Which of the new mega-web sites will succeed?

There is the NYT’s and David Leonardt’s The Upshot, Nate Silver’s and ESPN’s 538, and the Ezra Klein and Melissa Bell-led Vox.com.  Probably they don’t want to be compared to each other, but they will be anyway so why can’t I make the same mistake?  I would ask the following questions, among others:

1. Which group has a cohesive core of initial workers, loyal to each other, and loyal to a common mission and vision for the project?

2. Which group has a charismatic leader who understands his role is now that of leader, and who can credibly sit down with venture capitalists, bosses, donors, and the like?

3. Which group has the capability to scale from a small operation to a larger, more bureaucratized level, without completely losing its initial inspiration and cohesion?

4. Which group has the best core idea for how to deliver a sustainable and interesting product?

5. Which group has the tightest connection to a web-obsessed back-up firm for project development and support?

6. Which group has the best and deepest collection of talent?

7. Which group has the strongest brand name behind it?

It seems to me The Upshot wins on #7, although arguably that is a partial weakness as well.  It helps them “survive at all,” but gives them less incentive to come up with a new and workable model.  ESPN is a strong TV and sports brand, but maybe not so strong among those who crave data-driven analysis.  The ESPN connection might even give 538 too many readers who want something else, at least insofar as the ESPN home pages are used as feeders.  It is hard to write for uninspired readers.  I would think Vox wins on #2, possibly on #1, and at least tie on #5 and possibly win on it.  About #4 — which of course is central — we are quite uncertain and thus we must be highly uncertain overall.


I would also ask:

Which group has the most compelling business model?

is "none of them will succeed" a valid answer?

Shhh. This an economics blog, We don't talk about how the real world actually works.

Which one has the highest set of salaries to pay? Which one will work with employees paid "on the cheap"?

If the plane thing talked about where social scientists and economists could be better at prediction ... this one might be a place sufficiently confused that the wise observer eschews all prediction.

8. Which project will dumb-down to Slate-level sensationalism within the first 12 months?

-Hard to say, but If I had to guess -- and I do -- I'd go with Vox. Simply feels cheesier than the other two, which I'd short, if I could, and I really wish I could.

Note that you would have to be more specific with what you mean by brand. That is to ask how many people stopped reading Wonkblog because Ezra Klein left (and, surely, WaPo has a strong brand, even if it is no New York Times). That is also to ask how many people would have stopped reading 538 on the Times website were it still running after Nate Silver left.

It is unclear how this will help with "success", though. That said, at the end of the day, the targeted audience for most of these websites (aside from a small percent) probably don't have the time to read everything thoroughly as a daily habit. I would say here the more social aspect of "brand" is important.

Granted, the answer to the what-were-meant-as-rhetorical questions in the first paragraph may well be "not many". But other important questions, aside from sheer traffic, include who stopped reading – i.e. are Congressional staffers and CEA researchers eagerly awaiting Wonkblog v2?

Did (more than a handful of) congressional staffers and CEA researchers actually read Wonkblog v1, say, during the heat of the Obamacare legislative debates? Or is the impression that they did so just part of Ezra's mythos?

I stopped reading ThinkProgress when Yglesias left for Slate, and it's not likely I will keep reading Slate once his new blog starts up.

So, who knows.

A brand is a customer's perception of product or service. It's all in the mind.

When Ezra left the Post, the Wonkblog brand suffered—at least in my mind. When Ygelsias left Moneybox, that brand too suffered. Interestingly, though I've ceased reading both Wonkblog and Moneybox, I won't start reading Vox. Getting a share of the mind is difficult, and they (Vox) haven't earned mine yet

All the leaders of these sites will probably do well for themselves, because they already have intelligence, Q-factor of a sort, and energy. However, it is possible that the question of which group succeeds on the internet will depend less on their shtick and their effort than on which group is taken up by the sort of powerful behind the scenes people who make sure that a certain select number of these things succeed, with the caveat that at least 18 months of non-dreck non-boring unpredictable product will need to be put out, to allow for later coasting. After that, absent major societal changes, it is "Jon" "Stewart" land, neither warm nor cold, for their next few banal decades, if they want. Hopefully at least a percentage of the people associated with whichever site is successful will deserve that success.

