Interesting Times: The future of Pando
Since Pando acquired NSFWCORP, I've kept relatively quiet about the deal, and its aftermath. The reasons were various. For one thing, I needed a break from talking. Having spent two years relentlessly hyping and selling NSFWCORP -- to subscribers, to journalists, to potential hires, to investors (and then finally to Pando) -- my PT Barnum side has enjoyed the luxury of being the hell quiet for two months.
The shhhh time was important for another reason: it allowed me to get a better understanding of how Pando works and how I can be most useful here before either Sarah or I made any bold statements about my long-term role. As the old phrase goes, better to stay quiet and appear a fool than to open one's mouth and remove all doubt. My starting title was "investigations editor" but that was only ever going to be a placeholder -- something that made sense while I was in charge of helping former NSFWCORP writers assimilate into Pando.
Now that learning process is over and I'm excited to be able to share the plan that Sarah and I have come up with for the future of Pando, and my role here.
Over the past two years, Pando has grown from a simple (but well funded) Wordpress blog, into a daily must-read for anyone who cares about the technology industry's takeover of the economy, politics, media and just about every other power center. We've exposed corporate surveillance of ordinary people that makes the NSA's efforts look like amateur hour, we've revealed wage-fixing and pension theft, and we've called out corruption, fraud and mismanagement at the highest levels of our industry. Just last week our report on how Uber lied to riders about its drivers' background checks prompted founder Travis Kalanick to storm out of an interview with the New York Times. And then this morning David Sirota exposed shocking corruption at PBS's news division, a story which is currently the top item on the Huffington Post, linking directly to Pando. Not only are those stories setting the new agenda but they're also attracting millions of new readers. Our average daily traffic is at the highest its ever been, and continues to grow at a frankly horrifying rate.
Business-wise, things couldn't be better either. Last month alone we closed nearly the same amount of sponsorship and ad sales as in the whole of the previous year. We also announced our first conference -- Southland -- with keynote speaker Al Gore.
In the next twelve months, if we do our job right -- and it is our job, because all of what follows is the result of hundreds of hours of plotting and planning between me, Sarah, Adam Penenberg and the rest of the Pando team -- all of Pando's previous growth will seem like chickenfeed.
(Sarah is in the middle of writing a post about where Pando -- the business -- is heading, so I'll try not to preempt any of that here. Instead I'll just focus on the stuff I'm directly responsible for.)
In the next twelve months, we're going to rebuild Pando.com from the ground up. What today still looks a lot like a blog (and not always a very pretty one) will expand into a fully-featured news site, with much more of the journalism you already expect from us, plus enhanced video coverage, exclusive audio content (and, yes, NSFWLIVE fans, that probably includes a live radio show) and a raft of very interesting new features that I'm not ready to talk about quite yet. All I can say for now is that, if you thought NSFWCORP's unlock functionality or Conflict Tower were cool and innovative, the new Pando is going to make your brain melt. (On that note: I'm really pleased to welcome back former NSFWCORP CTO James Aylett who will be coordinating the site rebuild, along with designer Marcus Edvalson whose previous credits include the LA Times, USA Today and Red Bull.)
The relaunch won't just involve the look and feel of the site -- it will also see us hiring more journalists and editors, plus all of the other staff they need to support their efforts -- copy editors, researchers, fact checkers, designers and the like. Sarah's announcement will include more on that stuff so no more spoilers from me, except to say -- yes -- we're hiring and you should email email@example.com if you want to learn more.
Another big development is the launch of our new membership program. Modeled loosely on the NSFWCORP subscription system, Pando members will receive a copy of our new print magazine, Pando Quarterly (issue one coming to existing subscribers later this week), access to all Pando Monthly events (both in person and via a members-only livestream) and a bucketload of other member-only community features. The monthly cost will be slightly more than the old NSFWCORP price, but existing subscribers will be grandfathered in at the old rate for the first year. The membership program is where I'll be focusing a lot of my efforts -- I've long argued that the best way to keep journalism truly independent is to find ways for a publication's biggest fans to support it directly. Pando memberships are part of that effort, so expect relentless lobbying on my part encouraging you to sign up once we launch.
Which brings me to my long-term role here. My official title is SVP of product, which is as meaningless as it is corporate-sounding. In reality, it'll be my job to make you love Pando as much as I do. Mainly that will be on the "product" side, but it'll also involve working with Sarah and Adam on recruiting new talent, continuing to act as editor on some of the more controversial stories we publish (I've got pretty good at defending writers and deflecting shit-storms), showing up at PandoMonthly-s and sharing some hosting duties at Southlands -- and, if I can find a few minutes between 2-3am, will continue to write the occasional piece for the site.
A large part of my role, though, will involve coordination -- between the editorial and product team to make sure everyone is pushing in the same direction, but also between Pando staff and Pando readers.
