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April 3, 2020, 3:13 p.m.

The Outline, an attempt to build a bolder kind of news site, appears to have met its end

A talented staff, good ideas, and some forward-thinking technology couldn’t overcome a muddled editorial vision — and the realities of how news sites make money in 2020.

Not quite 3 1/2 years after its launch, The Outline — the design-forward, millennial-focused, consciously weird site that aspired to be “a next-generation version of The New Yorker” — is shutting down. Its executive editor, Leah Finnegan, tweeted this morning that its staff was all being laid off.

Other staffers soon echoed the news.

The Outline layoffs were part of a broader set of 24 layoffs this morning at its owner, Bustle Digital Group. In a statement, Bustle Digital cited the “unprecedented impact of COVID-19,” noting that most remaining employees “will be taking temporary tiered salary reductions.”

As for The Outline’s future, the statement said: “We are halting operations of The Outline going forward. We will continue to host the publication and the archives, and Josh Topolsky will be exploring alternative paths forward for the publication’s future.”

The Outline’s narrative arc started off bold. Josh Topolsky — previously in top editorial jobs at Engadget, The Verge, and Bloomberg — began discussing his ideas for the site publicly in 2016 by making some pretty fundamental claims about how digital media is broken and how it should work.

Chasing scale — the sort of enormous, social-fueled audience numbers many digital sites were building press releases around — was a bad strategy, he argued, mostly correctly.

“I really want to move away from the impressions-based way of judging success,” he told The Wall Street Journal. “We want to focus on the best way to tell a story. Digital media has millions of colors to paint with, and most of the time we only use like four.” Other companies “get trapped into chasing just a little more audience, and you never change your product. You get locked in. We are not interested in a horserace.”

By the time the site launched in December 2016, the most concretely interesting thing about it was the ads. The Outline didn’t run programmatic ads, and it didn’t run banners. Instead, its ad sales were sold to big brands who wanted to create a full-screen, immersive experience. The site was constructed around a swipe-heavy, mobile-native design that put the ads among the stories, not unlike full-page print magazine ads.

Like a lot of efforts to bring Snapchat-inspired interfaces to news, this seemed to confuse people at least as much as it felt phone-native. And its visual boldness was, well, a little off-putting to some.

Its editorial vision also felt, in this reporter’s opinion, muddled, driven more by broad tones — an ideological commitment to newness, a rejection of the old — than a coherent, concrete strategy. From its launch piece, “Welcome to The Outline“:

Welcome to The Outline, a new kind of publication for a new kind of human

[T]elling the right stories for right now — and telling them in a way that’s meaningful and modern — isn’t going to happen by itself. We have to make it happen. No one else can do it for us. So we’re doing it…

Our foundational reason for building The Outline is that we’re really excited about putting something into the world that wasn’t there before

But we’re not telling any of these stories just because there’s space to fill in your day. We’re telling them because we think there’s a whole other narrative happening in the world that’s unseen, underreported, or dismissed altogether. We also are just really psyched to build new, weird things on the internet.

We wanted to make something from the ground up that is capable of rejecting and/or subverting conventional wisdom about what a media company does.

One of its investors, RRE Ventures, called The Outline “the first new media company ever.” Really.

Topolsky had, a few months earlier, written a piece arguing that his fellow editors and media executives “make shit. A lot of shit. Cheap shit. And no one cares about you or your cheap shit. And an increasingly aware, connected, and mutable audience is onto your cheap shit. They don’t want your cheap shit. They want the good shit. And they will go to find it somewhere.”

None of this made him or the site a ton of friends.

Topolsky and The Outline attracted a very talented staff that did some truly excellent work. At its best, it brought an intelligence and sophistication to the exigencies of contemporary digital life in a way that did feel unique, or at least legitimately distinctive. It also did some work that felt thin and attitude-driven, like an angry tweet mistakenly blown up to 600 words. But it was never quite clear what an “Outline story” was, the way it’s clear what a New Yorker story, a Wired story, or a Politico story is.