Also, which one will be allowed to lose money the longest?

I vote 538 right now. ESPN is the single wealthiest media entity on the planet. Forbes estimated that ESPN was worth $40B just 2 years ago. Both Grantland and 538 are supposedly loss leaders without strong pressure to monetize and were conceived as higher status digital properties to enhance the ESPN brand. At least that was the impression John Skipper gives.

538 also has the people behind the scenes who launched Grantland. Nate Silver also has the experience in running a website (baseball prospectus) and building 538 from the ground up until NYT bought it.

Vox is a giant unknown right now with the most revolutionarily different concept for journalism. Upshot seems the weakest overall in terms of uniqueness and vision. I'm really not sure what The Upshot can provide other than as a branding for a bunch of higher quality writers.

I think 538 is the least likely to fail as the success of the other 2 are really hard to figure right now.

One point that isn't clear to me is what's the revenue model of these sites? Are they charging subscriptions?

Explain that for me as well. But I think it has something to do with those links at the bottom of the page that say "Grocery Stores Hate This Man!"

538 will definitely be ad driven, I assume VOX will be as well considering their other sites. The Upshot is a branded section of NYT so the question is whether it gets stuck behind a paywall.

538 is sharing BD and sales with Grantland (for now) which only has a very limited number of large sponsors (Subway, Geico, Netflix and Unilever) all of which are already huge ESPN advertisers. They rarely have more than a single ad per page or podcast. Subway is easily over 50% of their advertising. I assume 538 will be the same considering their shared organization.

Vox will be more traditionally web-based like The Verge I assume. I believe they have a large launch sponsor in GE.

I think you've got ESPN's big picture view of the site exactly right. Sportscenter isn't afraid to pepper in Grantland content and contributors and now they will have an in-house brand for Moneyball-style metrics to bring to their broadcasts.

Also, let's not forget the parent company is Disney which also owns ABC. Expect 538 content and cross-branding littered throughout ABC news programming, a synergy none of the other platforms come close to.

Although I like all of the people involved in these three ventures, I cannot summon an Erg of Enthusiasm for them. I wish them well, but they seem so giddy about their projects that I find even the Introductory Presentations insufferable. Maybe I'm just old.


Why cannot Ezra & Nate just blog or post articles & be done with it? What's with this grand website approach?

yup once again affirm tyler's dictum that its impossible to write about pundits, in particular Erza, without ensuing negative comments. lol. The guess the complaint is that Erza is too partisan and or his analysis is too shallow.

Arianna Stassinopoulou jealousy?

Nate's main goal is probably to make journalism/the media more literate. Obviously a large powerful operation would accomplish that better than a blog/small website. He might have already accomplished all that is possible (towards that end) from a small platform.

I think Ezra might have a similar goal. To make journalism more efficient and better at getting attention/clicks with explainers, graphics, etc.

re:Nate's goal I mean more data-literate. I think both of these guys mainly want to nudge the media into being better at their jobs. Plus ambition.

Nate's goal is to make money. Ezra's goal is to make money.

I think it cute how Cowen dotes on his little love pal, DL.

Hey, you forgot the Europeans. I'll have to speak to Project Syndicate 'bout you my man. We're on our way. Nothing like a competition to rouse the opposition! I'll just have to check on that ... that ... you know ... #4 ... We're working on it.

Michael, they don't have an answer to #4, but they have a default strategy, i.e., "too mega, to fail". They expect their angel investor+old Papito to bail them out.

Not to leave the blog empty-handed, read


Thank you Edgardo. My suspicion too, though in addition Papito has double meaning, I think there may be two papito angels, one an Atheist and the other an Argentine, and both were named Jorge. Something else for the two damas to chat about!

I think Nate's 538 will do the best, he was astute enough to team up with a powerful brand, ESPN. He'll broaden his audience to people who care about sports but have little interest in politics. Ezra is just preaching to the choir his endeavor won't bring in new eye balls.

I think Vox Media actually will bring in new eyeballs. Verge and Polygon have readers, and in coveted advertising demographics. They also have a keen sense for web design, and seem culturally in-tune with my generation (which I can't quite bear to refer to as Milleni--aaagh!)

