One way to look at AllThingsD and Dow Jones parting ways is that Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher are granted the divorce they so desperately wanted and gain custody of the kids (i.e. the AllThingsD staff) while News Corp. keeps the house.
It’s hard to say which side will be better off. Walt Mossberg became one of the first post-tech brand name journalists who became, in some ways, as important as the newspaper he wrote for. The well-connected Kara Swisher has developed a reputation as one of the best news breakers in tech media. By going out on their own, they follow Nate Silver, the statistics-obsessed founder of FiveThirtyEight with the eerily accurate election forecasts, who became a huge draw on The New York Times website only to jump to ESPN. This may be the start of a diaspora brought about by the emergence of digital publishing.
News Corp, the parent to Dow Jones, which struck the original deal with AllThingsD, holds on to the AllThingsD name, website and conference business. A hard-spun press release from Dow Jones tries to make it sound like the split was joyously mutual. “For years, Dow Jones/The Wall Street Journal has enjoyed working with Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher to bring the best of tech coverage to readers around the world under the All Things Digital brand, however, after discussions, both parties have decided not to renew the agreement when the contract expires at the end of this year.”
This warm send off, which contradicts the reportedly “frosty” negotiations, sounds as believable as a celebrity marriage that, according to publicists, ends in “an amicable split.” Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes once claimed they “amicably settled” their divorce. So did Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore. Naturally, it’s all public posturing.
As with most deals that fall apart, it comes down to money. Kevin Delaney, a former managing editor of WSJ.com, reported in Quartz that Mossberg and Swisher have been seeking investments in a renamed boutique tech-news site with associated conference business that would value the entity between $30 and $40 million. This is far less than the dynamic duo originally sought.
The AllThingsD website pulls in, by one estimate, $1 million annually in advertising and according to the audience profile the Wall Street Journal created for it last year, draws 1.3 million unique visitors a month. The conference business does $12 million a year in revenue. It’s hard to say how valuable it would be without its two stars and a new cast of writers and editors or how it will do in the long run. The Cleveland Browns moved from Cleveland to Baltimore, changed the name to the Ravens, and won a championship (actually two, now). An entirely new team became the Cleveland Browns wearing the same uniforms and playing in the same city — and fans willingly accepted this bait-‘n-switch. More recently, Jeff Bezos plunked down $250 million for the Washington Post, and that quarter of a billion dollars bought him a venerable brand, although not exactly a thriving business.
I suspect News Corp might tender offers to AllThingsD staff that the home office identifies as worth keeping. At any rate it will not the same business without Mossberg, Swisher, and their team, although News Corp. announced that it will push out a “major global expansion” by bringing onboard “20 reviewers, bloggers, visual journalists, editors, and reporters covering digital.”
Fine, News Corp. seems to be saying to Mossberg and Swisher. “You can have your divorce. Now meet my new spouse who is younger and hotter than you.”
Name recognition goes a long way in this business, as long as it is associated with a big media brand. Over the years some well-known journalists have left big time publications only to find that their associations with the brand were more valuable than their own. For example, Howard Kurtz jumped from the Washington Post, where he was viewed as a top media writer, for The Daily Beast. It did not end well. People read Kurtz when he was associated with the Washington Post. Large numbers did not follow him when he left.
Also true is that big media brands have the advantage of audience inertia. After Michael Arrington sold TechCrunch to AOL, and many of its high profile writers left (including Arrington), the site continued (and continues) to draw a large readership. While Techcrunch boasted a founder strongly connected to its brand, the brand persisted long after he stopped writing regularly. An AllThingsD under new leadership could find itself in a similar enviable position.
If reports are accurate, Mossberg and Swisher are seeking a deep-pocketed media company with which to forge a partnership. Rumors are they include NBCUniversal, a unit of Comcast, with other possibilities being Bloomberg, Conde Nast, and the Washington Post. Doubtless, whichever media company plows resources into Mossberg and Swisher’s new company, they will have to coax traffic to a new media brand where there are already so many others, and build from the ground up an entirely new conference business, where there are also so many others.
It’s a daunting task. Not impossible, though. And for Mossberg and Swisher living well would be the greatest revenge.
Image via AllThingsD.