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Feb. 12, 2024, 10:57 a.m.
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Six months in, journalist-owned tech publication 404 Media is profitable

“Owning our own work, and being beholden to no one but our readers and colleagues — as opposed to say, investors, venture capitalists, or out-of-touch executives — feels like the future.”

Until January, most stories from 404 Media were available to read for free. But after the four cofounders discovered — through their own reporting — that their stories were being scraped, paraphrased by AI text “spinners,” and published on other websites, they decided to start requiring readers to provide their email addresses to access stories, and they explained why.

“We see how Google is degrading in quality. We see how AI content mills are digesting our stories and gaming the system to get more views than our original reporting they’re ripping off,” cofounder Emanuel Maiberg told me an email. “It’s important to us, and we think it’s important to our readers to know why we’re doing what we’re doing, but it’s also in the public interest to know what Google, AI, content mills, etc. are doing to the general health of the information environment.”

These are the types of stories, with that level of transparency, that 404 Media was founded to report, cofounder Jason Koebler said. It launched last August as a news outlet covering the impacts of technology on users in ways that are accessible, transparent, and relatable.

“Our goal is to find niche communities and see what they care about, what they’re happy and excited about, and what they’re really upset about,” Koebler said. “We want the communities that we’re writing about to read these articles and be like, ‘Okay, they got it right.’ But we don’t want to be so insular that only those people are interested.”

404 Media’s founders and co-owners — a staff of four — all come from Motherboard, Vice’s tech vertical: Former Motherboard editor-in-chief Koebler, former Motherboard executive editor  Maiberg, and former Motherboard staff writers Sam Cole and Joseph Cox. Koebler said they decided to launch 404 Media after years of experiencing the financial ups and downs in the news industry — and seeing what independent publications like Defector have been able to accomplish. (Vice filed for bankruptcy last May and was sold to Fortress Investment Group for $350 million in June; Motherboard still exists.)

“There are so many things that big digital media companies waste money on, like consultants, software, offices,” Koebler said. Vice, in his view, “wasn’t able to consistently invest in new hires and in the journalism in a way that felt sustainable. We wanted to start a new company and basically strip it to its essentials.”

The four cofounders each own 25% of the company, and at launch each put in $1,000 to cover initial costs. Koebler declined to share current revenue numbers, but said the company is profitable (and that everyone’s been able to pay themselves back the money they initially put in).

“It’s hard to look around at the environment we’re working in, which we all love and are in because we love it, and think the status quo is functioning in anything close to a sustainable way,” Cole said. “Owning our own work, and being beholden to no one but our readers and colleagues — as opposed to say, investors, venture capitalists, or out-of-touch executives — feels like the future.”

Recent stories include the New Jersey government using COVID-19 relief funding to buy banned surveillance cameras; why advertisers don’t want publications like Jezebel to exist; and why Amazon Web Services shut down the Wickr app. 404 Media also has a publishing partnership with Court Watch: writer Seamus Hughes shares documents with the team, they write stories up with him or separately, and both publications get to publish the story.

“The most personal thing I’ve written for 404 Media so far has been about freezing my eggs,” Cole said. “So much of how we move through the world, plan our futures, and access care is influenced by technology, and a lot of it is obvious. But this was such a human, messy, emotional experience for me that it was an interesting experiment to look at it through that lens.”

404’s revenue streams are advertising, podcast ads, donations, merchandise, and paid subscriptions. Paid subscriptions, which start at $100 per year, include access to events like FOIA forums, where the staff teaches participants how to file records requests. (More than 40 people attended the first forum.) 404 Media is also in the early stages of turning some of its feature stories into podcasts and documentaries. Koebler said that direct ad sponsorships — something he worked on for Motherboard — are working, too.

“We went into this being like, ‘We’ll have subscribers and we’ll have ads and hopefully that will work.’ And what we’re finding is that, yes, that is working, but then there’s also all these other little ways that you can make small amounts of money, like selling merch,” Koebler said. “We’re on Apple News now and in the process of enabling monetization there…I suspect that when we turn it on, we’ll be making $20 to $100 per month, which is very little money but as we grow, all of those things start to add up.”

The 404 team DIYs as much as possible. They pay for hosting through Ghost and set up litigation insurance, for example, but everyone makes their own art for stories instead of paying for agency photos. (The reporters are also the merch models). Everyone works from home, so they don’t have an office and don’t plan on getting one anytime soon. The team communicates through a free Slack channel. Koebler mails out merchandise from his garage in Los Angeles. Every month, the team meets (virtually) to decide how much they can pay themselves. (The number changes each month, but everyone gets paid the same amount.)

The focus is now on growing the audience in ways that feel authentic. “It’s imperative that we be on TikTok and Instagram in a way that’s feels native there,” Koebler said. “We sort of launched [on every platform] and then we scaled back slightly in terms of what we’re focusing on. We will always focus on the reporting and the stories. Getting it out to other places is a priority of ours, but if there’s not enough time in the day, we’re not going to work 20-hour days just so we can have, like, a good TikTok.”

“My first journalism job was at a small-town newspaper, where we didn’t even have a real digital presence, and I was interacting with sources who were also my neighbors, people I saw at the farmer’s market or the coffee shop, and they could come to the newsroom and see the newspaper getting printed,” Cole said. “That’s the kind of connection I think we want to have with our readers and subscribers. Come see how it’s made, and let us meet you where you are.”

The paywall will continue to evolve as the internet changes and the business grow. Right now, almost every story is free to read when it’s first published, but 404 Media is starting to put older stories behind the paywall. (FOIA reporting is an exception and “will always be free because it’s based on public documents that everyone has a right to access,” Maiberg said. Those stories often include an ask at the top for readers to subscribe or donate.)

One thing that will remain: The mix of in-depth investigations and shorter, voice-y blog posts. “Some viral news stories get a ton of eyeballs and a very low percentage of conversions to paid subscribers, and some deep, long investigations don’t get many eyeballs at all, but a much higher percentage of people who read those articles convert [to subscribers],” Maiberg said.

“At Vice, if we wrote a big investigation and not many people read it, that was kind of painful…it felt like shouting into the void,” he added. “Here, if we publish an investigation that reaches a small audience, but that audience really engages and pays for our work, it feels very good and productive.”

Hanaa' Tameez is a staff writer at Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (hanaa@niemanlab.org) or Twitter DM (@HanaaTameez).
POSTED     Feb. 12, 2024, 10:57 a.m.
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