Dictators, dissidents and terrorists: The Daily Beast’s unique voice

By Janinne Brunyee

“The lying started at 7:27 a.m. and did not stop until after dark. Even for Donald Trump, Monday, Aug. 1, was a banner day for bullshit.” So starts a recent article by Olivia Nuzzi, who covers politics for The Daily Beast.

In today’s highly competitive news environment, how is it that The Daily Beast is growing 25 percent each year to reach more than 20 million readers per month? According to editor-in-chief, John Avlon, while there are a number of factors driving this growth, one of the most important is the publication’s unique voice — as is evidenced by the opening line of the Trump story.

“We focus on dictators, dissidents and terrorists,” he said. “Our job is to make important stories interesting and entertaining as well as educational. To do this, we have to be willing to call BS.” According to Avlon, the site’s voice is characterized by short sentences, short paragraphs and vigorous English. “We rely heavily on Hemingway as a style guide,” he said.

Launched in 2006, The Daily Beast takes its name from a fictional newspaper in Evelyn Waugh’s novel Scoop. Avlon, best known as a television journalist with a long list of credits including The Daily Show, CNN, MSNBC and Real Time with Bill Maher, took over as editor-in-chief from Tina Brown in 2013. Brown was a former editor of Vanity Fair and The New Yorker.

With a focus on original reporting and breaking news, The Daily Beast has been able to avoid the commodity news carried by many competitors and create differentiated stories. “Competitors have content farms that create partisan news,” he said. “We carry columns across the opinion spectrum and avoid commodity news from wire services.” With his trademark bluntness, Avlon stated that commodity news kills a news publication because voice is critical.

Hiring writers who are already known on cable news is another important part of The Daily Beast’s strategy. Avlon is himself a regular contributor to CNN. “We get television coverage because our writers are known entities on cable,” he said. At the same time, the publication looks to cable news commentators as a talent pool. Each of The Daily Beast’s writers also pays careful attention to developing their own brands.

According to Avlon, while many partisan news sites are seeing declines, The Daily Beast continues to prosper. “Our competitors have had a rough period but we are growing with a lean team of 100 people,” he said.

“We have built a great team and we are hard to poach from. Our journalists have a sense of mission and that’s why we have a high-morale, high-metabolism newsroom,” he said.

According to Avlon, his team is not solely measured on traffic markers. Instead, the focus is on identifying and creating the stories that readers love.

“We have to be nimble. We are a pirate ship fighting a guerilla war,” he said. “But we understand that quality content creates a quality audience.”

The Daily Beast is not only a breaking news site. There is an increasing focus on the lifestyle sector. According to Avlon, the publication understands that people have a variety of interests. “You can appeal to different sides of their personality to create a site that is less siloed,” he said.

The business of news

The Daily Beast’s main revenue stream is content marketing which allows it to bring quality content to its quality audience and help advertisers avoid adblockers. “We have found that quality branded content will do well. It involves a shift in thinking about what advertising is.” According to Avlon, his team takes the business side very seriously. “We all need to think entrepreneurially. If we don’t there are major threats,” he said.

“Our business is a mix between science and jazz. We are reactive to the news cycle but we use data to anticipate what readers are interested in,” he said. The Daily Beast team aims to be transparent about data so that everyone in the newsroom understands what is working and what isn’t. Avlon is quick to point out, however, that his team cannot rely solely on algorithms. “If you use algorithms only, you will lose your differentiation. You will end up with celebrity gossip, sex scandals and will miss out on the real meat,” he said.

Embracing social platforms

The Daily Beast is among the many publications including The Washington Post, Slate, and Gawker who are embracing Facebook Instant Articles. “Facebook is a major player in content distribution and can be an enormously powerful way to get some of our branded or sponsored content out,” he said.

The team has also been aggressive with Facebook Live to create intimacy with reporters. Earlier this year, The Daily Beast launched two new original live series on Facebook. “Cheat Sheet” features Avlon and other editors breaking down the top stories of the day and answering questions from the Facebook audience. “Drink Cart” features author and cocktail expert Noah Rothbaum talking with a Daily Beast editor about the latest culture news over drinks.

Keep them hooked right to the end

“With his mouth full of fast-food poultry and his hands gripping a knife and fork, for a blissful few moments, Donald Trump told no lies at all.” So ends Olivia Nuzzi’s article 15 Hours of Donald Trump’s Lies. A great reminder for all storytellers to find their voice, create unique content and stay committed to the last period.

The Daily Beast is one of the companies that participants of the 2016 VDZ Akademie Digital Publisher’s Tour visited in New York City this June. The Tour was co-organized by Boost! Collective.

Boost! Collective is a strategic messaging and story-driven communications firm. We help clients discover, write and tell powerful stories which drive engagement.