The 60-second interview: Derek Thompson, senior editor, The Atlantic
CAPITAL: In an article about the 2014 newspaper purge, you write about the diversity of business models of journalism. But what about a diversity of business models within one company—do you think a news outfit needs multiple revenue streams to survive?
THOMPSON: I was talking to a source recently who was telling me about Gillette. (I promise this is going somewhere.) Gillette was the men’s leader in razors and blades since the early 20th century. But they got by for decades with just one blade. Can you imagine? One blade! Barbaric. Anyway, around 1970 they did something crazy. They added a second blade. Then they added a third, and a fourth, and a moisturizing strip, and a FlexBall, and in five years, it’ll have a GPS device and a microdermabrasion pic and a laser.
And so, journalism: For decades, we had two good blades, right? Subscriptions and advertising. But digital endangers both, even if rare places like The Atlantic can support a profitable enterprise. So we see a lot of companies adding to the razor: an events business, a video business, licensing, marketing consulting, affiliate links, trusts, rich benefactors, and so on.
I don’t think anybody knows the secret. People keep adding blades and moisturizing strips, and we’ll see what sticks. That sort of experimentation is actually really fun to watch. There was a classic Onion article called “F*ck Everything, We’re Doing Five Blades." I think journalism is firmly in the FEWDFB era. (http://bit.ly/IQndQl)
CAPITAL: You've suggested that a company like Vox Media may one day build a "Time Inc. of the Internet." Can you flesh out for us what that outlet would look like?
THOMPSON: Oh man. If I knew what the digital media empire of tomorrow looked like, I would be answering this question from a silk hammock on a Central Park West apartment balcony. As it happens, I’m answering them from a hand-me-down couch in an East Village living room. That is your grain of salt.
But since you asked: I think BuzzFeed is scary smart—scarier and smarter than most journalists give them credit for. Make insatiably fun stuff based around readers’ emotions and identities, build huge portals on Facebook to move it through enormous audiences, teach advertisers to do the same, charge them for your social know-how, and build your way into other high-margin businesses. Scary smart.
CAPITAL: As you've written, analytics show that online readers prefer quizzes and lists to hard news. Is there a way in which news outlets can package their hard news stories such that they're more appealing and less like the vegetables we should eat, but instead shove to the side of our plates?
THOMPSON: Hah, right, like caramelize the vegetables, or something? Come to think of it, I don’t know what caramelizing is, and I should stop making cooking metaphors.
Making serious news interesting without cheapening it is hard. Full stop. When I’m writing a story about, say, student debt, I sort of imagine three audiences: First, nerds, the audience that knows it wants to read about student debt; second, normals, the audience that doesn’t yet know it wants to read about student debt but is vaguely curious about stuff, and third, others, the audience that really doesn’t give a hoot.
If I write a boring headline, I might get the nerds, but I'll lose everybody else. If I write a syrupy headline — Is Student Debt Killing You, Literally Right Now??? — I might get all three groups to click, but my soul will rot. If I write a Goldilocks headline, not too boring but not too surgary, I keep my nerd audience, attract more normals, and keep my soul. So I guess that’s my hard-news editorial philosophy: Embrace nerds, evangelize normals, keep your soul.
CAPITAL: We know you have a late-night email addiction, but we're still not sure what the answer to this question is: "Is this a good thing, a bad thing, or just a ... thing?" Which of the three best describes your habit?
THOMPSON: I would say that late-night email is definitely a thing and the adjective depends on whether you like your job. I hope I’m not offending anybody when I say: A lot of jobs are terrible. Journalists love to complain about the occupational hazards of commenters and pretend that we have it rough. But when you stand back, being paid to write stories is a pretty sweet gig. Answering an economist’s email at 11:30 PM with a splash of Four Roses bourbon while SportsCenter flickers in the background is not a terrible way to live.
CAPITAL: What about late-night Twitter? The media industry conveys a certain professional gravitas when it tweets during the daytime hours, but it shifts towards a quirky tone in the evening. Is Twitter replacing television for journalists?
THOMPSON: I love Twitter a lot but … well, look. Late-night email is that glass of bourbon: It’s slow, it’s kind of wholesome, and it puts me to bed. Late-night Twitter is like Bourbon Street: There are lots of people being weird and it’s all fairly interesting at the time, but then you come to after a few hours and you’re like, what exactly have I been participating in and will anything get that taste out of my mouth?