In 1996, the Cleveland Browns packed their bags and abandoned their 50-year history to become the Baltimore Ravens. Since the move, the Ravens have played and won two Super Bowls; the newly-reformed Cleveland Browns have yet to make a single appearance. Besides changing its name, mascot, jerseys, and local identity, the team’s move changed its fortunes, too.
Now it seems that a similar move is being made by the team at AllThingsD, which is splintering from News Corp. at the end of the year. Bloomberg today reported that the team has reached a deal with NBCUniversal that will allow it to create a new website owned by an entity currently dubbed Revere Digital. (No word yet on whether or not they plan to switch cities, too.) The team will now compete directly with the Wall Street Journal’s technology section and, possibly, the AllThingsD brand it created.
Beyond that the deal, which has been rumored for months, is the latest example of a well-known journalist (or two, in this case) abandoning a legacy media company to strike out on his or her own. Nate Silver left the New York Times to begin a new venture at ESPN. Former Times columnist David Pogue jumped ship to reinvigorate Yahoo’s technology coverage shortly after. Andrew Sullivan took his long-running blog to the streets. As Jack Shafer wrote at Reuters in August:
The [marquee] brotherhood is thriving because the most enthusiastic consumers of news and analysis can’t be satisfied with a generic product. They want the signature notes that journalists like Silver or Klein — and the journalists they hire — provide. They want gourmet meals from the master chef and his staff, not fast food from a fry cook.
The AllThingsD team might be joining this new venture, but make no mistake: this is about Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg, and the new publication will likely be regarded as a barometer for the cult of personality’s ability to create self-sustaining media companies. The Browns are about to become the Ravens all over again, and everyone’s going to be watching to see if they make it to the Super Bowl or toil away in obscurity.
Others have yet to prove the soundness of this new model. Silver’s work at ESPN has yet to begin in earnest. Pogue is joining a company famous for throwing money away, no matter the consequence. Sullivan’s subscribers haven’t grown as quickly as some expected. The cult of personality has so far shown great promise — at least in media pundits’ eyes — but its performance can’t even be measured yet.
Fortunately for the new publication, Swisher and Mossberg have a history of carving a niche in otherwise large media companies. Mossberg effectively created the personal technology category when he began his column at the Wall Street Journal. AllThingsD started as a small conference and has since become a well-respected news site and a series of events that regularly sell out. It’s unlikely the two will find themselves unable to make this new publication work.
That isn’t to say there won’t be challenges. Despite the current fixation with writers capable of generating millions of page views on their lonesome, it’s hard to imagine an entire site built atop a lone blogger’s shoulders. That’s like training a quarterback and allowing the rest of the team to lounge around without doing anything.
There is also a shift in the ways media companies are covering technology. Tech has become an increasingly important aspect of our daily lives, and writing about the subject for a digitally native audience is different from writing for people who still say “the Facebook.” As the New Yorker’s Matt Buchanan summarized in October:
The questions that consumers face, in other words, are less about what to buy than about how to live. It’s not a matter of which social network or search engine or photo-sharing service to use; it’s who you should friend on Facebook, the best way to Google, and whether or not you should use filters on your Instagram photos.
The new site will have to adapt to this changing cultural perception. In fact, we all do.