The parade of departures of high-profile journalism talent from big newspapers, of which Ezra Klein’s is the most recent, can basically be divided into two categories.
One group — Nate Silver from the Times to ESPN; David Pogue from the Times to Yahoo; Peter King, from Sports Illustrated to an SI offshoot — moved from one big news organization to another, and, as I wrote, isn’t so different from past journalism big feet changing jobs, a la Mike Royko moving from the Sun-Times to the Tribune.
The other group is more interesting from a future-of-news perspective. This is the entrepreneurial crowd that is going independent, albeit some with investor backing. These include: the former AllThingsD crew, which separated from the Wall Street Journal/Dow Jones/News Corp. mothership to launch Re/Code; Glenn Greenwald, who left a gig with the Guardian to start First Look, backed by Pierre Omidyar; and Andrew Sullivan, who left what was Newsweek/Daily Beast to strike out on his own.
Sure, there are some grey areas: Nate Silver is setting up an independent shop but within a corporate structure. Re/code, on the other hand, has backing from NBCUniversal. But the big question before us is whether an in-house franchise can successfully break off from an old media company and navigate as an independent entity.
Klein falls into the second category and is, according to the Times, in talks with Vox Media to start a brand new news organization. Politico reports that this organization will look to staff up to 30 people on the editorial side alone. Klein had been looking for an investment from the Post of $10 million or more. Those are both big numbers.
What’s notable, and even laudable, about this last group is the independent digital news organization business is not only still small, but still relatively uncharted.
Politico can be said to have blazed some sort of path. Its closely held, so its finances aren’t visible, but it employs 280 people, just bought Capital New York, and certainly seems stable enough. Its revenue comes from a mix, among other things, of digital ads, a print version, and premium subscriptions, including now a paywall at the breathtaking annual price of nearly $6,000 for premium access to Capital New York. That feels less like a model than an experiment in progress.
We know there’s no template for these new news franchises because everyone is trying something different.
Sullivan is purely subscription-based. Coming up on its crucial one-year anniversary, the site, which employs seven full-timers and three interns, has come close to its $900,000 revenue goal and is doing darned well. But its future is far from assured.
First Look is a for-profit technology firm welded to a nonprofit news organization and is essentially unique.
Re/code will lean heavily on conference income.
The Klein model is not known, nor was it clear what he had hoped to make a go of at the Post. As Columbia colleague Bill Grueskin is quoted as saying: “It’s very hard to see how a Washington Post site could ever generate the kind of revenue that would meet, much less surpass, [a $10 million] expense base.”
It’s equally hard to see how that would be possible at a non-Washington Post site.
All this is to say that there is really no roadmap, at all.
Many people wonder whether Andrew Ross Sorkin, another brandname, will take his Dealbook business-journalism franchise independent from the Times.
My advice: Wait a year and see how the others work out.
This post orginally appeared at Columbia Journalism Review and is posted here with permission.
Dean Starkman is an Investigative Fund fellow at The Nation Insititute.