Anyone who knows Sarah and me will know we agree on almost everything, but when we disagree, we tend to do so completely and utterly. (Disclosure: she's usually right, which is why Pando bought NSFWCORP and not the other way around.) The result of one such disagreement is the new side-blog we're launching today at futureofpando.com. For much of the life of Pando, Sarah has taken the approach that transparency and doing great work are their own reward. Smart readers will discover Pando's great reporting for themselves, while critics will take the time to consider the facts before criticizing us.
I have a slightly different view, born of my experiences at NSFWCORP. In my experience, the best way to ensure that readers discover great journalism is to shout about it. On Twitter, in print, on radio, in rival publications, on the side of buses... whatever works. Likewise, simply being transparent isn't enough: you have to actively combat misinformation, and respond to intelligent critics (note: critics, not trolls -- the two are very different).
A quick example: one of my long-standing frustrations, from long before I joined Pando, was the weird perception -- largely put about, it has to be said, by fucking idiots -- that Pando is "owned" by silicon valley billionaires. Now, it's certainly true that our investors include some of the biggest names in the tech industry, including "evil libertarian" Peter Thiel. And yet. Thiel's total investment (made through his Founders Fund investment firm) is $300k, less than half of what Zappos CEO Tony Hseih invested in NSFWCORP. Founders Fund is nowhere near Pando's biggest investor. In fact, none of Pando's venture capitalist investors owns more than 10% of the company, none has a board seat, none has any editorial advisory role or ability whatsoever to interfere with what we write.
Truth is, most tech sites, for good or ill, are conflicted to the moon and back. Business Insider has raised a staggering $28.6M in venture funding -- about 10 times as much as the total raised by Pando -- almost entirely from companies it covers. That pales in comparison, though, to the total amount raised by Vox Media, owner of gadget site the Verge, which raised a frankly insane $61.1m from backers including Comcast and venture firms Khosla and Accel, although that's just a hair over the equally nuts $60.9M of Silicon Valley money received by Say Media, owners of ReadWrite. Om Malik, founder of GigaOm, is a partner in a venture fund, as of course is Mike Arrington, who still co-hosts and judges TechCrunch Disrupt.
The whole tech/business media industry is a sorry mess of conflicts, and we need to be brutally honest about our part of that. But the idea that Pando is uniquely compromised by having received single digit millions of Silicon Valley investment, despite the fact that we constantly rip apart companies (Facebook, eBay, Palantir, Uber, Beachmint...) with whom we have shared backers, is just maddening.
A big part of the problem, I think, is that we went out of our way, on day one of Pando, to loudly and publicly disclose our backers but since then have steadfastly refused to offer additional context or explanation when trolls have misrepresented that investment or how it compares to other media companies. Without that context, Pando's "billionaire backers" meme has continued to grow to the point where, for many people who have never read Pando, it's the only fact they know about us. Not only is that bizarre, but it's ridiculously unfair to the unimpeachably uncorruptable journalists who work here: journalists like Adam Penenberg, Mark Ames, Yasha Levine, David Sirota who are famed for their willingness to -- as Mark puts it -- fuck with power, but also the younger writers who are learning their trade from those older hands.
This resistance to engage in boasting about Pando's successes, explaining our failures and correcting misconceptions, was the biggest thing that Sarah and I disagreed over when I joined the company. One of the reasons NSFWCORP attracted -- and retained -- thousands of paying subscribers was our willingness to engage with fans and critics alike. I crowed constantly about our scoops and I would debate for hours with readers -- particularly potential readers -- who had doubts about our reporting. My response to Frank Bruni when he attacked Olivia Nuzzi provides a pretty good illustration of my approach. (Somewhat ironically, Sarah also wrote a brilliant piece here on Pando in support of Nuzzi.)
When we agreed that I would take charge of rebuilding Pando's product, I had one condition (apart from a grotesquely high salary, a vat of Diet Coke and Taylor Swift on repeat): Pando had to start doing a much better job at explaining ourselves to potential readers (and subscribers). We had to start engaging with intelligent critics. We had to start singing our own praises and, just as importantly, publicly examining our weaknesses. These are all things that Sarah had done through her personal Twitter account and when speaking with readers one-on-one, but the new Pando had to engage with the whole world. Honestly, I was expecting a much bigger fight about it, but Sarah quickly agreed. After all, we have nothing to hide, and a huge amount of exciting stuff to share in the coming months.
The Future of Pando blog is the first step in that direction. It's a place where Sarah, Adam and I -- and occasionally other members of Team Pando -- can write about the trials and triumphs of building the next phase of Pando. Where we can show off the great work being done by the team, preview upcoming products and events and -- yes -- from time to time engage with intelligent critics (and the occasional fucking idiot). It'll be incredible navel-gazy and probably only of interest to people who care about the inner workings of media start-ups, but that's the point. It'll also likely provide ammunition for those determine to take swipes at Pando -- and that's ok too, at least they'll be doing so based on fresh facts, rather than having to rehash old memes.
You'll find the side-blog here. I hope you'll drop in from time to time to follow what should, at worst, be a pretty interesting adventure.
[Image credits: Geoffrey Ellis (top) and Brad Jonas (from a photo by Paula Borowska) for Pando]