That lack of editorial coherence likely contributed to the site’s struggles attracting much of an audience. By April 2017, Topolsky was celebrating what he described as a clickthrough rate on Outline ads 25× the average at other sites — while Digiday was noting its traffic was too low for comScore to track it and that it had only about 2 million uniques the month before, according to SimilarWeb.

This was, in a sense, The Outline’s biggest mistake: It argued that digital advertising’s problem was mostly about quality — that chasing scale had led to broad, undifferentiated audiences, that banner blindness and crappy design made most ads deeply ineffective, and that those were fixable problems if you were just better. Topolsky:

One of the most frustrating things I’ve seen recently was a quote from Ev Williams, founder of Twitter and Medium, just after he laid off about 50 people. “Upon further reflection, it’s clear that the broken system is ad-driven media on the internet. It simply doesn’t serve people,” he opined. Dismissing the entire idea of advertising as viable in one go.

Well I’m here to report…Ev is super wrong about this. He’s right that the system is broken, but he’s wrong that what’s broken is the whole concept of advertising. But if you don’t make better ads that don’t suck, I guess it would be hard to prove otherwise. So we made better ads that don’t suck.

The entire idea of advertising shouldn’t be dismissed, of course. But the bulk of digital media history since then has agreed with Williams more than with Topolsky. The march of Facebook and Google across the digital ad landscape has continued. To the extent that there has been progress in media sustainability of late, it’s been driven overwhelmingly by subscriptions and direct reader revenue. Chasing scale via social was indeed a flawed idea — but one that Facebook pretty much took care of by narrowing the traffic spigot. In 2020, if you’re aiming to reach a “smart, highbrow readership,” you build your revenue model around subscriptions, memberships, events…something that comes from those able-to-pay-if-they-love-it readers.

(The New Yorker, a.k.a. The Outline for non-millennials, put up a metered paywall in late 2014 and has seen success with it, increasing total subscription revenue 69 percent from 2015 to 2018.)

By summer 2018, The Outline was laying off staff. (Topolsky got blowback for describing two of them as “underperforming,” for which he apologized.) In September, it laid off all its remaining staff writers. More than 100 freelancers signed an open letter saying they would not do work for the site “until there are significant changes made at the company”:

We are not happy to do this. Many of us have contributed to the site, which has a unique voice and, unlike many publications, pays both decently and promptly, rarities in this industry. But we cannot allow Josh Topolsky and his investors to rely on our loyalty to The Outline’s vision when they choose to devalue writers’ work and treat our ability to survive as externalities. The Outline started with a focus on power, culture, and the future; they’ve since created a workplace culture that doesn’t seem to value the labor that makes the site function, have fallen back on typical power structures, and are building a future we want no part of.

Six months later, there were indeed “significant changes made at the company,” if not necessarily ones those freelancers liked. The Outline was bought by Bustle Digital Group, Bryan Goldberg’s company, which had made a habit of acquiring troubled media brands in their moments of crisis (see: Gawker, Mic). It seemed like an odd marriage, given that Bustle Digital had built its business primarily on the sort of strategies Topolsky had not too long before declared “shit.” Peter Kafka:

…the deal joins Goldberg and Topolsky: two men who pride themselves on expressing their opinions forcefully.

Adding to the spiciness of the mix: Goldberg has found success by unapologetically building businesses based around Google search results, while Topolsky has spent the past few years running down attempts by digital publishers to build scale on the backs of Google or Facebook.

And yes, Topolsky says, he didn’t expect to end up working with Goldberg, either. When the two men first met last fall, Topolsky said, “I went into the conversation with high skepticism — ‘Okay, let’s hear this bullshit’…I did not go into the room expecting for us to hit it off.”

In a true digital media time-is-a-flat-circle moment, Goldberg said: “The hard thing for Josh is that the scale hasn’t been there. It got to the point where he doesn’t have the scale behind it, and we do.”

