. cities, among other disturbing findings. “Reading that indictment was one of the most remarkable moments in my career,” Shachtman told Mediaite’s Aidan McLaughlin.
Other scoops have been lower on the world-implications scale, higher on the wow scale: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was on the can when informed of his imminent dismissal. For example. Yes, details matter. And who can forget the piece by Kevin Poulsen destroying MSNBC host Joy Reid’s claims that she was hacked? Since the 2012 election, the Daily Beast audience has grown 120 percent, according to its parent company.
Shachtman has spent his journalistic career freelancing all over the place — Wired, the New York Times Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, The Post, Slate, Salon, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; he also served as an editor at Wired and, for a brief period, Foreign Policy magazine. His father and stepmother met when they worked at CBS News in the 1970s, and his grandfather — Lee Guber — was married for a time to Barbara Walters. A self-described child of New York in the ’70s and ’80s, Shachtman says he draws inspiration from the gritty New York Daily News of yore. “Throw a punch and have fun,” he says.
Managing upward — to his bosses at the IAC collection of websites — will be a big part of Shachtman’s new duties. Asked whether the Daily Beast is profitable these days, a spokeswoman for the company declined to answer, saying that it doesn’t break out financials for specific brands in its publishing group, which also include
Vimeo, Dictionary.com, Investopedia and many more. Asked about the company’s approach to the Daily Beast’s resources, Shachtman responds, “I’ve gotten nothing but … green lights from on high. IAC is really into the Daily Beast. … When I talk to executives there … they’re really into the journalism, they’re really into the mission we’re carrying out,” says Shachtman. (Please see staff memo from Shachtman below)
Barry Diller, chairman and senior executive of IAC, issued this statement on the change: “John Avlon has been a superb editorial leader of the Daily Beast. He’s built a formidable newsroom, and a culture of excellence and decency. I only wish him the best for the future, and greatly am appreciative of his bringing Noah Shachtman onboard as his deputy so that we’re in the position to continue the fine work of the Daily Beast.”
The Daily Beast has used cable news as a force multiplier for its reporting, with staffers such as Jackie Kucinich (D.C. bureau chief), Sam Stein (politics editor), Matt Lewis (senior columnist) and Avlon forever commenting on the hot news of the day. Shachtman has some catching up to do on that front. “I do TV once in a while,” says Shachtman.
Memo from Shachtman:
Subject: Welcome to Chapter Three
I’m so humbled, so excited. It’s such an honor to become The Daily Beast’s third Editor-in-Chief.
The news is still fresh, but I do have some early thoughts on where I see The Beast heading next. But first, I can’t thank enough my brother and partner John Avlon; his leadership is a major reason why so many observers now see The Beast as, pound-for-pound, the best news site around. I’m looking forward to working even more closely with our amazing managing editor, Katie Baker, as well as with Heather Dietrick, Mia Libby, Lauren Bertolini, Alison Zwerling, and the rest of the senior team.
The Beast has hit its stride in recent years by doing what we do best, which is essentially… being ourselves. Street smart, not fusty. Omnivorous and idiosyncratic in our tastes. Worldly, naughty, and always hustling. The kind of outfit that celebrates heroes where we find ‘em—Lord knows, we could use a few today—and goes after villains even harder. The kind of journalism that can’t wait to take a side, throw a punch, and go out for a drink when the fight’s done.
The Beast is about telling the raw truth instead of repeating the everyday niceties that obscure it. You see it when our White House team brings home another insane quote from inside Trumpworld. The Beast is about speaking up to power when everyone else is too polite to be real. You see it when Amy Zimmerman unearths an Oscar contender’s awful past. The Beast is about championing things when they’re truly great—from the runway to the biolab to the big screen. You see it when Tim Teeman breaks the news of Glenda Jackson’s Tony award for Best Actress—to Glenda Jackson. The Beast is about fighting for the rights of everybody. The Beast is about making this new golden age of journalism the most fun moment in news-making yet.
