There is a new vision of journalism – call it the auteur school – in which the business shifts from being organized by institutions to being organized around individual journalists with discrete followings.
The latest development is the announcement by Ezra Klein that he will leave the Washington Post and is looking for investors to back him – with a reported eight figure investment (ie more than $10m!) – in an independent enterprise. Last week Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg, who ran the Wall Street Journal tech conference AllThingsD, announced that, following the WSJ ending its relationship with them, they were setting up in business backed by NBC and other investors.
The former New York Times data wiz-kid, Nate Silver, has left the Times to set up a new site and vertical business under the auspice of ABC and its subsidiary ESPN. Andrew Sullivan, a blogger first at the Atlantic and then at the Daily Beast, may be the grandfather of the auteur school, leaving the Daily Beast a year ago to set up his own subscription site.
In fact, one might as well include here Tina Brown, who used the seemingly attractive economics of the web, along with her personal brand and the backing of Barry Diller, to claim journalistic independence with the Daily Beast – and in the process lost, I am reliably told, an astounding $100m.
And that leads to my cautionary question: is this all journalistic vanity and hubris, ending in certain tears, or is there plausible economic logic to individual journalistic fiefdoms?
Let me make a basic distinction. There are a set of personal brand journalism businesses that are now working at a self-sustaining level. Arianna Huffington’s The Huffington Post, is the most successful of them. There is also Henry Blodget’s Business Insider. And there is Buzzfeed which is fronted by the blogger Ben Smith, among a few others. In a sense, these all provide a model or inspiration for personal brand journalism. Except, that their accomplishment is less a personal journalism vision than it is the more specialized skill of traffic aggregation. That’s the key attribute and asset of each of these sites, not the uniqueness of the journalism, but the back end deals, algorithms, and canny, proprietary, practices of drawing large amounts of traffic.
Klein, for his part, is a 29-year-old liberal blogger with a specialty in Washington policy issues, who has become well-known in liberal circles because of frequent appearances on MSNBC. And while it is possible that he could have a facility for the arcane arts of digital traffic pumping, that’s not evident in his resume, nor, to say the least, a natural fit with the Washington policy beat. Klein, like all the new hopeful personal brands, seems less interested in the publishing business per se then in a kind of channel purity and deepness – and aggrandizement.
That’s a new notion, this solipsistic brandedness. The old organizational notion in journalism was exactly the opposite. There were never enough readers interested in one subject or one writer so you created a package of many subjects and writers, sharing the attention and the rewards. This was an older method of traffic aggregation. Everybody benefited from the combined heft and influence.
Mossberg and Swisher’s AllThingsD clearly benefited from, if not depended on, the influence of Mossberg’s tech product review column in the Wall Street Journal. You paid $5,500 to go to the Mossberg and Swisher conference, or agreed to speak at it, in part to curry favor with Mossberg. Now, without that power, Mossberg, as an independent tech impresario, may well be much less of a draw. Conferences are a tough business, and it is hard to think of one that has succeeded merely because its moderators, lacking powerful leverage, are well informed.
On the other hand, Nate Silver, the New York Times election data blogger, could demonstrably show that a disproportionate amount of Times traffic came to him personally. The Times is famous for telling its staffers that they are nothing without the Times, and, after a while, that probably rankled Silver. Like a television star, he put himself out to bid. And, in fact, was bought by ABC, where he now, riskily, ties his future to his own profitability. In television, journalistic measures of prestige and influence and of the value of being right where others are wrong, are not worth that much. In television terms (whether digitally or on the screen), you have to expressly make more than they pay you – and it’s a pretty precise calculation – or they quickly lose interest in you.
The flight from journalist institutions has much to do, obviously, with what everyone assumes to be bleak futures within them. But, curiously, the escape is to an even more difficult economic landscape. At a cost per thousand advertising rate on the web or in mobile of $1 or $2 – pretty standard – Ezra Klein will make, optimistically, $8,000 a month, before expenses, if he has a million readers (assuming four page view per unique visitor). Klein apparently has the idea to build out his brand to encompass much more policy coverage, perhaps attracting more visitors and offering more pages to view. Still, it’s hard to think how the 8-figure investment he is reportedly seeking, could ever, in a million years, pay off.
Another model is the Greenwald one of partnering with a rich backer who believes in your journalistic mission as much as you do. The problem here is that no one believes as much in you as you. And, given the Tina Brown example, you can lose amounts of money in digital journalism that might make even the most devoted backer choke – and close you.
To date, Andrew Sullivan is the only branded journalist who has set up his own personal pay wall, deciding that selling ads is not just a distracting endeavor, but often a miserable one. His results are encouraging, but have not inspired anyone to follow him. He recently reported $800,000 in income for 2013. The site lists seven staffers, in addition to Sullivan himself, without mentioning tech or subscription, accounting, and administrative support, so probably half to two-thirds of what the site makes (and that assumes people are working from their homes) goes in overhead costs before Sullivan is paid. Of course, this is a living.
But probably not the future.