Newspapers need better exits

Traditional news organizations, at least the big ones, have actually gotten pretty good lately at building brands around individual in-house talent, or at least at supporting the talents’ entrepreneurial efforts to build their brands. The Wall Street Journal nurtured AllThingsD under the leadership of Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg; the New York Times gave Nate Silver’s 538 blog a major push and gave room to David Pogue to build his brand; the Washington Post has provided a platform for a roster of semi-autonomous bloggers and gave Ezra Klein’s Wonkblog the star treatment.

What the news organizations that incubated those brands have not had a lot of is successful exits. With Ezra Klein bolting from Post today, all three of those high-profile experiments have ended with the paper letting the brand it helped nurture get away while getting little in return. And that doesn’t even count Politico, which John Harris and Jim VandeHei left the Post to start from scratch (albeit after building up their bylines and contacts courtesy of their former positions at the paper).

In Klein’s case at least money appears to have been an issue. According to the Times, the Post’s publisher Katherine Weymouth and new owner Jeff Bezos  balked at the 8-figure investment Klein was asking for to expand the franchise, leaving him to look to venture capital and outside investors to back his project (Klein is expected to announce a new venture shortly, reportedly to be backed in part by Verge-publisher Vox Media.)

I suspect part of the problem, though, was a matter of mindset. Traditional news organizations (my own background) simply don’t have entrepreneurship in their DNA and they really don’t know how to manage it, let alone use it to their advantage. As Business Insider executive editor Joe Weisenthal, told Politico, “It sounds like Ezra wanted WaPo to launch a non-WaPo venture, and maybe they didn’t think that’d be so valuable.”

They need to get over that. Incubating new digital news brands is exactly what traditional news organizations should be doing right now. But they need to treat them as genuine startups, with the expectation that they will eventually leave the nest.

News organizations should be encouraging entrepreneurship in their ranks, investing in the most promising ventures, and structuring deals to provide a payoff when its time for the startup to move on, whether in the form of an ongoing equity interest in the new venture, co-publishing arrangements that will drive traffic to the mothership on an ongoing basis, or some other mutually beneficial arrangement. Could the Washington Post not have put up part of the $10 million Klein was reportedly looking for and help it raise the rest in exchange for some measure of exclusivity and an ongoing equity position in what Klein ends up building?

Exclusivity is an outdated concept in a networked publishing environment. Trying to preserve it can quickly become counterproductive.