Pando

No really, THIS is what will save journalism

By Sarah Lacy , written on April 26, 2016

From The From the Trenches Desk

There’s been more than the usual handwringing about what will or will not save journalism this week.

Debate about whether or not Buzzfeed is growing and/or hitting its numbers is part of it. Concern that increasingly the largest media properties are simply bypassing their own sites and placing their futures in the hands of other properties with their own interests is another one. Specifically, Vox has launched a new gadget blog just on Facebook, because apparently the Verge has wound up being something well beyond that. That makes four tech properties under the media conglomerate’s roof by my count. But at the rate they are launching and acquiring, I could have easily missed one or twelve. And amid it all Josh Topolsky wrote a Medium post about why video, bots, “lean back experience” or any other trends aren’t the salvation either.

You could easily lump all of these together-- along with previous posts about how venture capital isn’t the answer, events aren’t the answer, paywalls aren’t the answer, explainers aren’t the answer, and any other recent hoped for “hack”-- into the bucket labeled: There is no one magical business model we haven’t yet thought of that will “Save journalism.”

One thing will and one thing is consistently behind the sites that stay in business and keep producing good work: Giving a shit and finding a way.

Is that the same for pretty much every startup? On one level, yes. But there are two different types of entrepreneurs who start journalism companies. Those looking to build a business and those who want to spend their lives doing great work.

There are a few folks in the former category who have done well or seem to be doing well: Bryan Goldberg is one. He didn’t necessarily have a huge passion around sports and had even less of one around issues important to young women. And yet he helped build Bleacher Report into one of the largest content exits in the history of digital media, and appears to be on the same pace with Bustle. Similarly, Jim Bankoff loves to describe Vox as more of a tech company than a content company. I’d presume Henry Blodget, too, wanted to build a company more than he wanted to write everyday and break news.

Likely, the entrepreneurs in this first category will have the largest exits. Because they will take the biggest risks, push the boundaries of monetization and growth the most, and probably they are better a building companies than the rest of us. They will abandon or sell sites that don’t seem to be scaling.

But they won’t “save journalism.” What will save/is saving/has already saved journalism, simply put, are the journalists. They are still there. Still doing great work. Many at traditional publications despite the uncertainty. Many started their own. And largely when they’ve started their own, the goal was less to build a business and more to have a place where they could do their best work. Growth and a big exit aren’t the top priorities. If they were sites like these-- and ours -- would have gone under or turned into platforms a long time ago. The work is what matters. Survival is what matters. Over the history of digital media there are now dozens-- maybe hundreds? thousands?-- of us all covering different parts of different industries, producing great work, serving thousands to millions of readers each (btw the audience of most now dislodged weeklies, trade pubs and dailies) and all paying our own bills without venture capital-- with revenues. Some are astoundingly profitable.

Recently, I met up with Lockhart Steele, former Pando board member who sold his own mini-media empire to Vox a few years ago and now runs a huge chunk of their editorial. Before that he was at Gawker. We were talking about his experiences-- at Gawker, at Curbed, at Vox, and on our board, and seeing other media properties of his friends. He said something poignant: Most content moguls wind up building the media company they originally set out to build.

For Steele, that was something sustainable in the $30 million or so range. And that’s what he did. In the early days of TechCrunch, no one thought the blog would be much more than a lifestyle business that could reach about the same range. It did. The early goals for Gawker were in the $100 million range. Guess what? That’s about what the company was valued at. Vox was built from the ground up to become a $1 billion company. It may fail on the way there, but it’s well beyond the sub-$100 million threshold where most of the industry lives.

For us, two things have always been important: Survival and telling the stories no one else was telling. The piece of TechCrunch that died with the AOL acquisition and the ouster of Michael Arrington was what we wanted to continue: The fights. Telling stories that would make us unpopular that people needed to know. I said early on I didn’t want to sell. I said early on I never cared if I sold a share of stock.

Guess what? Here we are four years later. We haven’t raised venture capital in years. We have found a way to stay in business -- even if just barely at times. We are still writing aggressively uncomfortable stories about the most powerful people that make people spend $10 a month to read our site, and keep us off the guest list of most Valley parties. I have cut my salary to make it. I haven’t sold a share of stock and I don’t know that I ever will. I always said I wanted to run this company for the rest of my career. That still seems the plan.

I’m not saving journalism, nor is Pando. But collectively thousands of us are. That’s the real revolution that happened with digital media. That people who do work that doesn’t fit into the current mass media mould, can create their own spaces to work, get paid, and reach millions of readers.

Let’s not lose sight of how transformative that is. That is better for journalism than anything that came before. It’s just not something that’s great for VCs. And that’s why most VCs don’t fund us. Which should be fine.

Yesterday I got two emails in rapid succession. The first was from someone interested in investing in Pando. The second was a note from our financial folks confirming that, once again,  payroll had been processed for the end of the month. The latter was the one that made my heart do a tiny flip. That’s what this is all about. Writing stories no one will write and getting paid to do it.

Sure, we have some minority investors. I’m sure many of them would like a return one day. But for now the single best thing I can do for shareholder value is stay in business. Keep doing the work we want to do. Survive.

I’m not sure Steele is totally right. I think a lot of these bootstrapped players putting content first may still become the giants of the next century, the same way small family owned daily papers grew into large properties over a century. Because while the business builders have ambition and more capital, the rest of us have time.