A decade ago, aspiring journalists could just think about journalism and leave the financial side to others. Now, to be a successful journalist you have to think like an entrepreneur and understand something about the business you’re in. You have to build your own audience, as distinct from that of your publication. You have to think about what kind of organization can support the work you want to do, with integrity and staying power.
Developing a new business model to support high-quality journalism was an essential part of the Slate experiment when we launched it in 1996. We wanted to see if the internet could help us break out of the pattern where serious magazines perennially lost money.
There have been some ups and downs, to say the least. In the early days, we had the lonely thrill of being “Web pioneers.” Back then, we developed some of the key forms and hallmarks of digital media: news aggregation, blogs, slideshows, the more personal, conversational tone of Web writing and headlines. In 1998, we were the first news site to try a paywall. In 1999, we were the first to get rid of one.
A land rush doesn’t mean serious journalism has turned into a great business. But talent and money flocking to our trade is preferable to a wholesale exodus.
Back then people weren’t even pessimistic about digital-only media—they were totally dismissive. Old media patted us on the head but didn’t take us seriously. In 1999, financial markets became irrationally exuberant about the Web. Huge sums were poured into preposterous projects. Microsoft had 35 Web magazines in addition to Slate, all long gone. Slate survived the boom-bust cycle because we had Microsoft’s backing, which insulated us from the grow-until-you-explode pressure of venture capital. We also had a healthy resistance to magical thinking. When people told Michael Kinsley, Slate’s founder, that we could do an IPO at a valuation of $100 million, he didn’t take it seriously. We had taken on the much longer-term project of building a viable business.
After the tech bubble popped, people became gloomier than ever about digital content, and about the business of serious journalism in general. By 2009, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, The Guardian, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Time, Newsweek, and The New Republic all faced eroding print audiences and rapidly shrinking revenue bases. It was around that time that, after a career as a writer and editor, I found I had the greatest sense of mission about fixing the broken financial model of journalism, or at least trying to enlarge the space where great editorial content could succeed as a business.
Five years later, the picture has brightened considerably. Nearly all of those legacy publications have found models that seem to support their continued existence. The New York Times’ solution involves weak content restriction. The FT’s is strict restriction. The Guardian’s is a charitable trust. At The Washington Post and The New Republic, it’s new, wealthy owners. The Atlantic has an events business. At The New Yorker, it’s dramatically higher subscription pricing.
Lately, tech investors who used to want nothing to do with content creation have stopped regarding “editor” and “writer” as dirty words. The breakthrough was The Huffington Post’s $315 million sale to AOL in 2011. Since then, BuzzFeed, Vox, Vice, Business Insider, and Upworthy have all attracted rounds of investment. David Bradley has created The Atlantic Wire and Quartz. Instead of bailing on The Daily Beast post-Tina Brown, Barry Diller is putting more money into it, and has also invested in the Atavist, one of new several sites devoted to publishing long-form journalism. Investment has been flowing lately to digital media ventures on the mere promise of explosive growth: Medium, which is backed by two of the co-founders of Twitter, raised $25 million; ESPN is funding Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight; Vox Media has made an “eight figure” commitment to Vox, Ezra Klein’s new project.
There has been an efflorescence of not-for-profit start-ups as well, in categories of journalism that probably aren’t independently viable—state and local reporting, where the Texas Tribune has broken ground, and investigative reporting, where ProPublica and the Center for Public Integrity have created a new model. Also in the investigative category is Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay, who is putting $250 million into First Look Media, his venture starring Glenn Greenwald. This is an insane amount of money; chances of success would be 10 times greater with one-tenth the cash.