Of course, for an ostensibly policy-oriented media venture, readership among young, largely politically apathetic residents of coastal cities that are NOT Washington, D.C., may be less than ideal.

Not sure why First Look isn't grouped here. For better or worse, the Snowden story is most influential journalism of the last 10 years and it's really not close. At first blush I thought maybe you omitted FL b/c you were focused on economic ventures, but then you'd have only mentioned Upshot. Perhaps you omitted FL b/c Greenwald isnt' in the Beltway-nerd-journo-frat. In any event, I think 538 will by far have the most success for a number of reasons, including among them the fact that Nate Silver isnt' playing for one side or another and Vox and Upshot clearly are.

Are you serious? Nate Silver is every bit the died-in-the-wool left-winger that Ezra and Leonhardt are, he just does a much better job of hiding behind faux objectivity.

Huh, I guess First Look did a "soft launch" of their first property (The Intercept) at the beginning of this month. I didn't even notice. (Or am I just out of the loop?) In retrospect, of their 3 or 4 non-opinion pieces, at least two probably broke stories I did know about. (NSA "Ask Zelda" and NSA botnets.) But I found out about them through mainstream outlets. And to be honest, I'm not sure I'll be checking The Intercept regularly *just* to get "breaking" news from the Snowden docs (almost a year into the Snowden saga). That's not to say I don't find the topic important (I do!), nor do I wish to minimize the quality of Greenwald's journalism -- his NSA articles are consistently well-written and emphasize the important aspects of the leaks. But it's just a very thin premise on which to run a website. Which means First Look should probably be thought of, for now, as a form of journalistic philanthropy by that Pierre guy, rather than as a serious media venture with prospects for real traffic and real revenue.

Can 538 reach a female audience at the outset? Do they even need to in order to be successful?

I am following 538 (and the others) on Twitter. I may not be representative of all women but I am curious about why this is happening at all. I see two possibilities ... 1) the personalization of news formats 2) the continued rise of the superstar journalist / expert 3) other reasons related to general upheaval in journalism?

The first reason would be very cool. I love to see information displayed lots of ways and while others might prefer to stick with one mode of presentation, I am sure there are huge differences in tastes. (On this note, I think WaPo's 'policy/storytelling' project will have a good following too.) We have come a long way from the nightly news as the one stop shop and "success" might be an even more fragmented audience. (I wonder how many funders will see that as success though?) I do worry that none of these are local-content endeavors. For most people context AND interest comes from how news affects them personally and I do not see anyone trying to push that angle at all.

The second reason is probably inevitable but it is kind of dispiriting. No one has the magic recipe for presenting news especially when the underlying analysis is itself uncertain. One of my favorite sayings from my applied economics training was: "garbage in, garbage out." No matter how fancy your filtering techniques if you do not start with some useful information then you will not have much to add. I enjoy reading what all these folks have to say but I worry a little when 'they' feature so prominently in the venture. It's not supposed to be about the journalists ... but that is a more general trend and it seems to be driven in large part by the audience.

Journalism used to be more what higher-G working class folks with a literary bent did when they wanted to escape the family farm or local factory. Then it became a "profession." But in the end, I think journalism is headed back to where it started, just like the old "anchorman" of the Boomer generation is disappearing into "newsreader" status.

I think a not-insubstantial number of "journalists" are government operatives as well.

This strikes me as just a replay of the cable new wars. Various players from other media (newspaper, radio, long form journalism, polemicists, etc) got in on the act like mercenary soldiers. The result was a highly fragmented industry of parasites. CNN, MSNBC, PBS, etc would go out of business without cable fees. The one player with a viable business model is FNC, the downscale product.

ESPN, the NYT and WaPo are in a fight over who control the boutique next to the temple. They are chasing the same audience peddling the same pseudo-science wares. "Come to us. We will stamp your beliefs with the imprimatur of science!" The winner, if there is one, will be the outfit that most easily allows the typical Jon Stewart viewer to litter their conversation with clever quips. It's what made Malcolm Gladwell rich.

For me it is pretty simple. 538 is the only one that can deliver information about the world that I can't get somewhere else in the same easy to use form. Who is likely to win the NCAA tournament? Who is likely to win the next election?

