Thursday, September 12, 2013

Does the Departure of Tina Brown from the Daily Beast Portend a Less-Than-Rosy Future for Online-Only Journalism?

The news that Tina Brown is leaving the Daily Beast, the online-only news site she founded in 2008 isn't big news, outside of Manhattan. The fact is that the Daily Beast wasn't getting much attention in the first place. Even with the merger of Newsweek's reporters and content, the site sometimes known as News-Beast has been less successful than the Huffington Post or the less serious BuzzFeed.

Its web traffic dropped 15.4 percent in August to 5.6 million unique views, according to a Wall St. Journal article about Brown's departure.

In Manhattan publishing circles, there had been a cult of Tina based on her tremendous success as the former editor of Vanity Fair and the New Yorker, but less success on TV and, now, online.

But the news of Brown's departure should be considered big news not because of Brown but because of what it says about the possible future of online journalism. I find it interesting that no has (yet) has declared the online-only model of journalism to be dead.

After all, the common wisdom is that print journalism is dead or at least dying, that it's difficult and expensive and outdated to publish news on paper, and that the answer is online-only journalism.

The fact is that online journalism is much tougher than many realize. Let's face it, 5.6 million unique viewers can be more than the numbers of viewers tuning in to some network or cable shows -- so the challenges isn't just finding an audience.

It's generating enough revenue.

Since most people expect news to be free, raising revenue is a big problem -- for online-only as well as print journalism. Perhaps even more so for online-only because print can charge subscription fees more easily (you don't expect to walk up to a newsstand and walk away with a copy of the New York Times without paying for it) and print can charge higher ad rates, too.

My point: having an online-only business model is not a guaranteed formula for success -- and neither is having a print component a surefire path to failure. What's important is the point of view, the value of the journalism that you can offer your readers, and in turn attract the kinds of readers that draw significant advertising dollars.

By the way, the merger with Newsweek was not successful, and while I do think the Newsweek merger was a distraction to running the Daily Beast, I believe that with or without Newsweek, the Daily Beast was always on the same trajectory.

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