That attitude—combined with a relentless focus on scoops—is what has fueled The Beast’s rise. It’s why our page views are up 65 percent year over year as some of our competitors struggle. And though we’ve seen other outlets trying to copy our voice and reporting style, leaning into what makes The Beast so original is what defines our opportunity for tomorrow.
When we’re really clicking, every story should aim for the heart. Every headline should make you stand up and scream, “oh, shit!” And every competitor should wonder how we beat them to a story … again.
Here are some of the ways we’ll make that happen:
NEW FORMATS. We thankfully sidestepped the “pivot to video” trend and that surrender-your-whole-operation-to-Facebook thing. But that attention to our core offerings left us room to do more—much more. And you’ll see it in the months ahead. The Beast will build on its world-class art department to push into more audio, visual, and data-first storytelling. We’ll expand our breaking news offerings and our newsletter products. We’re adding Will Sommer’s groundbreaking newsletter on the ultra-conservative, “Right Richter,” to Lachlan Markay’s dive into D.C. sleaze, “Pay Dirt” (which, by the way, already has 10,000+ subscribers and an open rate of nearly 50% after just a few weeks). We’ll move into serialized, non-fiction narratives—epic adventures, real-life mysteries, and more unforgettable stories from some of the top writers around. We’ll expand onto new social platforms, with Malia Griggs and her team leading the way. And we’ll do it while staying true to who were are; scoops will continue to be the engine of this operation.
NEW TEAMS. In the last year, we’ve begun to develop a way of getting these scoops—an approach that marries old-school source-building with code-driven reporting, and breaks down departmental barriers to build investigative all-star teams. Our entertainment and politics desks cross-pollinated to take on some of the worst actors of the #MeToo era. Our tech and national reporters worked together to uncover the truth about the Parkland shooter. And then there’s the Russia investigation, which united journalists in six cities across 11 time zones to take on the biggest story of all. You can expect to see more of these unconventional teams as we move ahead.
NEW TOOLS. Beast staffers have been developing software and honing new techniques to ensure we stay one step ahead of the pack. Most of you know about our tool that drops court papers into Slack minutes after they’re published; you may not know about Kevin Poulsen’s custom code that helped unearth major pieces of the Kremlin’s online propaganda effort. Combined with the reporting of Spencer Ackerman, Betsy Woodruff, Gideon Resnick, and so many others, it enabled The Beast to reveal key components of Moscow’s campaign months before the special counsel indicted the Russian troll farm.
And we’re just getting started. Lisa Schwartz, a veteran of two Pulitzer Prize-winning teams, is busy uncovering documents that may prove rather, um, inconvenient to certain power players. Adam Rawnsley is doing stuff with geolocation and imagery analysis that makes me wonder how he hasn’t been recruited by America’s spy agencies. (Adam, you haven’t, right?)
NEW COVERAGE. Meanwhile, Lachlan Cartwright is coming on board to work stories at the nexus of celebrity, power, and scandal, joining a powerhouse of a national desk anchored by Justin Miller, Kate Briquelet, and Kelly Weill. Max Tani has become an absolute terror on the media beat. Our science vertical—launched late year under the leadership of Tanya Basu—has already made a major impact. It’ll get even more tightly integrated with other desks in the months to come to deliver scoops, as will our arts team. Our travel vertical, just underway, will open up the globe, with The Beast as its guide. Our entertainment coverage—which already includes some of the strongest voices in the game, like Kevin Fallon, Ira Madison, Melissa Leon, Matt Wilstein, and Marlow Stern—will only grow in importance. Our renewed tech team will bring the weird from the Internet’s quirkier neighborhoods. And our amazing breaking news desk will be widening its lens to cover stories from every corner of the news landscape.
The first chapter of The Beast’s history saw an astonishing launch—followed by the Newsweek merger. In the second chapter, we parted ways with the magazine, reestablished our foundations, and then, improbably, turned this place into a scoop machine. Chapter three is poised to be the best one yet. I can’t wait.
Corrections: Post initially included Vimeo among IAC’s publishing segment. It’s actually part of its video segment. Also, it erroneously listed former staffer Kimberly Dozier as a current staffer.