Topolsky’s big bet on a future for news

Ever since Joshua Topolsky left Bloomberg a year ago to start building something new, I, like a lot of other people, have been curious about his next play.

Given his background and experience, he surely had a plan. He built news companies before. He’d understood the reality of the financial outlooks for both independent publishers and global media behemoths. He knows what worked and what didn’t.

His something, we now know is, The Outline.

The new outlet has $5-million in funding to support an initial staff of 10, who in turn will produce about 15 pieces daily to attract a regular audience of 10 million visitors to The Outline’s site.

By way of comparison, Quartz started with a similar plan, but more backing, in 2012. As of this January, it was attracting about 17 million visitors, and generating $19 million in revenue.

But Quartz was still not profitable, and my hunch is this is why Topolsky is not planning on an aggressive audience growth strategy to drive revenue.

Keep costs low (payroll, for example, could be around $2-million annually, even after he hires a larger team); don’t sacrifice yourself to the big platforms (use social media as marketing, not a new publishing partner); and slow-down the content factory to let people actually create (instead of each person producing 5–8 content hits, produce a couple of stories daily).

Will it work? Topolsky has built news brands digitally before, and the model is attractive. Plus he’s working with the same design firm that allowed his editorial skills to shine at Bloomberg: Code and Theory.

The whole approach is deeply promising. I’m also, to be fair, quite biased.

I believe good journalism and scale don’t mix. I also believe a small, talented staff can reach a meaningful audience without all the overhead of traditional publications.

Two years ago, I began developing a similar business model as The Outline. A small staff, producing one to two stories daily, supported by readers and advertising. No matter how I adjusted the numbers, there wasn’t a long enough runway to make it work as sensible business. So I scrapped it and did my own radical pivot.

The notion Topolsky found a way to make the numbers work is one I want to believe.

And sometimes its good to have a little misplaced faith.