Game of Thrones: Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg of All Things Digital look to expand their empire

In the latest example of how the balance of power continues to shift in online media, Kara Swisher of All Things Digital and her co-founder — Wall Street Journal columnist Walt Mossberg — are considering breaking their ties with Dow Jones, the WSJ parent company that owns the site, and striking out on their own with backing from a new financial partner. According to a report from Fortune magazine, the pair have been talking to a range of companies about a relationship, including Bloomberg, NBCUniversal and Conde Nast.
Sources close to the company say the Fortune story is largely true, and that Comcast subsidiary NBCUniversal is the current front-runner in the bargaining (the company’s venture unit is already an investor in Vox Media, the entity behind The Verge and SB Nation). Swisher more or less confirmed All Things Digital is looking for a new home in a statement to the magazine, saying:

“Walt and I are interested in taking the online journalism and conference efforts we have been successful at building over the last 12 years and expanding them. There are lots of ways to do that, and we are thinking about the best way to evolve what we believe is an even bigger opportunity in the years ahead.”

Looking for a valuation of $40 million

According to the Fortune report, AllThingsD is working with the investment bank Code Advisors — which has been trying to build its presence in the media sphere — to find an investor willing to contribute between $10 million and $15 million for 25 to 30 percent of the company. That would value the venture at substantially more than the $25 million that AOL paid in for TechCrunch in 2010. All Things D is said to be looking outside the traditional tech VC market in order to avoid the kind of conflict-of-interest allegations that have dogged some newer competitors such as PandoDaily.
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The digital-media sphere has seen a rash of similar maneuvering by powerful personalities with successful online brands over the past year, including New York Times writer Nate Silver’s move to ESPN and former Daily Beast blogger Andrew Sullivan’s move to set up his own reader-funded site. While some have used their influence to carve out a new deal, others — including Ezra Klein of the Washington Post with Wonkblog, and Andrew Ross Sorkin’s DealBook at the NYT — have created a mini empire within a larger parent.
In many ways, All Things Digital was the precursor to DealBook and other similar efforts, since Swisher and Mossberg convinced Dow Jones in 2007 to allow them to set up their own site with a completely different brand and staff, while still being 100-percent owned by the News Corp. subsidiary.
In addition to its website and a relatively small team of writers that includes Peter Kafka, Liz Gannes, Ina Fried, John Paczkowski and Mike Isaac, All Things Digital also runs the popular D series of technology conferences. The series started with the flagship D show, which often features tech luminaries like former Apple CEO Steve Jobs and Microsoft founder Bill Gates, and now includes shows about media and mobile technology (Note: All Things Digital competes directly with Gigaom).

A new partner would mean a new name

One risk for Swisher and Mossberg in moving to a new home is that if they sign a deal with a new partner other than News Corp. or Dow Jones, they could lose the All Things Digital brand name — as well as the right to put on related conferences. While it’s possible that they could negotiate a deal with News Corp. to keep the name, a large part of the value that the media giant has built up in the venture is attached to the brand. If they sign with a new partner, Mossberg and Swisher would have to try and recreate their existing success but under a different corporate banner.
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The first rumors that Swisher and Mossberg were looking at severing their ties to Dow Jones and its parent News Corp. showed up in February, when Reuters reported that the two were in discussions about either extending or dropping their contract with Dow Jones — which is set to expire at the end of this year. At the time, the Reuters story said All Things Digital was receiving “a lot of inbound interest” from a number of other companies about taking a stake in the venture, including Conde Nast, Hearst and a venture group called Guggenheim Digital Media run by former Yahoo executive Ross Levinsohn.
Sources say Swisher and Mossberg have clashed with Dow Jones over a number of issues, including the pair’s desire for more resources to support both the writing side of the venture and the advertising side, so the news that they are looking at other offers could be mostly a bargaining chip in their contract talks — but it’s also clear that the two are prepared to move if they get a better deal. Whether News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch will intervene personally in order to keep them happy remains to be seen.
Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock / ollyy