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Oct. 24, 2019, 10 a.m.

Pando, an early digital news outlet very comfortable telling everyone they were wrong about everything, has been sold to an adtech company

A lot of people hated Pando, often for understandable reasons. It’ll be remembered as a symbol of a moment when the old journalism world was clearly on fire and the new one was certain it had all the answers.

I really don’t intend for this to sound mean, but I’d forgotten the opinionated tech news site Pando was still around. Or maybe I do intend to sound mean — it would be fitting for a site that was really good at it.

Based on its archives, Pando has only published 12 pieces in the past year, most of them bloggy analysis/commentary pieces rather than original reporting, so I wasn’t too far off. So when founder Sarah Lacy announced yesterday that the site had been sold to an adtech company, it was a more a chance to remember its past than to add another datapoint to the state of digital news in 2019.

The digital old-timers (well, the digital middle-aged, maybe) in our audience will remember that, for a couple years in the early 2010s, Pando was one of the most debated digital outlets around. Lacy was one of the first digital journalists to make what has since become a familiar move: to build a reputation and brand for herself at a news organization — in her case, Businessweek and then TechCrunch — and then strike out on her own.

There was a lot of snark and messiness and drama in the tech blogging/reporting scene back then; think or Michael Arrington’s ouster or the undersourced gossip on Valleywag. There was a real sense, for both better and worse, that this was the place where journalism was being built out of tech culture — not like elsewhere, where journalism was trying to figure out how to ingest some clutch of lessons from tech culture. As Arrington would write, it was a time when people like him were writing “whatever I felt like writing with absolutely no idea of the ‘rules.’ Guys like Jeff Jarvis, Robert Scoble and Dave Winer were rooting me on, so I was doing something right. And a lot of old school journalists were screaming murder, so that made me doubly sure.”

Lacy was one of the standout writers in that space, bringing voice and attitude to stories that others might have played straight. She was very good at bringing that sense of drama to the surface, making readers feel as if they were in the middle of the whirlwind where the future was being born.

A few months after leaving TechCrunch, she launched Pando, which was then branded PandoDaily:

Several months ago I became obsessed with a colony of trees in Utah called Pando Trees. Measuring 43 hectares and weighing 6,000 tons, they’re pretty impressive above ground. But what really matters is what is happening below. The interconnected root system is the oldest living organism in the world. No matter what happens above ground, that root system stays alive, and continually shoots up new trees…

We have one goal here at PandoDaily: To be the site-of-record for that startup root-system and everything that springs up from it, cycle-after-cycle. That sounds simple but it’ll be incredibly hard to pull off. It’s not something we accomplish on day one or even day 300. It’s something we accomplish by waking up every single day and writing the best stuff we can, and continually adding like-minded staffers who have the passion, drive and talent to do the same.

Pando was immediately controversial for having raised its startup capital — $2.5 million of it — largely from Valley rich guys like Mark Andressen, Tony Hsieh, and Peter Thiel and from venture capital firms. In other words, the same people who a tech news site covers. “Some people will call this a conflict,” she wrote. (“Tech Industry Buys Itself a Mouthpiece” was how Gawker put it.) “Even though it’s become standard for tech sites to be backed by investors they all cover, it’s certainly messy. But things were already messy for us. We are unashamedly part of the startup community. We love it and are advocates for the best parts of it, while we’ll aggressively call out the worst parts of it.”

To critics, that was the start of a sort of techier-than-thou arrogance that permeated the site, in particular its view of the rest of the media world. (“PandoDaily is so consumed with their writers’ narcissistic petty dramas that it’s just an incoherent mess.”) And a lot of that era’s pronouncements haven’t held up particularly well.

Pando initially shared the news-wants-to-be-free triumphalism of the tech industry of that era. An article arguing The Washington Post should put up a paywall “is so flawed and reactionary to digital realities, it’s a breathtaking view of how the old media world still thinks. Like when you go to New York and see that people still wear ties to work everyday…The future of the industry will be in ads as well. Those who figure it out will win; those who erect paywalls will have diminishing influence.” The answer for the Post, she argued, was major cuts to its staff. (“You can’t tell me there is no fat to be trimmed. I’m sorry if it means killing sacred cows like the print edition.”) Oh, and to “innovate” in unspecified ways. At various times Pando argued that “metered paywalls are a really, really stupid strategy” and that maybe bitcoin micropayments were the future.

