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Q&A: Andrew Golis on matching great journalism with big audiences (and, oh yeah, dollars)

After jobs at Talking Points Memo, Yahoo, Frontline, and The Atlantic, Andrew Golis, new general manager of The Wire, is ready to share the three pillars of a strong media brand.

Andrew Golis has been hanging out at The Atlantic for the past six months or so, getting to know people and working on whatever interests him. Golis was hired in June to inaugurate the role of entrepreneur-in-residence, a position devised in hopes that he could use his diverse media background to further a spirit of innovation and exploration at a century-plus-old magazine brand that’s already made a remarkable transition into digital.

Golis came to The Atlantic from Frontline, the PBS documentary series, and the production of high quality online video has been an area of focus for him at Atlantic Media, which is preparing for a future in which video becomes the dominant media of the Internet — and in which The Atlantic pursues an Internet TV brand of its own.

But Golis’ focus is now shifting to The Wire — Atlantic Media’s recently redesigned and rebranded aggregator property — where he was recently named general manager. Under Golis’ stewardship, The Wire will become a more independent entity within the company, with its own staff of sales people, developers, and an ever-growing roster of journalists. One of Golis’s first missions is to hire an editor-in-chief to manage the editorial staff, freeing Golis up to manage the sales and publishing side of the operation.

Golis says taking the time to think and get to know people within the company has been rewarding, but he’s eager to return to the active day-to-day of a newsroom. As he prepared to jump back in, we spoke about the three pillars of a strong media brand, cheerleading, summing up the Internet, FOMO, the unique challenges of public media and the lessons of startup life. An edited transcript is below.

O’Donovan: Let’s talk about The Wire thing. How did you transfer from the entrepreneurial fellowship to general manager? Is that something you knew was coming? What expectations did you go into with?
Golis: When I joined, Scott [Havens] — the president of The Atlantic — and I talked very openly about the fact that this would be a transitionary position. At the end of the day, what he was doing was making a bet on me, and what I was doing was making a bet on The Atlantic. I would be able to advise on some projects, work on some of my own little projects, and work with executives here, but then transition into something more permanent. A combination of The Atlantic’s desire to invest more and more — not just in terms of editorial, but in terms of its own dedicated business resources — to The Wire, The Wire’s presence in New York, and my interest in news. And Gabriel’s move made it all come together.
O’Donovan: What little side projects have you been working on in the meantime?
Golis: I can’t tell you. Some little things I’m working on finishing up that probably won’t see the light of day for another six months.
O’Donovan: You were there through the redesign and the rebranding of The Atlantic Wire as The Wire. Was that what you expected? What did you learn from that?
Golis: I wasn’t a part of the team working on The Wire relaunch. I think they both come as a part of the same trend of me joining, which is The Atlantic sees The Wire as something that can be its own functional business and brand and build its own dedicated staff. Part of that was buying the URL, branding as The Wire, redesigning for responsive. Again, I wasn’t inside that process, but it seems to have gone extraordinarily well, and it’s something we’ll keep building on.
O’Donovan: Video is something you were working on. Where do you see the big trends with that? What was your interest and what do you think The Wire can do with video?
Golis: Video is something I was working on as an advisor and friend to our executive producer Kasia [Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg]. I wasn’t working on it in the context of The Wire.

Video is an amazing space. My last job was at Frontline, and I went to Frontline particularly because I was obsessed with what was going to happen. Not as much with the short-term question of what happens in terms of small screens, but in terms of the tablet and television experience. The small-screen and shortform stuff is really interesting, but where I see the mass earthquake in terms of culture and news and politics will be when everyone is turning on their TV and using the Internet to find what they want to watch as opposed to using cable. We’re starting to see some of that, but it hasn’t really unravelled.

What’s so fascinating to me is the way the legacy business is being held together by some of the most powerful and effective companies in the country, when you’re talking about the Comcasts of the world. They’re going to hold on longer than anyone might expect them to. But when it does come apart, the contradictions will be so extreme that it will come apart really quickly and be a really dramatic change in terms of how people find content. So that’ll be a fun thing for us to get into.

I know that Kasia is already thinking, not just how do we build short term traffic and eyeballs, but also — in the same way that digital has become bigger than print for The Atlantic — how to build a brand for television for The Atlantic and eventually for The Wire that can resonate long-term in that big opportunity.

O’Donovan: That’s a pretty ambitious statement for what is, technically at least, an old magazine brand.
Golis: It’s a statement of interest. I think that’s all coming down the line, and I think it’s an exciting thing to be watching if you’re curious about how people find the information that they use to make decisions in their life, then television has to be one of the most important things to pay attention to.
O’Donovan: You’re also working on social?
Golis: In my entrepreneur-in-residence role, yeah. Without getting into too much detail, I’ve been having all the conversations that everyone else is having out in the world. About the Facebook algorithm change — watching carefully what some of these socially optimized sites are doing.

