Business of News

404 Media and the hopes of worker-owned journalism

April 18, 2024
The founders of 404 Media (from left): Samantha Cole, Emanuel Maiberg, Jason Koebler and Joseph Cox. (Credit: Sharon Attia)

What is it like to place a bet in a Las Vegas casino that’s been hacked and is refusing to pay the ransom? Last September, technology journalist Jason Koebler answered that question in the style of Hunter S. Thompson: he went to Vegas and started gambling. 

Koebler wrote about the bizarre conditions at the Aria, the Bellagio, and other MGM-owned casinos, which had been the victim of a ransomware attack a week earlier—with employees paying out slot machines by hand and eight restaurants forced to share a single credit card processing machine. His story was picked up by national news outlets. 

It wasn’t so different from the kind of reporting Koebler had done for years at his previous employer, Vice’s Motherboard. But this time, he was doing it for 404 Media, a new publication that he, along with his three coeditors, don’t just work for, they own. 

“I didn’t realize how important it would feel that the articles I do belong to me,” Koebler told CJR. “It gives me a sense of agency that I don’t think I ever had.”

Koebler quit his job as editor in chief at Motherboard last summer, a few months after Vice declared bankruptcy. (I worked at Vice from 2020 to 2023, and sometimes produced videos for Motherboard.) He and three other Motherboard writers and editors, Samantha Cole, Joseph Cox, and Emanuel Maiberg, launched 404 Media in August. They named it after the error code generated when an internet browser can’t find a webpage.

Part of their inspiration, Cole said, was the bankruptcy filings that revealed that several executives were collecting large bonuses while the company faltered. “While we were scraping by to get budgets for freelancers and basic services to do journalism, executives were laying people off and getting paid six figures to do it,” Cole said. “We were like, ‘Screw this.’”

The worker-owned model is having a moment in journalism—in sharp contrast to the profit-first agenda of many news outlets’ private-equity owners. Over the past few years, publications like Hell Gate, Racket, and Defector—all owned by the journalists who write for them—have sprouted up, promising a new way out of journalism’s financial crisis. 

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The model seems to be holding for now—although long-term sustainability remains unclear. According to financial reports they post online, Defector, Racket, and Hell Gate take in subscription and ad revenue that is close to their operating expenses. 

At 404, which is barely eight months old, subscriptions and advertising have allowed the cofounders to recoup their initial investments (one thousand dollars each) and support the basic needs of running the site. (The founders declined to share raw subscriber data.) They’ve also required all readers to register with an email address—something that both protects the site from AI bots that poach original content and helps build a stronger base of potential subscribers.

“As more people sign up for email, some convert to be paid subscribers over time as they see more of our journalism in their inbox,” Koebler says. “We went from thinking, We feel this publication is very good and it’s going in the right direction to a spot where it’s like, Okay, this is definitely a real business and we can definitely keep doing this. I stopped crushing my savings every month and [am] getting to a point where I can pay my rent with what we are bringing in.”

Still, the cofounders have to meet each month to review how much the company earned and to decide how much they can afford to spend—including on their own salaries.

Margot Susca, a journalism professor at American University, has studied the economics of news, and recently published a book, Hedged, on the role of private equity in decimating newsrooms. 

She says that while worker-owned models sound nice, there’s a reason why the business side has traditionally fallen to people different from those responsible for reporting.

“The best journalists in the world may not know anything about running a company,” Susca said. “It’s a much different ballgame when you are talking about keeping on the lights, as opposed to making sure your FOIA doesn’t go years and years without an answer.”

Still, over the course of writing her book, Susca found that with the decline of so many established brands, many Americans are willing to pay for the kind of quality journalism that the worker-owned model can provide.

“I want to be cautiously optimistic,” Susca added. “If I was a betting person I would put my money on the long-term sustainability of one of these worker-owned news sites over one of these private-equity-owned sites.”

It’s still too early to know if 404 will work. But the publication continues to grow, and recently brought in its first new writer, fellow Motherboard alum Jules Roscoe, on a paid fellowship. Koebler says for now, the focus remains on publishing quality journalism—and hoping that enough readers will be willing to pay for it. 

“People got so used to not paying for news on the internet, but I think that attitude is starting to change,” he said.

Justin R. Silverman is a journalist and documentary producer. His work has appeared on the National Geographic and History channels, as well as the Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, and Vice News.