They have something proprietary that the other sites likely won't have. Also don't underestimate the number of stat junkies that read ESPN. Through Grantland and Insider, ESPN has a tremendous amount of advanced sports analysis.

Agreed. I was taken aback by the claim that ESPN is a big brand but not into data-driven analysis.

ESPN has poured money into their Stats & Info group and hired dozens of people. From one interview I heard the only mandate is to come up with interesting data-driven insights to give to writers and pundits. The division has supposedly gone from 3 people to dozens and has been given access to datasets from the various leagues that are the envy of independent analysts.

The fake nerd is the new hipster. ESPN is now rolling out fake nerds like Pablo Torre because they play well to the growing number of young people going the fake nerd route. Much like Alex here swallows down the moral calculus of economics like Flintstones chewables, the young sports fan gets the vapors when hearing a litany of useless stats.

ESPN has been and always will be nothing more than a big marketing platform. They move product. That's it. If five years from now the cool kids are into Santeria, Around the Horn will feature a witchdoctor. Chris Berman will be extolling human sacrifice if it moves product.

I'm not sure what problem any of them are fixing. I personally read from an assortment of blogs that includes Huffington Post, Matt Yglesias' previous effort at Slate, Reddit, Drudge Report and others to get a fix of interesting information. I may well find something interesting in this new mix and add it to the list of blogs I stop by.

This seems to me to be Nate Silver, who had a great capacity for writing interesting content, as well as Yglesias and Klein, even though I never read Klein myself, moving from writing to managing other writers possibly to produce more content than they could alone. Even if it works, it'll just be a couple more sites for me to stop by. At this point, I'll be happy to spend more time somewhere more interesting, and less at Reddit, but my internet browsing for interesting content is actually time-limited already rather than content-limited.

So I'm happy if one or all of them actually produce content that I'll swing by and read, but I'm very slightly less happy if none does. I don't see any revolution happening, anything even newsworthy yet. A shuffle of time-wasting web sites.

The NYT is a stronger brand than ESPN? Prof. Cowen is certainly showing his age.


Which of these will have anything to say that they have not said before; or, will say in some way that they have not expressed before?

Silver has the most opportunity here. Klein will never be able to overcome his predilections for propaganda.

I agree that the NYT has a stronger brand than ESPN if you are talking about mass appeal, although I'd argue that (# of people who the brand appeals to * intensity of the appeal) has ESPN winning in a landslide.

Also, I think you are underestimating the 538/ESPN overlap. The sabermetrics movement has gone mainstream, and ESPN has been catching up (their basketball coverage has long been very data driven, and they now have a partnership with Fangraphs for baseball, for example). Also, I see Grantland being more of the entry point for potential 538 readers, as Grantland has been incredibly data-driven (guys like Kirk Goldsberry, Zach Lowe, and Bill Barnwell will all have audiences that overlap with 538). And don't forget that Nate Silver is much more of a real celebrity than any of the others.

Silver seems to have the strongest brand and the best business plan, along with the strongest financial backing. I don't think Klein will be able to do anything other than retain a fraction of his readers from Wonkblog and will eventually land as press secretary for President Hillary Clinton. I have always liked Leonhardt, but I don't really see the value added by Upshot.

Kleinn played acccess journalism well, but he is putting the chicken before the pot here -- not sure if the WF is really going to give him the time to build an audience.

That being said, grabbing a hold of the twitter firehouse and trying to explain context is a useful and futile enterprise.

Vox.com is considered a social networking site and so may run afoul of same filters that block facebook and twitter. I don't know how many people run across those, but it is potentially a huge factor.

Silver has the best track record (Baseball Prospectus and 538), and a natural tie-in with a big traffic generator in ESPN/Grantland. (Back in the day, Baseball Prospectus also teamed up with ESPN to gain visibility, so it can be done.)

Vox just seems like rebranded liberal blogging. I mean, if it's not liberal blogging, why would you hire Klein and Yglesias? Why would you hire two well known liberal bloggers if you're planning to have them switch gears and do something else? If you do want to do something else, why would you hire two people who are so well known as liberal bloggers?

Has Ezra Klein ever written one memorable sentence?

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