Marc Andreessen, Silicon Valley’s most influential venture capitalist, now thinks the news business has the potential to grow “10x-100x” over the next 20 years. Journalism school was an expensive ticket into a dead-end profession five years ago. J-schools weren’t graduating people with strong digital skills. Now they are, and getting professional journalism training is probably more valuable now than at any point in the past.
There are still two distinct views of what’s going on here. Felix Salmon recently made the optimistic case in Politico Magazine (another excellent launch). Salmon argues that the boom in data-based journalism exemplified by Ezra Klein, Nate Silver, and David Leonhardt’s Upshot Project at The New York Times holds real promise. He points out that this kind of substantive, non-ideological “wonk” journalism creates an appealing environment for corporate advertisers. Rather than too much competition in too small a niche, Salmon sees the supply of high-quality journalism creating its own demand.
The pessimistic view comes from USA Today columnist and curmudgeon Michael Wolff, who sees a chronic oversupply of digital content. Falling CPMS, he argues, won’t pay the costs of real journalism. Wolff thinks we’re in a kind of race to the bottom, in which more and more traffic becomes less and less valuable. Take The Huffington Post. It’s the biggest news site in the US, it doesn’t pay most of its contributors, and it continues to lose money for AOL.
I’m somewhere in between these views, but closer to Salmon’s. A land rush doesn’t mean that serious journalism has suddenly turned into a great business. But talent and money flocking to our trade is surely preferable to a wholesale exodus. On balance, I think that the better of the new sites will find niches that are habitable over a longer term, just as many of the legacy businesses now have.
Slate is a funny in-between place—like legacy media in some ways, like a start-up in others. The past several years have seen steady expansion in the size of our audience, our editorial ambitions, and our revenues. Today, Slate supports a staff of nearly 100 people. I think we’ve shown what the newer, buzzier sites have yet to do: that high-quality content can work as a business.
But how can a mature site like ours compete against start-ups that are more technology-centric than we are, flush with cash, and that don’t need to turn a near-term profit? It sometimes seems unfair to me that we need to actually make money while all our competitors need to do is get bigger. But profitability has imposed valuable discipline on us and keeps us focused on the larger societal problem of paying for high-quality journalism.
Slate also has some distinct advantages I wouldn’t trade for those of a startup: We have a stronger voice, a culture that lets individual contributors shine, and ownership that supports our journalistic values. Our head of technology has a nice way of putting it. He says that we have an editorial culture that’s adapted to the needs of the business without being subsumed by it.
HuffPo, BuzzFeed, Vice, and others are investing in news coverage. The problem is that journalism isn’t the ultimate value and purpose of what they do, the way it for us. The owners of those businesses haven’t shown that they value independent journalism the way the Graham family, which owned The Washington Post until it sold to Jeff Bezos last year, always has (The Graham Holdings Company still owns Slate). They’re also too founder dependent. There’s no HuffPo without Arianna, no BuzzFeed without Jonah Peretti, no Gawker without Nick Denton, no Business Insider without Henry Blodget.
In almost every area I can think of, competition from digital newcomers has been good for Slate. In broad terms, they’ve prompted us to develop a culture around data, analytics, and testing. You can see this reflected in Slate’s traffic growth, which is the fastest we’ve had since our earliest days. We had 31.6 million unique users in March, up from half that in September 2013. To benefit from generational and behavioral changes, we’ve had to think like a tech company, with a redesign geared to mobile reading and sharing. Unlike at most legacy media companies, Slate’s journalists are engaged in the project of building a sustainable business.
Our business model, like those of our competitors, continues to evolve. Historically, the most durable publications have had multiple revenue streams—advertisers and readers. Slate is too dependent on advertising. So we’re trying to figure out how to get money from our readers, but without a paywall, because we like having a massive audience and fully participating in the digital conversation.