Its cable channel has been on the air for over a year. It has netted some of the best-known names in digital journalism. The New York Times has devoted weighty political columns to its lead anchor.
But there’s been a tentativeness to Fusion, the corporate “Frankenbaby” of ABC and Univision. It’s not on most American TVs yet. Some of its star hires have been silent for a while. And—from my conversations with friends and colleagues—most people don’t have a clear sense of what it exactly is yet.
That may soon change.
On Tuesday, Fusion will debut a new website, new online verticals, and new work from its considerable bench of digital journalists. It has had a website for about a year, as long as it has had a cable channel, and its digital talent has occasionally published a post. But Tuesday is the re-imagining.
“In many ways, we’re pressing the start button,” Jane Spencer, Fusion’s editor-in-chief, told me. “It’s a very basic first step.”
The new website is a “simple, clean place” to put text, images, video, and interactives, she said. As Fusion finds its footing, they've opted to “experiment in public.”
The new site will launch with six sections, their topics a somewhat idiosyncratic spin on what has become a standard web-newsy taxonomy. A “News” section, led by NBCNews.com’s former editorial director, will cover topics like climate change and social unrest. A “Justice” heading will encompass social activism, cultural change, and policing. “Pop & Culture” will focus on modern-day pop culture through many lenses, including race and gender; a health-focused “Sex & Life” will focus on body stuff. The site’s technology-focused vertical is “Real Future,” edited by Atlantic contributing editor Alexis Madrigal (who was previously our Technology editor and hired me). Its opening-day stories dwell on how prisoners use technology and the security of popular chat app Slack.
And the last category, “Voices,” is “our answer to opinion content,” said Spencer. She added that its editor, Jezebel founder Anna Holmes, hopes to “get beyond the 800-word think-piece which has come to dominate the web.” Voices’ opening-week projects include an explainer video about broken-windows policing by activist-illustrator Molly Crabapple.
(Spencer, by the way, is one of those star hires, too: She was a founding editor of The Daily Beast.)
When people ask what Fusion is, there is a simple way of answering: It is a television station and a news website. The two branches work closely together but not totally so. “All of the digital content produced for shows appears on the site, and the digital side produces content independent of the TV network,” Spencer said. The two sides have largely independent staffs.
Operationally, too, it will also function as an “innovation lab” for its corporate parents, Spencer said. That is: Fusion will get to be kooky if ABC and Univision can learn something from it. And this makes sense. Fusion, the television station, wants to combine elements of The Daily Show and Adult Swim and whatever Anthony Bourdain happens to be executive producing at the moment; Fusion, the news site, will have an Instagram and a concerted Vine operation and some YouTube-channel-sponsorship deals.
These seem to be Fusion’s three aspirations: cable channel, website, farm team. But it’s a little more complicated than that.
Fusion began as a channel aimed at Hispanic millennials. Its executives soon found, however, that the demographic didn’t want their own network. So it chose to focus on millennials as a whole. (When I asked Spencer if the network would often focus on Latin America, she said it was “one of their coverage strengths but not our only global news focus.”)
Now Fusion has become something more. “Fusion is a new kind of news organization,” Spencer said. “Millennials are our core audience.” What that meant was maintaining “a focus on inclusiveness, and stories about social justice and racial issues.” And the main competitors to Fusion often do just that. Spencer listed Vice, BuzzFeed, Vox, and Mic as inspirations for its coverage.
Which is fine. It is tough to talk about these brands so broadly, because with some exceptions, their coverage of race is mixed. Some of these publications specialize in a form of progressive trolling that gets good traffic through Facebook sharing and does not seem to build long-term trust among readers. And to talk about millennials so specifically and monolithically as an audience raises, for me, the question of who is doing the talking in the first place: Did any publication ever set out to target the Baby Boomers as Baby Boomers?
What is Fusion? Most of the huge audience the network hopes to reach hasn’t even heard of the brand yet. But they will find out soon—or, at least, Fusion’s leaders really, really hope it becomes clear soon. Because this week Fusion’s provisional period will end, and its grand experiment will begin.