Take a few accomplished journalists, add some venture capital, mix with the Internet — and, voila!, you had the ingredients for a revolution in journalism and business.
Or so commentators suggested when a wave of news start-ups fronted by “brand-name” reporters crested last year. “We are in a time very similar to the early 1980s, when big cities were finally wired for cable,” wrote the New York Times’s media columnist, the late David Carr, in one of the typical assessments last year. “What followed was an explosion of new channels, many of which have become big businesses today.”
Or maybe not. It’s still early, but the digital-news revolution of recent vintage hasn’t been an unbroken run to glory. Some celebrated new ventures have found tough going; others are experiencing what might charitably be called growing pains. The journalism that has emerged from them has been decidedly mixed.
In perhaps a sign of the times, ReCode, a tech-news site founded by journalists Walter Mossberg and Kara Swisher amid big buzz just 17 months ago, was sold last month to Washington-based Vox Media for an undisclosed price. At the time of the sale, ReCode was attracting about 1.5 million unique visitors per month, according to ComScore, a modest number (by comparison, digital goliath Huffington Post reaches about 100 million people per month, according to the Pew Research Center).
The issue wasn’t financial — ReCode had $6 million in the bank when the sale was announced — or at least it wasn’t yet, said Swisher, a former Washington Post reporter who originally teamed with Mossberg at the Wall Street Journal.
“You need to be realistic,” she said of her business ambitions. “We were thinking years down the line, especially given how fast and how massively this business changes. It’s important not to get caught later, when you can’t save the situation. Any entrepreneur has to be honest about the situation and figure out the next steps now.”
GigaOm, a respected tech-news site started by the writer Om Malik, went out of business suddenly in March after nine years (a start-up company called Knowingly Corp. plans to re-launch it in August). The Dish’s proprietor and chief attraction, Andrew Sullivan, called it quits in January after two years as an independent blogger and more than a decade blogging for other news organizations. “There comes a time when you have to . . . recognize before you crash that burn-out does happen,” wrote Sullivan by way of explanation.
The jury is still out on other new news innovators.
Fusion, a heralded collaboration between Disney-owned ABC News and Spanish-language TV giant Univision, started in late 2013 with a Web site and cable TV channel aimed at young Hispanics who speak English. But Fusion changed course almost immediately, broadening itself into a destination for millennials, a hard-to-reach group.
Its Web site is now an eclectic mix of material dominated by the offbeat (“It’s getting really, really expensive to live in gaybhorhoods,” reads a recent headline) with some serious fare as well (“58 Venezuelans have joined hunger strike against socialist government”). The company says the site reached 5 million unique readers last month. Its cable channel, whose best-known personality is Univision newsman Jorge Ramos, hasn’t been rated yet by Nielsen.
Another well-funded and closely watched site, First Look Media, has struggled, though financial issues have been the least of the nonprofit organization’s troubles.
First Look, started by eBay founder and billionaire Pierre Omidyar, was conceived last year as the umbrella organization for a flagship general-news site and a series of digital magazines. Nearly 18 months later, First Look has one site, the Intercept, that focuses on government surveillance and national security. It added a second site, Reported.ly, last month.
All that’s past now, said Glenn Greenwald, the Intercept’s founding editor.
“We jumped into this together with a vision and passion about what we wanted to achieve but didn’t spend much time at the start on the details and logistics of how it would work,” said Greenwald, who led a team at the Guardian newspaper that won a Pulitzer prize last year for its reporting on the National Security Agency. “Building a new media outlet from the ground up is difficult, especially if you’re trying to do new things rather than following the existing playbook.”
The early conflicts, he said, “turned out to be healthy friction.”
Greenwald says the Intercept now employs two dozen journalists, and its audience is growing quickly, though he won’t divulge internal data about its readership. ComScore has no independent figures on the site.
But Greenwald says the Intercept isn’t focused on traffic. It’s more concerned about producing singular journalism, he says, citing, for example, a piece last month by Jeremy Scahill about the internal workings of the Somali terrorist group al-Shabaab. “We have the luxury of not having to produce click-bait posts or articles that have no point other than attracting cheap traffic,” he said. “We can focus on long-form, deep-dive journalism. . . . That is a crucial asset of the Intercept.”
Predicting success on the Web is, of course, a dicey proposition. It took several years for an earlier wave of digital-news outfits — Vice, BuzzFeed, Mashable, Gawker, Business Insider — to evolve into major forces, with enormous audiences, if only modest profits. Buzzfeed, for example, started in 2006. Mashable and Huffington Post launched in 2005.
The most promising commercial operations so far among the new crop appear to be Vox.com and FiveThirtyEight.com. Both are sites that use data to illuminate complicated news stories. Both were founded last year by Internet wunderkinds — Vox by former Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein and FiveThirtyEight by New York Times columnist Nate Silver. Both have drawn significant audiences in Year One: Vox approached 13 million unique visitors in April, according to ComScore; FiveThirtyEight had more than 8 million unique visits, according to Silver.
Both, too, are backed by bigger outfits: FiveThirtyEight by Disney’s ESPN, and Vox by Vox Media, the outfit that bought Swisher’s company last month.
Vox’s chief executive, Jim Bankoff, said having a big organization behind a news start-up frees journalists to be journalists, not businesspeople. “It’s not a matter of journalists not being capable [of running a business]. It’s a matter of desire and where they want to spend their time,” he said. “They got into journalism because they’re passionate about it. Running a business yourself forces you to spend less time on your craft.”
So, says Bankoff, the journalists bring the editorial smarts, and his company supplies the backbone: advertising sales, marketing and promotion, legal advice, finance, personnel management. “Do you want your start-up to invest in all that infrastructure, or do you want to join someone who’s already doing that?” he asks.
On the other hand, small can be beautiful, too. Or so one digital-news entrepreneur hopes.
Going against the tide of national news sites, veteran journalist Jim Brady started one about Philadelphia last fall. Called BillyPenn.com (the name refers not only to the state’s founder but also to the nickname of the Penn statue atop Philly’s city hall), it mixes original reporting about local politics, real estate and transportation with aggressive aggregation of news from outside sources.
Brady, who worked for America Online during its glory days of the 1990s and later headed The Washington Post’s foray into digital journalism, knows local news sites have a high mortality rate. Among others, a Washington-centric “hyper-local” venture called Backfence, founded by former Post editor Mark Potts and partly backed by Omidyar, went aground in 2007. Brady ran TBD.com, backed by Politico owner Allbritton and launched in the summer of 2010; it underwent massive cutbacks just a few months later en route to oblivion.
“We have to find a profit model that works in this business” for local news, says Brady, who has seeded BillyPenn mostly with his own money. “That’s what motivates me. The Vices and Voxes haven’t solved the local problem yet. They’ve raised a lot of money, but there’s got to be something else locally.”
If his venture works, he hopes to replicate it in other cities. But in the meantime, Brady is starting slow, with a staff of just six.
“I’m not sure I’ll ever see the day when we get to even 15 or 20 people,” he said. “Anyone who thinks they can replicate the model of a big-city daily paper [with a large newsroom] is going the wrong way. These days, it’s going to have to be a smaller staff, for sure.”