But eventually it came around to the idea of a “(ugh) paywall,” announcing a $100/year membership in 2015 for full access to its stories. “We appreciate our advertisers, and we love hosting events, but for Pando to stay both fiercely independent and healthily solvent we knew we needed to add a third leg — subscription revenue — to the stool. Print publications have understood this for centuries. Online publications are slowly catching on.” It doubled down on exclusive and high-value content, cutting back on aggregation and daily stories that “are, frankly, done better by other publications.”

And it’s those longer pieces that will probably be the best of what’s remembered about Pando. For instance, it published early takedowns of Uber and Travis Kalanick that presaged a lot of the coverage to come from more mainstream outlets. (One of those stories led an Uber executive to opine that the company should spend $1 million on researchers to dig up dirt on the personal lives of journalists critical of the company. He singled out Lacy, saying she should be held “personally responsible” for any woman who was sexually assaulted by a taxi driver after deleting Uber from her phone because of Lacy’s coverage.)

But the economics of online publishing eventually took their toll, as “in-person, on-the-ground, deeply analytical, investigative journalism” gave way to long stretches of no content at all. If you count influence in tech reporting on Techmeme mentions (as sound a metric as any, probably), Pando either wrote buzzworthy stories or was the subject of buzzworthy stories 16 times between 2012 and 2014 — but only three in the years since until yesterday. Lacy herself launched a new startup, Chairman Mom (a “private problem solving community for working women”), last year, and Pando’s content production trailed off soon thereafter.

The sale announced yesterday (no dollar figures) will send Pando to the very directly named BuySellAds, an adtech company that promises “the quickest way to reach developers, designers, and niche tech audiences at scale.” If Sports Illustrated can be bought by a brand management company to pair with the likeness rights of Marilyn Monroe, I suppose an adtech company buying a news site isn’t beyond conception.

A lot of people hated Pando. A lot. (See the tweets below if you doubt me.) I’m more of a thousand-flowers-bloom kind of guy; I have perhaps too much appreciation for journalism rebels throwing bombs at the established hierarchy, even when those bombs end up hitting innocent civilians. But it’s fair to say that Pando will go down as a symbol of a particular moment in 2010s digital journalism, when the old world was clearly on fire and the new one thought it had all the answers. Turned out it didn’t.

In that first post announcing Pando in 2012, Lacy wrote:

As a founder, I have a personal goal that’s just as important and just as core to our culture: I do not want to sell this company. I have opened nearly every meeting by telling potential investors and potential employees this, so I guess readers should know it from the beginning as well.

Of course, there’s the caveat that if someone calls me tomorrow and offers $1 billion, I might cave. I do have investors after all, and everyone has a price. And I’ve been around enough entrepreneurs to know the journey changes you in ways you can’t expect. I’m as aware as anyone this resolve might soften over time.

So let me put it this way: Selling is not success to me. If I wind up selling, I’ve failed in some way. We didn’t get as big as we should, we didn’t execute on the opportunity or I didn’t hire the right team and got too burned out. Success is keeping our independence forever. Success is that I wake up and write about startups on this blog every day for the rest of my career. Success is that we become the place that every smart reporter in this space who wants to come to do great work on a great platform and get paid well to do it.

In yesterday’s sale post, she wrote:

I have so much to say about the sale, which is to BuySellAds — a company we started working with at Pando back in 2012. I want to tell you why I’m so excited about this deal. I want to tell you why I’m so proud of Pando’s legacy, and the dozens of fearless journalists who helped us build this brand. I want to talk about what I plan on doing for the rest of my career.

But mostly, I want to explain to Pando readers why I’m leaving journalism.

As I watched colleagues peel off for other easier more lucrative careers over the decades, I thought I was the one who’d be a lifer. But I realized in the last few years that I’ve become like those jaded journalists a generation before me who could no longer see the Valley through fresh eyes.

Simply put: Over a 20-year run spent ahead of the story, chasing the story and sometimes becoming the story, too much has happened between me and Silicon Valley.

Photo of pando trees by the U.S. Forest Service.

POSTED     Oct. 24, 2019, 10 a.m.
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