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April 21, 2020, 2:58 p.m.
LINK:  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   April 21, 2020

It was only two and a half months ago — a.k.a. about 387 lifetimes ago — that Protocol, the tech site launched by parent company of Politico, debuted on the scene. Our Sarah Scire wrote about it. “We’ll focus on the people, power, and politics of tech, with no agenda and just one goal: to arm decision-makers in tech, business and public policy with the unbiased, fact-based news and analysis they need to navigate a world in rapid change,” executive editor Tim Grieve wrote by way of announcement.

“Rapid change” is right: This afternoon, Protocol announced it was laying off 13 staffers, an astonishingly quick turnaround and a sign of how hard coronavirus is hitting even media companies that seemed set for the long haul. (Or at least the medium haul.)

“The coronavirus has done nothing to shake our faith in Protocol’s mission or our long-term opportunity, but there’s no denying that the pandemic has profoundly changed the economic realities of the present,” write publisher Robert Albritton, president Tammy Wincup, and Grieve in a staff memo.

The 13 layoffs come from “across the editorial and business teams.” Protocol’s staff page listed 35 people this morning.

I have to say I find this curious on a number of levels.

  • Most major media companies have not responded to COVID-19 with large-scale layoffs. They’ve instead leaned on more temporary cost-saving maneuvers: employee furloughs, limited-term pay cuts, and the like. They’ve done so precisely because they hope/assume that the economic shock of social distancing will at some point fade, allowing the fundamentals of their businesses to return to something in the neighborhood of normal.

    Many of those media companies have, it must be said, been in obvious and indisputable financial decline for a decade or more. And yet they’re more willing to think on a longer timescale than a well-funded startup that launched two calendar pages ago?

  • Protocol is, unlike most digital media companies, not overly reliant on ad revenue. (“I know, maybe more than a lot of people, just how difficult it can be to rely on advertising alone in a digital space,” Grieve told us in February.) Advertising revenue has taken a brutal hit, but one would think Protocol would be in a relatively good to deal with it. And in any event, it just launched; this stage of a young news site’s life is more about proving your worth and building an audience so you can turn on the monetization a little later on.
  • Protocol’s target audience is, well, still doing fine? “Decision-makers in tech, business, and public policy” are still overwhelmingly employed; many of their employers seem well positioned to gain market power post-COVID, not lose it. A moment when literal trillions of government dollars are being disbursed — no small portion of it to major corporations — would seem like a perfect time for someone offering the sort of information value proposition Protocol intends.
  • The obvious way to make money with Protocol’s editorial promise and targeted audience is through paid products. Charge people [pick one: $100, $200, $400, $1,000] a year for [pick one: access to the site, premium content, a high-value membership, exclusive briefings, real-time updates]. A Protocol Pro doesn’t have to be a carbon copy of Politico Pro, but the basic model is a fit. But the staff memo indicates that paid products are now farther off than before (“this is not the right moment to launch those products”).
  • Finally, some of these employees have been with Protocol “from the early days of Protocol planning” last year. I don’t know the people on the business side, but a lot of the editorial people they hired were big gets from big national news outlets. You go through the trouble of recruiting and hiring these folks, pay them through six months of planning, and then let them go 11 weeks into publishing? It all just feels…odd, and not entirely COVID-inspired.
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