Category Archives: Media

On Media Rivalry

When the news of the death of Josh Ozersky came across Twitter on Monday night, this tweet encapsulated the place my mind went: to the pleasure of having a good rival in media. In memory and honor of Josh, some thoughts on that era, and the value our rivalry created for all of us.

At Eater, we knew Grub Street was coming long before it was called Grub Street. Or even existed. That’s because New York Magazine had signaled its intention in the space by making an offer to buy Curbed and Eater early in 2006. It was incredibly flattering but not the right fit at the time — a story for another day — but we understood that Adam Moss and his team saw the value in restaurant blogging and that they would likely pursue it regardless of whether they bought Eater. And so for Ben Leventhal and I it became a parlor game, to ferret out whatever information we could about what they were working on at NYMag.

One day Ben came up with the scoop. “They’ve hired Cutlets. Mr. Cutlets!” I didn’t know who that was, but Ben did: Mr. Cutlets was Josh Ozersky, a meat expert and sort-of-known food writer who went by that handle. We girded for battle, and then it came. Grub Street launched on September 18, 2006.

Except we didn’t refer to it as Grub Street on Eater. Ever. We called it Cutlets. Like, “Cutlets has the word that…” or “According to Cutlets…” This amused us to no end. “I remember it was very obvious that we were going to nickname it Cutlets — and would have continued calling it that long after his departure if Ben Williams didn’t make a personal appeal to us to call it Grub Street,” Ben recalled to me earlier today via GChat.

Ben also reminded me that on Grubz’ launch day, Cutlets promised posts ON THE HOUR. Given Eater’s semi-leisurely pace at this point in September 2006, this scared the shit out of us — but also gave Leventhal the fuel to do what he does so well. “BREAKING: Cutlets Misses Noon Post, 1 PM in Question,” screamed an Eater headline. “Other NYM servers appear to be stable. If anyone has info as to Cutlets’ whereabouts, and if he’s hurt in any way, please let us know and/or call the authorities.”

Man. The things rivalries drive you to do. (This still makes me laugh hysterically, btw.)

It’s often talked about how having rivals pushes you to a higher level, certainly in sports, but yes, for sure in media too. Students of Nick Denton’s memos over the years can trace the way with which he cannily sets new rivals as a way to motivate his troops. (It’s flattering that Vox Media was positioned with Buzzfeed as Gawker’s top rivals in his December 2014 “Back to Blogging” screed.)

But let’s be real: the marketplace clearly has room for Buzzfeed and Vox Media and Gawker Media, as well a bunch of other big digital media properties that have reached scale. We’re still going to fight tooth-and-nail, of course, because we are better than the next company on this list. (Fact.) But when rivalry is at its most intense is when it appears that the marketplace may not have room for more than one winner. When failure is an option, and maybe the more likely one. When it’s you or them.

Which is why Grub Street’s launch led us to up Eater’s game. I know from conversations long after the fact with Ozersky that this was probably harder on him than it was on us: Ben and I loved cranking out short hits, while Josh’s style was longer-form; getting used to the blogging grind is really hard. But for better or worse, for the next couple years, our metabolism soared as we worked liked crazy to get every scoop onto Eater as quickly as possible to beat the other guy. Every minute mattered. Hell, every second mattered.

“In that frame,” Ben continues, “I will say that 100% were it not for the arrival of Cutlets on the scene, I would have been much more lax about Eater’s pace. We needed Cutlets to, as I put it in an email to Peter Meehan, dated 12/4/06, ‘Get the blood flowing.’”

In the end, both Eater and Grub Street found their place in the ecosystem, and both thrived. But it’s a telling point about the power of rivalries that I can’t tweet a Grub Street link to this day.

The Grub Street-Eater rivalry never ended for Ozersky, either. Just a few weeks ago, after reading my interview with Lucky Peach in which I bragged about how Eater had beaten Grub Street on the opening of The Dutch in summer 2010, he couldn’t resist tweeting back at me:

Great rivalries never die. But great competitors, unfortunately, do. RIP, Josh Ozersky.

UPDATE: Here’s a great bookend to my story, on the early days of Ozersky and Grub Street as seen from the opposite trenches, by Daniel Maurer. And there you have it: I have linked to Grub Street.

Flooding The Zone

With thanks to Bryce for the nudge, let me first blog this piece about blogging that Lucky Peach published yesterday, and now blog a bit about it.

Brette Warshaw, who runs the internet operations of Lucky Peach, approached me last month wanting to talk obsession and the web. (It’s Obsession Month at LuckyPeach.com, following the publication of LP’s new issue, which has the theme of obsession.) She dropped by the Vox office a few days later and I talked for an hour, laying out a fair bit of the backstory of Eater and how obsession figured into it.

