AOL hasn’t had much luck keeping its top editorial talent.
The exodus of writers from website TechCrunch earlier this year was only the latest embarrassing black eye for the struggling Internet company. Now, another former AOL editor — Joshua Topolsky, who left gadget blog Engadget in March — is about to launch a competitor, The Verge. His partner in the venture is Jim Bankoff, previously the president of AOL’s web properties and now CEO of SB Nation, a family of sports sites based in Washington, D.C.
Bankoff, Topolsky and The Verge co-founder Marty Moe — another former AOL (AOL) executive — have been talking up the new site for months. Their larger plans have been little publicized until now, however. They hope to build a fully fledged online media company, a goal that will be announced November 1 alongside The Verge’s launch. The company (Fortune was asked not to reveal its new name) will function as the parent organization to The Verge and all the SB Nation sites, as well as potential future verticals.
The irony of three former AOL staffers leaving to build a firm that sounds rather like their ex-employer is not lost on them. But they believe they can do it better than potential competitors, publishers like Gawker Media and The Huffington Post.
Bankoff insists that step one is establishing a big audience for The Verge. Despite leaving behind a widely recognized brand, Topolsky in particular is encouraged by the performance of a placeholder site, This Is My Next, on which he and others have been posting in the interim. The site has racked up a total of 10 million page views total and has 3 million unique views per month. Not a bad take after just five months and with only a handful of stories posted each day.
But will techies really flock to a blog backed by a network of sports sites? Bankoff says The Verge will not be a vertical within the SB Nation sites but, rather, a standalone site. Users that visit may not be aware of its affiliation with SB Nation at all. (The sites will share technology, so a user registered with one will also be set up for the other.) To help the site take off, the company is also banking on Topolsky’s personal brand. He is a technology columnist for The Washington Post and appears on NBC’s Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. Illustrating this, Moe puts his hand in the air and exclaims, “Pogue. Mossberg. Topolsky.”
Perhaps. But The Verge will face stiff competition in the breakneck world of gadget coverage. It will fight it out for attention with Engadget, TechCrunch, Gawker’s Gizmodo, CBS’ (CBS) CNET, Time Inc’s (TWX) Techland and The Wirecutter, a new site helmed by former Gizmodo editor Brian Lam. Topolsky will have 12 of his former Engadget colleagues working for him at launch to tackle those sites.
Still, The Verge has a lot going for it. Fortune previewed slides of the site’s design, which sports a clean layout that looks more like a magazine than a typical blog. The underlying technology platform, meanwhile, is “very flexible,” Topolsky says. It will allow writers to move content around quickly, providing tools Topolsky says weren’t available to him before. “Everything we tried to do at Engadget, we hit this brick wall,” he says. “When I met with Jim and saw what they were doing on the technology side at SB Nation, we thought, ‘Oh, this is what we want.’”
The venture has also attracted big-name advertisers, including BMW at launch, and investors like Accel, Comcast Ventures and Khosla.
To win, Topolsky will have to build an audience much like the one Engadget enjoys. That means a near-constant stream of new posts and exciting scoops — no matter the design of the site or underlying technology. Topolsky smiles, admitting, “We’ll still run a leaked Motorola (MMI) slide if we get it.”