Niche Media No More

Jonah Peretti at Buzzfeed
Jonah Peretti at Buzzfeed

In case you haven’t noticed, those once “niche” websites are all grown up and are challenging the hegemony of the biggest news brands on the planet. Buzzfeed founder Jonah Peretti, in his internal (posted externally) email to employees “Is History Repeating Itself?”, summed it up like this:

“We have so much to learn from these early media companies and in many ways it feels like we’re at the start of another formative era of media history where iconic companies will emerge and thrive for many decades. It will take luck, talent, and hard work, as well as a willingness to learn from the past and embrace the future, but BuzzFeed has a real shot to be one of the great, enduring companies of this new era.”

I suppose Buzzfeed’s broader assault on the news industry hierarchy kicked in in earnest with the luring of Ben Smith from Politico in 2011. Since then, Peter Lauria from Reuters, Pulitzer prize-winning Mark Schoofs from Pro Publica, The New York Times’s Lisa Tozzi, Spin’s Steve Kandell, LA Weekly’s Tessa Stuart, Daily Beast/Newsweek’s Matt Zeitlin, and other established journalists s have joined its ranks.

If you thought Buzzfeed was alone in expanding the breadth of its news coverage, you’d be sorely mistaken.  Huffington Post, may be one model, but a site like Pando Daily, which was started as a scrappy tech news/trends site by TechCrunch alumnus Sarah Lacy, has much greater aspirations.  It recently embraced investigative journalism when it acquired Paul Carr’s NSFW Corp. Mr. Carr characterized the site’s new DNA in his post “The Future of Pando:”

PandoDaily's Sarah Laacy w/ PayPal co-founder/former CTO Max Levchin
PandoDaily’s Sarah Lacy w/ PayPal co-founder/former CTO Max Levchin

“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.”

Re/code's Kara Swisher & Walt Mossberg (Photo by Trisha Leeper/WireImage)
Re/code’s Kara Swisher & Walt Mossberg (Photo by Trisha Leeper/WireImage)

Last year, we all wondered what would happen to the crew at Dow Jones’ AllThingsD. By now, we’re all familiar with Re/code, and the fact that the NBCUni-funded, Mossberg/Swisher-led news venture succeeded in absconding with the entire staff of ATD, which left the Wall Street Journal to fill a number of holes in its tech coverage (which they’ve done). But there’s more. Last week, Re/code bropadened its editorial ranks when it tapped long-time LA Times entertainment/tech report Dawn Chmielewski.

Then take a look at Vox Media, and the growing diversity of its stable of news sites – from sports to shopping to real estate to science/tech to food.  This week announced it had hired three restaurant critics, while The Verge has steadily expanded its editorial purview well beyond technology.

First Look Media Logo
First Look Media Logo

And who hasn’t heard about Pierre Omidyar’s audacious foray into journalism (albeit of the activist variety)? This week Gawker editor John Cook joined the ranks of Glenn Greenwald, Jeremy Scahill, Dan Froomkin, Laura Poitras, Lilian Segura, and Jay Rosen at Omidyar’s First Look Media.

Then, reading The Wire’s report on the Ukrainian upheaval today, I was surprised by this passage:

“The BBC reports one casualty, but other sources say the death toll is higher. The Financial Times says at least two were killed, and Mashable’s Christopher Miller, reporting from Kiev, also reported at least two and possibly three deaths and added that of dozens of people were injured, and some are in critical condition.”

Mashable's Pete Cashmore (photo: Shankbone)
Mashable’s Pete Cashmore (photo: Shankbone)

Huh? Mashable, the pioneering site devoted to all things social media, has someone on the ground in Ukraine? Yes. It’s true. Mashable has quietly extended its social media tech legacy to cover world news, entertainment, business, you name it. Makes sense to me: social media permeates all those and more.

Finally, since I mentioned The Wire, its parentage cannot be ignored. Atlantic Media also has under its umbrella The Atlantic, and my fave, Quartz, whose timely and broad editorial purview knows no bounds. In fact, this piece “Why Venture Capitalists Are Suddenly Investing In News” pretty much sums up the sea change we’re seeing in the news media landscape:

“Something curious is happening in the American news business. Media organizations are hiring again. Promising young reporters are leaving stalwart publications for new newsrooms. And venture capitalists are pouring millions into nimble publishing startups. It’s a rare moment of optimism for an industry accustomed to doom and gloom.”

Let’s not forget BusinessInsider, another title that has expanded its coverage beats (e.g., tech, finance, sports, entertainment, life). It just raised another $12M giving it a $100 million valuation, exuberance abounds in certain media circles. From the Qz piece on VCs and news media:

Business Insider's Henry Blodget
Business Insider’s Henry Blodget

“These days, BuzzFeed is rapidly expanding with $46 million in funding. Vox Media has raked in some $80 million in venture capital. Business Insider’s $12 million boost last week makes its haul about $30 million. And feel-good social curation site Upworthy has raised about $12 million since launching two years ago.”

More significantly, will original reporting from these digitally native sites usurp the longstanding lock that traditional news orgs like The AP, The New York Times, Bloomberg News and The Journal have had on driving the national news agenda?  Have they already?  And if so, at what journalistic expense? In his Buzzfeed rallying cry, Jonah Peretti wrote:

“All this suggests that there are major trends bigger than us that bode well for the future of BuzzFeed; that what we are doing has a strong precedent grounded in the history of newspapers, magazines, radio, and TV; and that exciting possibilities have been unlocked by the global internet, social networks, and smartphones that would make an earlier generation of media companies jealous…We’ve got an opportunity to build the next chapter in media history!”