Whatever scale Bustle Digital had to offer, though, not much of it seemed to reach The Outline. SimilarWeb today puts its monthly visits at 1.13 million. Topolsky now also oversees the other Bustle sites Mic, Input, Inverse, the latter two of which showcase his love of wide typefaces and purple gradients. (Those sites’ monthly traffic, again via SimilarWeb: Inverse 7.6 million, Mic 3.7 million, and Input 470,000.)

After having 30 full-time staff at its launch, The Outline’s staff listing this morning counted 10.

The coronavirus has been crushing for much of the media industry, particularly the segments most reliant on advertising. There’s no doubt truth in Bustle Digital attributing this move to the virus and its economic impacts.

But the broader story of The Outline had its own momentum: It was driven far more than most publications by a set of ideas. The Outline was an argument for something. Many of those ideas were good, but some important ones were mistaken. And all those ideas sometimes left it feeling like a concept more than a product.

Yesterday, Topolsky wrote this piece headlined “Thank god for the internet” — for Input, not for The Outline.

It’s about all the ways that the Internet — the techlashed Internet we increasingly love to hate — has been a balm, a point of connection during COVID-19. Over the past decade, it’s often felt like the worst qualities of digital life were seeping, then gushing, then flooding into our “real” offline lives. Now, with those offline lives constrained to our homes, the Internet’s best qualities are a source of comfort. Apologies for the extensive blockquote:

We spend a lot of time talking about and thinking about how bad the internet is for us. How much it’s wrecked our self-esteem, our ability to be private, the way our kids are raised, the way our data is used, the negative effects it has on our political process and our elections. We love our technology, but we’re not in love with it. We’re usually disappointed by it, scared of it, mad at it.

But thank god for the internet. What the hell would we do right now without the internet? How would so many of us work, stay connected, stay informed, stay entertained? For all of its failings and flops, all of its breeches and blunders, the internet has become the digital town square that we always believed it could and should be. At a time when politicians and many corporations have exhibited the worst instincts, we’re seeing some of the best of what humanity has to offer — and we’re seeing it because the internet exists…

I was 12 the first time I logged onto whatever was called the internet then. There were no websites to speak of, not really. No ecommerce, no banner ads, no data tracking, no spyware. iPhones hadn’t been invented yet; we called apps “programs”; and I had an EGA monitor on my PC (a whole 16 colors of range). But the first time I telnetted into a chatroom about raves, made new friends in Australia, or downloaded files to load into a music tracker, I felt the same elation that I feel now. This force, propelled by people, connected by copper and light, letting us make new connections. Connections we need now more than ever.

I’ve admired a lot of Topolsky’s work over the years, and I think in its best moments, it aims to bring back what was exciting about the web’s earlier days. The brash aesthetics of his sites look bold compared to other news sites, but you can also see them as toned-down hints of early MySpace, zines, and net art. His sites’ stories foreground the personal voice like the early generation of blogs; it’s always clear there’s a human behind the byline. His complaints about online advertising are both practical and a sort of moral rejection of the web’s crass commercialization — what happened when what had been a small playspace for creative people became the primary engine of human commerce.

His obvious talents — and what I consider a broadly correct set of ideas about what the Internet should look like — have often been clouded by his, well, apparent comfort being unpleasant in public. (I should note I’ve never met the man — just observed him and his publications’ ups and downs online for the past decade.) It takes a certain kind of skill to get 100 freelance writers to say they refuse to write for your publication despite your paying them quickly and well! There’s a reason why Laura Hazard Owen once wrote: “There are some sites that everyone roots for. Scrappy, beloved. See: The Awl. The Toast. Or not so scrappy, but beloved still. See: Grantland. When they shut down, people mourn them. Then there’s The Outline.”

Reading “Thank god for the internet,” I’m hopeful that whatever comes next, it can have more to do with summoning up that feeling of elation than with calling everything else “shit.”

POSTED     April 3, 2020, 3:13 p.m.
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