Why VICE Succeeded and The Gothamist Failed

It seems the digital world has caught up with the sweatshops my late grandmother toiled in on New York’s Lower East Side in the early part of the last century. The only difference being that the consequences are more immediate… though just as harsh.

This week, DNAinfo and Gothamist closed their doors after a vote to unionize. Imagine that. Two online digital journalistic efforts—digital publishing at its purest—closed because they unionized.

To be fair, I am editorializing. An article in the New York Times explained:

“In the financially daunting era of digital journalism, there has been no tougher nut to crack than making local news profitable, a lesson Mr. Ricketts, who lost money every month of DNAinfo’s existence, is just the latest to learn.”

Bottom line: the guy could not make it work, and unions aren’t necessarily created to help increase business results.

To be even more fair, the article continued to explain that DNAinfo announced its terminated workers would receive three months of paid administrative leave at full salary and four weeks of severance.

It’s not like the old days, when workers were locked out, and non-union types were brought in to take their places.

But let’s be clear: this business case never made sense:

“Merging DNAinfo and Gothamist was intended to ease some of the financial strain. But the two sites were an odd mix. DNAinfo specialized in street-level reporting on neighborhood issues not covered in other media, including real estate developments and crime. Gothamist brought a puckish attitude to articles that were sometimes original, sometimes based on news published elsewhere.”

The Digibabble notion that financial success can be found by simply combining digital assets is pure nonsense. Advertising follows readers, and readers follow great content—online or off, as Casper, the digitally based mattress company, has found out. The Wall Street Journal reported that Casper has shut down its web publication, shifting instead to print. Lindsay Kaplan, Casper’s Communications and Brand Engagement Vice President, explained:

“When people buy a Casper, they cover it up with sheets, so there’s something special for us knowing this will remain on someone’s nightstand and remind people to get in bed, relax, unwind and get comfortable,” Ms. Kaplan said.

Sadly, the staff who felt the need to unionize seem to have missed the point made by Casper. Not making money means that costs exceed revenue, and revenue in journalism is a function of readership… not just what the writer deems important, as quoted in Columbia Journalism Review:

“We went to everything, and it was boring sometimes, but we fucking got good shit…..we didn’t always get the glory, but it made a difference to the people who came to us. And that’s gone. I don’t know if anything is going to replace it.”

But these writers are not alone. Frankly, the past few months have not been a good run for print publishers either. WWD reported:

Conde Nast to Cease Teen Vogue in Print, Cut 80 Jobs and Lower Mag Frequencies

“The New York-based publisher, which has instilled a hiring freeze, will slash about 80 jobs, equal to a decrease of about 2.5 percent of its 3,000-person workforce. Budgets across departments are also expected to get a haircut, with the worst-performing divisions and magazines getting cuts of up to 20 percent. As part of that mandate, Condé is reducing the frequencies of most of its titles and will shutter Teen Vogue in print.”

And the fallout hit their top echelons as well:

“As Condé has looked to reduce headcount and thin out heavy-salaried employees, editors in chief Keija Minor, of Brides; Graydon Carter, of Vanity Fair, and Cindi Leive, of Glamour, have all exited the company. Condé is still on the hunt for successors at Vanity Fair and Glamour, which will likely be revealed around the Thanksgiving holiday.”

But read carefully. The news here is around their print editions, which they are still managing to distribute (albeit in different ways and less often). If you do subscribe to any of their still-viable print editions, you might be surprised to see that advertising remains powerfully resonant. And if you also read online, you see how they manage content between platforms, simply by seeing what people really want and what’s truly important to them: interesting, powerful, unique and brilliantly executed and delivered, keeping something different on each medium.

Make no mistake. The so-called digital powerhouse publishers of our time, like Vice, understand the notion of publishing for the people better than anyone. Time and time again, it’s great, enduring content that consumers want.

And to that end, Vice just launched their second annual music issue online and offline:

“We wanted the Music Issue to feel diverse in the artists, genres, and stories we featured. We wanted to give a platform to up-and-coming artists, and we wanted to discuss how advancements in technology are changing the way we consume and think about music. But flipping through the completed issue, we have a surprising amount of archival content, too, all handled with a sense of preciousness and admiration, the kind reserved for anything that evokes strong feelings of nostalgia. These pieces feel like odes to simpler times, and perhaps focusing on them was a subconscious way of dealing with a future that feels especially tumultuous.”

You see? They are not self-conscious in terms of being held back by Digibabble constraints…their deals with Disney and HBO should have made that clear. Rather, they get to their audience, delivering not self-importance, but relevance and excellence be it broadcast, cable, streaming, or even print.

And there you have it.

I don’t mean to be judgmental, but some feel entitled to be protected, while others feel empowered to deliver.

And the results of one versus the other seem to be rather clear.

Guy Kawasaki said it rather well (although I’m not sure he intended it this way).


“Entitlement is the opposite of enchantment.”
– Guy Kawaski

Readers want to be enchanted. They need writers who can create that enchantment, and publishers who can deliver it. We need more enchantment, and less entitlement.

Simple equation, and there is success in it… online and off.

My grandmother would have been a Vice reader.

What do you think?

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