One of the thing’s that is so exciting about The Wire to me is that it has the opportunity to step into that space in a slightly different way. They talk about these social news sites, and for the most part what they mean is socially distributed news sites. Obviously, what BuzzFeed and Upworthy have learned about social optimization in terms of the underlying content and the packaging is powerful and interesting. But one of the things The Wire is so good at is socially sourced news. While The Wire will be distributed socially, and there’s lots to do there, one of the things they do so well and we can only keep building on is actually reporting out from the social space. The social web is not just a series of pipes where people can find content — it’s also a public space in which people are actually making news.

I think The Wire has an audience that understands that if they want to know what’s going on in the world — the tagline for the site is “What matters now” — if they want to understand what matters now, they need to understand not just what information is out in the world, but how that information is being processed and who it’s influencing. So much of that happens out in public now via social, and that team really has done an extraordinary job at sourcing out of social at the same time that they’re distributing back into that system.

O’Donovan: From an editorial standpoint, keeping the headlines in the context of conversation?
Golis: I think that if you’re not someone like you and me who gets to spend 12 hours every day reading the news, it’s hard to keep up with the thousands of tweets and the millions of social behaviors that celebrities and politicians and public figures are doing over the course of the day, and the way in which that is driving the political conversation and culture. Participating in those spaces, but also coming back out of those spaces to tell people who don’t have that 12 hours to read tweets — this is what’s happening, this is what’s interesting, this is what’s fun about it. The Wire’s had this bizarre and fascinating series recently about cheerleader culture on Instagram. That’s a perfect example of something I never would have known about but for reading The Wire. But it’s actually a pretty important story about what’s happening in youth culture and the kind of thing that, just by virtue of understanding these public spaces, you can do a lot of reporting on.
O’Donovan: So you’d say The Wire is really looking to dominate the youth cheerleading beat?
Golis: I think it’s already dominating the youth cheerleading beat.
O’Donovan: Them’s fighting words. Look out! BuzzFeed will come after you.
Golis: Yeah, I’m sure.
O’Donovan: Alexis Madrigal had a really interesting piece at the end of last year about — not really the end of the “stream” but a desire for finiteness, for services that provide a holistic look at the day’s news, as opposed to the idea that we want constantly scrolling headlines. Is that somewhere you see The Wire fitting into?
Golis: That’s exactly it. We’ve been joking internally recently that The Wire is the FOMO (fear of missing out) killer. You don’t have to fear you’re going to miss out on the interesting things that happen on the web everyday because you can read The Wire.
O’Donovan: In the announcement about your entrepreneur-in-residence job, it said you were going to be looking at sponsored content stuff. Have you had your head in that space at all?
Golis: It’s not my area of expertise, but it’s vitally important and it’s a bigger and bigger part of our business. It’s not something that I’ve been working on, but it’s certainly something that I will be working on.
O’Donovan: I was looking at the recent report you guys released about the record profitability. Is there pressure for The Wire, as the in-house aggregator, to make sure that it stays that way?
Golis: I don’t think there’s any different pressure at The Wire than anywhere else. One of the reasons I came to The Atlantic was, in my view, if you’re going to build an extraordinary media organization, you have to do three things. You have to do great, meaningful journalism; you have to be able to reach big and influential audiences so that that journalism matters; and you have to be able to produce revenue to pay for parts one and parts two.

To me, I’m a total idealist about media. Part of what that means to me is you have to be able to generate a functional business. If you can’t, then what your producing is not sustainable. So The Wire doesn’t have any different position than any other part of the company. It is in investment mode — which is to say, in the next few months we’re going to hire between seven and nine new staffers, including an editor-in-chief, other editors, writers, designers, developers. If you combine that with me, and the fact that we’ve recently put three people in a dedicated ad sales staff, you’re talking about a dozen people.

O’Donovan: That’s all for The Wire?
Golis: All for The Wire. That’s all people who were not there six months ago. The Atlantic’s attitude about The Wire is that it’s a big opportunity to keep growing, and that’s on all three of those fronts: that’s bigger and more influential audiences, and that’s more revenue to pay for those.
O’Donovan: You were one of the earliest employees at Talking Points Memo in its transition from just Josh Marshall to a larger organization and newsroom. Are you going to be, as you grow out The Wire, using anything you learned back then in the current media environment?
Golis: I think I was the fourth or fifth employee at TPM. I started as a junior editor and then I was a deputy publisher — I was functionally the first member of the “business staff” other than Josh himself. I think when I left, the company was up at 25 employees, and that was in about three years. I think what that taught me you have to make all three of these things work to have a functional business.

Two, I think, it was an amazing first big experience in media, in the sense that, as you do with startups, I got to touch every part of the business. I got to go on sales calls; I got to run our ad network system; I got to run and edit our op-ed pages. (Not all at the same time — these are different parts.) I got to set up editorial meetings, manage and hire a team, be a part of figuring out how to scale up a culture. All those things are really important, and I learned a ton from Josh about those things and a ton just from trying to do all those things — and sometimes screwing it up, but having the experience of getting to touch every part of the business.

