The Rise of the Branded Journalist

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A variety of superstar brand-name journalists have launched their own start-ups based on a variety of business models as the distribution of news continues to mutate at a rapid rate, changing even quicker than we can keep track of.

To look backwards to find the first “branded journalist” who stepped out of the mainstream to find success running his own URL, it would start with Matt Drudge’s Drudge Report, which began in 1996 as a subscriber-based newsletter, and then broke into the mainstream when it became the first news source to publish news about Monica Lewinsky, thereby changing the nature of news forever.

These days, the Drudge legacy can be found in branded aggregation sites like the Huffington Post and Breitbart, but there’s also another trend that has materialized - the idea that a branded journalist with his or her own following can set out on their own to create an audience to make sense as an independent business.

Here’s a quick list of the 10 most notable branded traditional journalists and their respective ventures.

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Andrew Sullivan, The Dish

Andrew Sullivan is the father of this trend. As Sullivan’s brand of analyzing the news on his blog “The Dish” developed first at the Atlantic and then at the Daily Beast, he brought along an audience who appreciated his lens as well as the clean feeling of his comment-free blog, where reader comments were instead curated through an editorial process. When Sullivan announced his departure from the Beast to form an ad-free, subscription-based model for his services at $20 per year, readers flocked to him, generating an apparent “overnight” success story a decade in the making.

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Jessica Lessin, The Information

Lessin left her post at the Wall Street Journal to begin her new project called The Information, which she is selling subscriptions to at a rate of $399 per year, somewhat of a more serious commitment than Sullivan’s $20. It’s safe to assume the the difference of the price comes from several different considerations, including the distinction of an “ownership business model” as opposed to an “access model” like Sullivan, or the thinking that the subscription cost would be covered by oneself or one’s employer. Perhaps a company is more likely to pay the $399 per year for its workers to gain access to the insight provided by Lessin in the fast-moving tech-business space, unlike Sullivan’s audience, which is more concerned with politics that affect individuals, and so therefore lacks a specific market application.

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Ezra Klein, Vox

As soon as Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos purchased the Washington Post, trend watchers expected him to quickly maximize the new media potential of the emerging assets under the Post’s brand. However, what happened instead was that blogger wunderkind Ezra Klein was quick to jump ship with a few other staffers to join Matt Yglasias, another branded journo, at Vox Media.

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Glenn Greenwald, First Look Media

You know him as the muckraking journalist who helped Edward Snowden blow the whistle on the NSA for the UK-based Guardian newspaper, who Greenwald thanked by promptly leaving to form a joint venture with eBay billionaire Pierre Omidyar, First Look Media. Here in this new venture, they have assembled other branded outsiders like Jeremy Scahill and Matt Taibbi to create a potential monster of anti-establishment web-only investigative journalism.

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Nate Silver, FiveThirtyEight

Of all these guys (and a few women) who have walked away from the mothership to form their own fiefdoms, none is more amazing than Nate Silver, who apparently had it made: a blogger who made it into the ivory tower of the New York Times, only to tell the Grey Lady, “no thanks,” and walk out the door with his branded blog, FiveThirtyEight, and take it to ESPN, where his team of number-crunching data journalists do things like analyze how often MLB players swing at pitches in the strike zone with a runner in scoring position. Talk about “inside baseball,” and yet, Silver is doing it his way, and apparently winning.

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David Pogue, Yahoo

Like Silver, Pogue left a comfy position at the New York Times as the editor of its “State of the Art” column, but unlike Silver, Pogue was a creature of the Times, not some acquired blog property that departed. As recently as mid-2013, Pogue called his Times gig, “the greatest job in the world,” so it would have to take a lot for Yahoo to pull him away to create Yahoo Tech, which has essentially become Pogue’s tech playground with his hand-selected staff of dream-teamers.

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Felix Salmon, Fusion

Earlier this year, Felix Salmon announced he was leaving his role as a financial writer and blogger for Reuters and becoming a senior editor at Fusion, a new joint venture between ABC and Univision, targeted to millennials. Salmon explained his decision in a Medium post, naturally.

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David Leonhardt, The Upshot

Formerly the New York Times’ Washington bureau chief, David Leonhardt has moved back to the mothership to head up The Upshot, probably to fill the void left by the departure of Nate Silver and his FiveThirtyEight brand. The Upshot, like 538, will focus on policy, economics and politics for the Times with data-generated graphics. Something that you would expect from someone who majored in applied mathematics at Yale while acting as editor-in-chief of the Yale Daily News.

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Bill Simmons, Grantland

Simmons is the editor-in-chief of Grantland, ESPN’s blog for covering sports and pop culture (which is named for pioneering sports writer Grantland Rice). Simmons made his name for himself as the Boston Sports Guy, with a unique combination of sports talk, pop culture, and notes about his personal life. His brand is that of a fan’s fan: super-smart about sports but with a life outside of sports, too.

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Ben Smith, BuzzFeed

Ben Smith became a national brand during his coverage of the 2008 presidential campaign for Politico, where he worked until 2011, when Jonah Peretti hired him away to become the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed, where he now has a staff of 150 reporters working under him. Smith instantly gave BuzzFeed the gravitas it needed to compete with the big boys, and BuzzFeed gave Smith the freedom to pursue his brand of journalism.