Two questions I wish I’d thought harder about when I started running Timeline

In January of 2016 I took over as CEO of Timeline. We had a 10-person team and a mission to introduce people to a new way of thinking about American history. Now I’m sitting in an empty office. We suspended publication last month after missing our revenue targets, and I’ve laid off our team. It’s not entirely over — I’m talking to media companies about a future home for Timeline’s content and brand. But Timeline as it was is gone.

As Timeline has been winding down, I’ve been thinking about what I could have done differently. But before I start the post-mortem, I want to say two things about the Timeline team. First to them: You’re extremely talented and a delight to work with. Thank you so much. And second to anyone who is hiring: I know some seriously amazing writers, editors, and video producers who are interested in hearing from you. If you’d like to know more, shoot me an email: jim@timeline.com.

So what happened? There’s a long list of things I’d change if I could rewind two years. But two issues feel particularly critical. They are certainly the questions I will be asking myself when I tackle my next project.

1. Almost everyone feels overwhelmed by content. What are you going to do to cut through?

I know what my answer was in January 2016: We’ll cut through by finding awesome stories! So much of mainstream history, the history you probably learned in high school, is dominated by the accounts of powerful men. Timeline’s big idea was to surface something else: accounts of the remarkable but marginalized people, events, and ideas. The stories that got left out of the textbooks.

We found the man who invented the modern alt-right. We described the riots that shook America fifty years ago — and that the country hastily forgot. We created videos about amazing midwives and fighter pilots and quilt-makers and motorcyclists. People loved these stories. We reached millions every month. Our videos would generate hundreds of thoughtful, substantive comments—a feat given that these are trollish times and that we focused on race, gender, and class.

But that wasn’t enough, because the internet is awash with content. More importantly, it’s awash with good content. Sure, there’s a lot of crap out there and our filter systems still don’t work. But there’s also a ton of high-quality material. Pick almost any topic and you’ll likely find smart work from dedicated writers available for free.

This content glut has profound consequences for media startups. To cut through, new media companies need to be highly focused. My advice to anyone planning a new publication is this: Take your big plan and throw half of it away. Whittle it down some more. Keep going until you’ve isolated the kernel of your idea. Then build a tightly focused product around that idea. Something that your audience will quickly come to recognize because it stands out amidst the river of articles and videos that flows across screens daily.

This focus, or a lack of it, may determine the fate of some media companies. My instinct is that Vox is well-positioned because it’s core product—explainers—is distinct and well executed. Atlas Obscura’s editorial and revenue focus on travel looks smart. On the flip side, the future of publications with broader remits, such as Mic and Mashable, look less clear to me. (To be clear: This is a hunch based on my experience at Timeline. I don’t have any inside info on these companies, and I’ll be happy if I’m wrong and all of them prosper.)

2. What are you giving up by handing so much control to platforms?

In early 2016, I placed a big bet on two platforms that said they wanted to work with media companies. Medium offered us a publishing platform, an ad sales partnership, and no development costs. Facebook provided distribution and more ad revenue. For a small media company with no engineers or ad sales, hitching a ride with both seemed like a no-brainer.

No media company would make that bet now. Partnering with Medium and Facebook has been like living with someone who is going through a multi-year personality crisis. Neither platform has anything like a settled strategy for working with publishers. That’s something they can live with, at least for a while, because they have the money to fund their experiments. Small media organizations generally do not. If I was allowed a second rewind to January 2016, I would rely as little as possible on any company that was in a similar state of flux.

One example of a media organization that has done this is theSkimm. Some journalists get sniffy about the content, but it’s hard to argue with the way theSkimm’s founders have taken a delivery mechanism that they control (email), married it with content people want (snackable news digests), and leveraged initial success to build other products (including an app) that they also retain control of. That’s a model I’d be studying if I were starting a media business today.

(Quick aside here, because I don’t want to lump Facebook and Medium together. Perhaps I’m biased: I previously worked at Medium, have a tiny stake in the company, and know people there. Still, I’ve always felt that Medium is genuinely committed to helping high-quality content prosper. I hope they succeed and I think they will. Facebook’s attitude to publishers has never felt the same. I’ve had many interactions with Facebook and, aside from a couple of friends there who genuinely tried to help, the nicest vibe I got was indifference.)

Despite these challenges, and despite Timeline’s demise, I’m bullish about the future of media and the potential of media startups. In part that’s because we’ve seen the emergence of a business model of sorts in recent years. Companies like Vox and Atlas, and BuzzFeed before them, have built multifaceted businesses around a distinctive core product. These companies now have diverse revenue streams, which I hope will allow them to ride out revenue shocks like those brought on by Facebook’s recent algorithm change.

There’s also reasons for optimism about non-profit journalism. (Timeline was always intended to be a for-profit, but that might be my third question to new media execs: Are you sure your organization wouldn’t be better off as a non-profit?) My excitement comes from the growing support infrastructure in this sector. Not sure what your membership strategy should like look? Spend a couple of days getting to know the research done by the Membership Puzzle Project. Ready to start recruiting members? You can choose from tools provided by the News Revenue Hub, Pico, and others. The point here is that you’re not alone. Building a non-profit media outfit is never going to be easy, but smart people want to help you.

I’m now off to see what happens next. The Timeline archive is still in place, so check our videos and stories if you want to see more of what we did. I’m so proud of our work. And like I said: You should hire my former colleagues. They’re amazing. Thanks again, Timeline team.

Written by

CEO at Timeline. In former lives: senior editor, Medium; co-founder, Matter; contributor to NY Times, Atlantic and others.

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