Here's a surprising datapoint from the Newsweek-Daily Beast tie-up: Newsweek.com had roughly double The Daily Beast's traffic. The Beast seems like the big digital part of the deal, but it's actually the other way around.
That's no knock on The Beast, which is a great publication. They were fighting an uphill battle for brand recognition in an environment where it's exceptionally difficult to build loyalty. And that's one reason that I'm not as down on the deal as everyone else seems to be.
I have a theory (more like a hypothesis) that the print brands created during the 20th century are special. They reached a level of national awareness and cohesion that I don't think will be equaled. A simpler way to put this: they knew what they did and so did everyone else. Even when they go online, they are trusted and known in ways that other sites -- even well-funded, high-profile ones -- can't match.
While Newsweek.com's people certainly earned their traffic, as one disgruntled (soon-to-be former) employee noted, they were also standing on the shoulders of decades of other reporters' hard work. Maybe publications have to be grandfathered in. So, take a website (The Beast) with a ton of editorial energy and marry it to a shaky, but salvageable print brand and maybe you're on to something.
I've started to wonder whether one can really build a new destination publication -- one that people bookmark and return to, or type into a browser bar -- that can reach millions. I know there are counterexamples -- HuffPo, Gawker, GigaOm, TechCrunch -- but not many. It's worth noting that these successful standalone online publications all launched in 2006 or before. That is to say, they got in before the social media tidal wave hit the beaches. Even The Awl, which is a singular media property if ever there was one, has taken years to get to half a million unique visitors a month. And who knows how many of those people go in the front door thinking, "I wonder what's on TheAwl.com?"
This is largely intuition here, but people just don't seem to use the Internet that way anymore. If they are the type of person who goes to a predetermined set of sites, they already have their list. And if they do frequent new sites and publications, they get there through social media. Relative to even a few years ago, it seems harder to capture dedicated readers beyond very small niches. Obviously, this has major implications for my own career trajectory, and those of all writers.
That's why I'm intrigued by the way Meebo is opening up the Web for Foursquare-style check-ins. From what I can tell, it's different from a social bookmarking site (like Delicious) because you check into domains (TheAtlantic.com) not individual stories. That's a very different kind of sharing than the linky kind that forms the core of information flow on the web. It's more about the brand than it is about an individual story. If such a thing took off, perhaps people would begin to think of online media sites as the kind of cohesive publications their print forebears were.
On the other hand, maybe cohesion is overrated (not to mention expensive). Maybe it doesn't really matter whether people come to your site exclusively via links their friends share or Redditors upvote. But if it doesn't, we media people are really going to have to rethink what we do even more deeply than we have. How would one create a coreless publication?