O’Donovan: I had an interesting conversation with him recently about the importance of being naturally interested in the publishing side as much as in the journalism side.
Golis: I think that I probably have learned from Josh the idea that, if you want to be idealistic and ambitious about the journalism, you need to be creative and obsessive about the business. You can’t really separate those two. The world is moving too quickly. It’s changing too quickly. You have to figure out: How do you do all these things well? How do you make them fit together as each of them is in flux? That’s an incredibly difficult both act of management and of creativity.
O’Donovan: You also worked for Yahoo, which is an enormous company, you worked in public media, and now you work at this magazine-turned-digital brand. That’s a pretty diverse experience portfolio. Do you think there’s anything that having that diversity of employers in your background — different sizes and different funding models — has taught you anything that other people might not know?
Golis: I do think that seeing different kinds of organizations, seeing the kind of cultures and structures and processes within different organizations has certainly taught me that incentives and culture and management mean a lot.

I’m hopeful for what Yahoo is in the midst of right now. It’s always been disappointing to me that they haven’t been able to build an extraordinary journalism operation inside of that big business. It’s so easy for them to push around millions of hundreds of millions of eyeballs. When I hired a bunch of great people to come join me there, we had hoped we could stand up something really cool in that midst. The culture and structures there were a challenge for that, but it seems like they finally have that right. Those lessons about learning what you should have known before you got somewhere, things you wouldn’t think would be required in terms of incentives, culture, ambition, understanding — that has really landed me here.

Those three things I was talking about — at some level, I went to Yahoo because I felt like: Here’s a big audience. Maybe we could put some really extraordinary journalism in front of it. And I tried to hire people I thought could do that. At some level, I went to Frontline because I thought: Here’s some extraordinary journalism. Let’s see if we can get it to resonate more effectively in the digital world and have a bigger impact on how people think and behave. In some ways, what I’m so admiring of inside The Atlantic, and what I’m hoping we can continue with The Wire, is the ability to do both those things at the same time.

O’Donovan: Do you see the commitment to the journalism side genuinely increasing at Yahoo?
Golis: I have no inside knowledge either way. The big challenge there is that the portal pushes around so many pageviews, is such an extraordinary driver of traffic, that it can be hard to produce for that homepage at the same time you’re producing stuff that resonates and speaks to the rest of the web. It’s always been the challenge there — managing the extraordinary benefit of having this portal at the same time as you’re trying to build something scrappy that builds an organic audience for itself.
O’Donovan: In terms of doing that entrepreneurial, innovative thing of building something small within something so large, would you recommend other people experimenting with what you just went through — where you have this role where you get to poke around and talk to people and do whatever interests you before taking on the burdens of management?
Golis: I consider myself very lucky that I was given that time. I’m raring to go. I think I’m the kind of person who — it was good to have some time to think and get some prototypes in the works, and I’m really excited about one of them in particular, but I’m definitely ready to be back in the game. I have the most fun when I’m building something and working with a team and supporting some really good journalists.
O’Donovan: When you were at Frontline, were there any other people in the public media sphere that you were really excited about?
Golis: The public media world to me is simultaneously the most exciting and the most challenging space. They have all these big challenges around funding — a system that is built for local radio and TV stations to build membership, to pay that membership up into a national package, and to pay that out to producers and journalists. The web disrupts all of that.

That said, I think there’s a freedom a lot of people have there to be really creative. When I was there, I oversaw half a dozen different interactive projects that went on to win various awards. They’re too speculative in terms of their payoff for a for-profit company to say: Sure, go ahead, build that totally crazy video interactive thing. Public media can actually be a space where there’s an amazing amount of innovation around form and culture, and god knows there’s just a great amount of great journalism coming out of public TV and public radio. And certainly NPR, in terms of its core shop, is doing amazing interactive work. I think Brian Boyer’s team is really creative, I love their book thing. Matt Thompson’s stuff has been great — he’s a great guy to watch make things happen.

O’Donovan: Do you still feel like a lot of that really good content deserves a bigger footprint?
Golis: I think the challenge you have with public media is that much of the culture has been built around stepping outside of the marketplace, and being able to say: We’re going to do the most righteous and beautiful thing we can do, and the distribution of it can be presumed, because the power of PBS as a broadcasting channel or the power of NPR as a radio broadcaster is so extraordinary that those things can go without saying. In the digital space, you can never presume an audience. Your audience is going to be there day in or day out depending on whether you’re doing anything interesting that day. So there is a culture shift that has to happen: Can public media be audience-obsessed and audience-focused while having that be a part of its mission, as opposed to something that waters down its journalism?
O’Donovan: So is the GM position for you permanent? What happens when you hire an editor-in-chief?
Golis: I will oversee a sales staff and a design and development staff, working with an editor-in-chief who will oversee an edit staff, and The Wire will function more like an autonomous unit within Atlantic Media, the way a Quartz does, for example. The goal is to grow the thing. The goal is to double the size of the edit staff again.

Image by Greg Peverill-Conti used under a Creative Commons license.

                                   
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