Was the power shift to individual media brands just a mirage?

May 29, 2015, 5:12 PM UTC

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It may have been a relatively small deal in monetary terms, but the ripples from Re/code’s acquisition by Vox Media earlier this week continue to spread through the media-sphere. One recurring theme is shock and/or bemusement that Re/code couldn’t survive on its own: After all, when it comes to individual media brands, Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg are close to the top of the heap. If they couldn’t make it on their own, what hope is there for others to do so?

Sources close to the Re/code deal said the site still had plenty of cash left from the financing round it did with Comcast Ventures and others in January of last year. So why not continue to run the site as a standalone entity? Because the writing was clearly on the wall: Re/code was likely never going to get to a size where its business model would make sense, or at least not without more money. And Vox was a lot closer to that goal.

One takeaway, as I tried to point out, is that there’s a “barbell effect” taking place in the media business, where you either have to be tiny and focused on a topic or audience niche—the way sites like The Information and Search Engine Land and Techdirt are—or you have to be giant and have huge reach. Tech analyst Ben Thompson (who is himself a good example of a profitable niche media business) has written about a similar concept known as the “smiling curve”:

“All of this is because of the Internet: by removing friction it removes the need for folks in the middle, and the result is that value will flow to the edges. In the case of publishing that is aggregators on one side, and focused, responsive, and differentiated writers and publications on the other.”

But there’s another aspect of the Re/code deal that many seem to be wrestling with, and that’s the shifting balance of power between individual brands and large media outlets. For a time, it seemed as though the Internet was going to make it easy for individuals to cut themselves loose from big media entities like the New York Times and strike out on their own. In a sense, Mossberg and Swisher were among the first to try to do this (as was my former boss Om Malik, who left Business 2.0 to start Gigaom) with All Things Digital and then Re/code.

Others also took advantage of this new-found ability to go direct to their readers, including Andrew Sullivan, who left Newsweek/The Daily Beast to start his own site The Daily Dish. Ezra Klein left the Washington Post and started what became Vox, and Nate Silver took his Five Thirty Eight blog from the New York Times and turned it into a standalone property (owned by ESPN). Others used their star power as leverage to carve out new types of jobs, as David Pogue did when he left the NYT to join Yahoo.

And how have all these moves worked out? Vox is part of Vox Media, and so is Re/code now, both of which could ultimately become part of Comcast. Andrew Sullivan shut down The Daily Dish because he was burned out. Gigaom shut down after it ran out of money, but could be reborn as a content farm. Nate Silver’s 538 exists, but it’s unclear how well it is doing, and the same goes for David Pogue and former broadcast TV star Katie Couric at Yahoo.

Music writer and noted curmudgeon Bob Lefsetz put some of this into words in a recent post, saying Mossberg “shot himself in the foot” when he quit the Wall Street Journal, Nate Silver “left the New York Times for obscurity” and Pogue went from being one of two top tech experts to “being a nobody.” Of Vox and Re/code, he says: “They’re finding out in news what we already know in music, you can go it alone, the internet allows you to do this, but in a chaotic world the established presence wins.”

“Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher built a team of experts. But nobody cared, nobody went to the site, they thought their minions would follow them but it turned out they were aligned more with the Wall Street Journal, their former home, than the writers themselves. It’s kind of like when the lead singer leaves the band… good luck!”

Dan Lyons, a veteran writer and editor who used to write and tweet under the pseudonym Fake Steve Jobs, wrote something very similar on his Facebook page. Was the idea that star writers could somehow shake off the shackles of their big traditional-media jobs and go it alone just a mirage? Lyons suggests that it was:

“All of that nonsense about journalists with big personal brands was just that—nonsense. Walt Mossberg’s power came from his association with the Journal. Pogue was better off at the Times, Levy was better off at Wired, Nate Silver was better off at the Times, and so on. The late David Carr knew this, and I suspect Nick Bilton does too.”

So is it harder than ever now for individual journalists to succeed on their own? Is that the lesson we can take away from Re/code and The Daily Dish and 538? And if so, then what does that mean for others who might be considering a standalone media business—like Bill Simmons, the sportswriter who started Grantland and has since severed his ties to ESPN? As News Corp. executive Raju Narisetti put it on Twitter, it’s not clear that individual media brands can be as dominant on their own as originally thought:

In the end, whether individuals can succeed probably depends a lot on how you define the word “success.” Sites like Gigaom and Re/code raised money based on a vision of growing to a significant size, both traffic and revenue-wise, and so have Vox and others. At the other end of the spectrum are places like The Information or Ben Thompson’s Stratechery: Thompson runs the blog and newsletter single-handedly from his home in Taiwan, and currently has about 3,000 subscribers paying $100 a year for his insights into technology markets.

That’s not a bad business. It’s not a mass-market, huge, household-name style of business, but it’s still pretty good. And as Thompson has pointed out, it’s easier to start such a venture than it has probably ever been, thanks to the Internet and the social web—but in the end, you still have to have something compelling and different to offer. The fact that you used to be a big deal at some existing media entity isn’t going to be enough.

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