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Sept. 24, 2014, 12:24 p.m.
Aggregation & Discovery

Through The Wire: What happened with The Atlantic’s experiment in aggregation?

The Atlantic invested years and money into figuring out what they wanted The Wire to be. Now, after relaunching and promising reinvestment, the site is being brought back under the wing of its parent.

the-wire-logoAlmost a year ago The Wire dropped an important signifier from its name. The decision to drop the “Atlantic” was about letting the news and entertainment aggregator live on its own outside the parent company. Along with that came a new design and new URL, all emphasizing the point that The Wire was a brand on its own, comparable with other Atlantic Media independents.

“Confusion is what we’re trying to address. It’s not clear from our current branding that The Wire is produced by a separate editorial team,” Gabriel Snyder, the site’s editor told me in November. M. Scott Havens, president of The Atlantic, said something similar: “It’s less about removing The Atlantic from the name and more about establishing The Wire’s independent identity in both form and function.”

Today, both Snyder and Havens are gone from Atlantic Media, and, sometime in the next few weeks, The Wire will join them. After four years, The Atlantic is pulling the site back into the family, absorbing The Wire’s staffers into TheAtlantic.com. In a memo announcing the change, Atlantic co-presidents James Bennet and Bob Cohn praised The Wire for its reporting, use of social media, and loyal readership. Despite that, The Wire didn’t add up as an experiment in finding new revenue, Bennet and Cohn wrote in the memo first published on Gawker:

This decision is also driven by a recognition that the business strategy behind separating The Wire from The Atlantic simply hasn’t proven out. Experimenting with new revenue streams to support our journalism — like experimenting with new forms of reporting, storytelling, and distribution — has been essential to our progress across the ever-shifting media landscape; so too has moving quickly to face the facts, and to adjust, when an experiment isn’t working as we’d hoped.

That’s quite a shift from the beginning of the year, when The Atlantic touted The Wire as one of its strongest assets. The Wire contributed to record traffic in 2013, according to a January news release from the company. The company was so invested in The Wire that it reportedly spent “over five and less than seven figures” to secure the URL TheWire.com, Havens told Capital.

In a Q&A with the Lab earlier this year, Andrew Golis, deputized as the site’s new general manager after Snyder left in January, said The Atlantic was putting more resources into helping the site succeed. Golis told my colleague Caroline O’Donovan:

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.

Investment mode meant dealing with a revolving carousel of hiring and departures. The site went without an editor until June, when news editor Dashiell Bennett was given the top job.

When I spoke to James Bennet he praised the staff of The Wire for growing an audience independent of The Atlantic. But Bennet said the logic of separating the two sites no longer makes sense. “We were just having trouble selling it as a news site,” he said. “The traffic was substantial, it just wasn’t at the scale of news sites that are much, much bigger.”

Pulling The Wire back into The Atlantic runs counter to Atlantic Media’s succession of spinoffs in recent years, which includes Quartz and CityLab (née Atlantic Cities). What makes those sites different than The Wire, Bennet said, is a tighter editorial focus that helps attract a distinct audience.

Bennet said The Wire showed there was an appetite for aggregation and web-oriented writing. But as a general news site, The Wire was playing in a crowded field that requires a bigger scale to find commercial success. Bennet said reshaping TheAtlantic.com as a site where aggregation and breaking news exists alongside in-depth features and essays made more sense than trying to grow The Wire.

The site originally began life in 2009 as a roundup of opinion and editorials from around the web. But that changed in 2011 with the hiring of Snyder as editor, and the site began to focus on news aggregation. Snyder was a former editor-in-chief of Gawker, and he laced The Atlantic Wire with a similar metabolism and voice. (He was also a digital editor at Newsweek, and in 2012 shared this reflection/foresight with Mashable: “Before I came here, I swore I would never work for the web arm of a print publication ever again because it’s such a tricky cultural balance.”)

“By pretty much any definition, I always considered The Wire a great success story,” said Snyder, who now works for Bloomberg Media. “I’m sorry to see the leadership of The Atlantic didn’t see it that way.”

Snyder said The Wire differentiated itself from The Atlantic with smart aggregation, a more digital-friendly staff, and regular features readers enjoyed like Trimming the Times and Media Diet. The site was aimed at readers who wanted a bird’s-eye view of the news that had voice and understood the web, he said. It “reflected a broad swath of intelligent, savvy, digitally native people who I think were certainly at the time underserved for news.”

Snyder considers The Wire an example of how hard it is to try to experiment with new ideas inside an existing media company. While The Wire could benefit from the resources of The Atlantic, the two sites ultimately developed different cultures and ideas. “Brands are tricky things and can exert gravitational pulls on each other,” he said. (To be fair, there are few, if any, traditional media brands that have made the transition to digital as well as The Atlantic.)

The Atlantic Wire followed the blueprint of other aggregators like The Huffington Post, The Daily Beast, and Gawker, setting up shop in Manhattan (rather than the main Atlantic HQ in Washington) and hiring a roster of young unknown writers with energy to spare. And, much like those other online outlets, The Wire helped launch careers: Wire vets now work at places like Vox, Vanity Fair, First Look Media, The Guardian, and Gawker.

“When I started it was one of the hardest jobs I ever had,” said Philip Bump, a Wire alum now writing for The Washington Post. “It’s hard to be smart and thoughtful and quick in a way that is interesting. And The Wire got good at hiring people for that.”

While the job prized speed and digital savvy, Bump said writers were allowed plenty of flexibility in cultivating their interests and developing a voice. Bump and Elspeth Reeve turned a weird moment in the news — Dennis Rodman’s basketball diplomacy with Kim Jong-un — into a fun thought experiment and analysis of North Korea.

Bump said he thinks The Atlantic wasn’t sure how The Wire fit into its long-term plans. That, combined with Snyder’s exit — Bump credits him as the driving force for the site — left a vacuum. “I don’t know that anyone I spoke with that worked there was terribly surprised by where it ended up,” Bump said.

It’s possible The Wire was a victim in a broader shift in the media business away from large aggregators to niche sites and personalized, socially driven streams of news. Rather than go to a site that covers everything, readers can fine tune their Twitter feed or seek out sites that cover cricket or politics very well. In the same week The Wire got reabsorbed by The Atlantic, Reuters shut down Counterparties, the business and finance aggregator first launched by Felix Salmon and Ryan McCarthy.

At the same time, larger, traditional media companies like The New York Times and the Financial Times have developed in-house aggregators as a tool for subscribers.

It’s likely The Atlantic is trying to capture some of that magic for the flagship brand. Bennet told me they plan to integrate what The Wire did into the workflow and design of TheAtlantic.com. “We don’t want to lose the energy and the speed of The Wire,” he said.

They also don’t want to lose the audience, and that’s where grafting The Wire onto The Atlantic could prove tricky. The people looking for the latest writing from Ta-Nehisi Coates, James Fallows, or ex-Nieman Labber Megan Garber may not be the same audience looking for recaps on what trend John Oliver destroyed this week.

But Snyder thinks the audiences are not that far apart. People will continue to be inundated by news, and as technology changes there will always be a need for people to collect the most important information for readers, he said. It’s why he’ll continue to see The Wire as a success even after it’s shuttered. “From watching the reaction on Twitter, the worst part of this will be watching a really great site and really great group of people become fodder for other people’s media trend pieces,” he said.

POSTED     Sept. 24, 2014, 12:24 p.m.
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