Bigger, But Better?

by Chris Bodenner

Looking back at 2014, Felix Salmon runs through all the high revenue and venture capital numbers of new media companies like Buzzfeed, Vice, and Vox:

The small but self-sustaining bloggy site is a thing of the past: if you’re not getting 20-30 million unique visitors every month, and don’t aspire to such heights, then you’re basically an economic irrelevance. Advertisers won’t touch you, you won’t make any money, and your remaining visitors will inexorably leach away as they move from their desktops to their phones.

But if you’re like the Dish and rely on subscribers rather than advertisers, you don’t need to be so dependent on huge traffic numbers. And even if you can get those numbers and their corresponding ad dollars, advertisers are fickle, as Gawker recently saw when it lost “seven figures” in ad revenue from their controversial coverage of Gamergate. (Can you imagine the ad backlash over Dish controversies like Scrotumgate or all the graphic photos of dead children in war zones?) Speaking of Gawker, Michael Wolff absorbs a recent staff memo from founder Nick Denton, who outlined a big management shakeup and a refocus on generating scoops over Facebook-friendly fodder. Here’s Wolff:

Gawker, or the Gawker identity, Denton seemed to acknowledge in his memo, is a casualty in the race for traffic: Gawker succeeded because it was a carefully molded product (a small band of young people overseen by Denton — with Denton constantly hiring and firing his editors). But then it morphed into a business with a much larger number of ever-younger people having to produce more and more, and working with less and less editorial vision or leadership. Gawker began to focus on an open area of parallel writing (i.e. free writing) designed to enhance its traffic base — but, too, with the natural effect of diluting quality and confusing purpose. … [A]t somewhat cross purposes to his desire to better compete with BuzzFeed (or admitting that this is impossible), Denton urged his company back to its blogging roots.

In Denton’s words:

[Blogging is] the only truly new media in the age of the web.

It is ours. Blogging is the essential act of journalism in an interactive and conversational age. Our bloggers surface buried information, whether it’s in an orphaned paragraph in a newspaper article, or in the government archives. And we can give the story further energy by tapping readers for information, for the next instalment of the story, and the next round of debate. The natural form of online media is the exchange, not the blast. [New executive editor Tommy Cragg’s] ethos gives us the best chance of recapturing the honesty of blogs, before their spirit was sapped by the tastes of the Facebook masses.

Denton is even jumping back into the blog saddle himself, something he hasn’t done regularly since 2008. Responding to Wolff and Salmon, Mathew Ingram pushes back on the perception that bigger is better when it comes to new media:

[They both] seem to see media success as being composed of just one thing: namely, huge amounts of traffic gained by reaching a massive audience of millennials and then selling them to advertisers for tens of millions of dollars. That’s what Salmon seems to mean by talking about how the “table stakes” for starting a digital media company have never been higher, and small sites are a thing of the past.

But this is demonstrably not true. The cost of starting a digital-media entity, even a potentially successful one, has never been lower. Ask Jessica Lessin, who left the Wall Street Journal to start The Information, or Lara Setrakian of News Deeply, or Andrew Sullivan of The Daily Dish, who is now making close to $1 million a year from his readers — or blogger Ben Thompson, who went from being a relative unknown to running his own self-financed blog company. As Thompson put it in a recent post on his site Stratechery:

“The thing about Internet scale is it doesn’t just have to mean you strive to serve the most possible people at the lowest possible price; individuals and focused publications or companies can go the other way and charge relatively high prices but with far better products or services than were possible previously.”

… It may not make you a billionaire, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible. The New Republic’s problem isn’t that it somehow needs to transform itself into a massive mega-media entity like BuzzFeed, it just needs to do a better job of identifying a market need or an audience that is passionate about its content, and then giving them a way of helping to support that mission.

That’s precisely the insight that venture capitalist Roger McNamee shared when discussing the Dish to Charlie Rose shortly after we went independent two years ago, and it’s an insight even more relevant today as sponsored content and click-bait are consuming the new media landscape.