Somehow Brette managed to take my ramblings and cohere them into a piece that captures my thinking about web obsession really well while also telling a great story about Eater itself. It’s called Flooding the Zone. Please do check it out.

One more thought. Rereading the Lucky Peach interview yesterday, I was struck by my somewhat wistful tone. While I did love those early eras of Eater, and the strategy that we employed back then to win them, their passing doesn’t trouble me. The challenge of media on the web is always evolving, and as we’ve moved from the blog age into the social age, we’ve adapted our approach. Surprise: it’s still as much fun as ever. And we’re still winning. For the full accounting of how all that’s going down, check back here in 2021.

Shall We Lunch?

The New York City media world owes something to Quantum Theory in the sense that all trends about the New York Media world are true, until one of them is observed and written about. At which point that trend ceases to be true, leaving only all the other trends.

This thought occurred to me anew while reading John Koblin’s Styles piece today on the death of the Power Lunch among the younger New York mediaset. John interviewed me for the story, and included a quote of mine that I’m immensely proud of: “Just walking down the street to go to Pain Quotidien is considered a massive, impressive lunch move.”

Whether or not this is entirely accurate is a measure of some dispute, but let’s take stock of the larger issue here. If lunches are OUT, what are we to make of this Styles piece from 2007 that declared that, among the young movers, power breakfasts are most definitely IN? I’ll let the me of back then make the case from a Balthazar banquette:

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New York media and Quantum Theory being what they are, I expect to be around and be quoted in 2021 when the Styles section declares afternoon snacking either absolutely IN or deeply, completely OUT.

The Verge’s Super Bowl Ad: It’s About The Future

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Moments after my flight from Munich touched down at JFK at 3:30pm yesterday, my phone lit up with text messages from friends. One, from a usually incredulous friend, read: “You guys are running a Super Bowl ad? Amazing.”

At this point, it was about an hour since The Verge had published, then unpublished, a post with the headline “DNP Verge Super Bowl ad” and some brief dummy copy by Nilay about how this space would be filled in before publication of the post on Super Bowl Sunday, February 1. Verge fanboys being Verge fanboys, many read the site via RSS, so the rogue post remained in their feeds and they immediately started chatting about the post on Twitter. It wasn’t long before several media organizations jumped on the story, and our CEO took to Twitter to confirm the commercial and release it to the world:

By now, Vox was fielding inquiries from the likes of the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, both of whom quickly published their own stories on the news. After all, the story of a venture-capital backed online publisher, which happened to have just raised a $45 million round of financing, dropping $4.5 million of it on a Super Bowl commercial of all things, was irresistible. (A Twitter user superimposed the Pets.com sock puppet over a photo of The Verge staff.)

Which was all well and good until we let the cat out of the bag an hour later: The Verge was indeed airing a Super Bowl commercial during the game — but only in the local market of Helena, Montana, where to reach an audience of 30,000 we’d agreed to pay the going local rate of $700 per 30 second spot. This led to a round of revisions in the original media reports, and a wonderful new New York Times headline:

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I’ll leave it to the masterminds behind the troll — Nilay Patel and Jonathan Hunt — to write the full tick-tock of the matter, but suffice to say that I adore a good media stunt, and this one worked out about as well as one could have ever dreamed. (The team, naturally, took the greatest delight in having roped in Sam Biddle, although the local Helena media reporting on the story also proved particularly LOLworthy.)

The story isn’t over yet. Might The Verge send someone to cozy Helena, Montana, on Super Bowl Sunday? Do stay tuned. But for now, the final word to the CEO of T-Mobile, John Legere:

DLD in Munich

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I spent the Martin Luther King Day weekend in Munich, Germany, at the DLD15 conference. It was my first time at DLD, a conference that serves as something of a staging pad for those on their way to Davos. The mix of people, although heavy on media, is interesting. I ended up in a great conversation with a founder of a global clean water initiative; gave an interview about Vox Media to an Austrian outlet, which is likely to have a major impact on our global mindshare; and advised a young German journalist on whether he should start a site in the spirit of Vox.com for his country (of course!). And, natch, I spoke on a panel that included Kate Lewis from Hearst and MailOnline publisher Martin Clarke. We were fiesty and fun.

That this panel was held at 9:05am on Monday morning, after I’d stayed up watching the Patriots dispatch the Colts — a game that wrapped just before 4am Munich time — and that I looked so fresh-faced, as evidenced in the photograph above — is a testament to the excellent meats and beers of this fine city. I’d last visited Munich on a summertime Eurorail trip through Eastern Europe in 1993; my friend Sesh and I had dipped into Munich after exploring the Czech Republic because we had a friend living in the city for the summer. My lasting memory is the group of us openly urinating in the street sometime on the other side of midnight.

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This time around, no such luck, although I did get some good eating in. Sunday night, I snuck out of the kickoff dinner and met Felix and Michelle at Brenner. I approached the restaurant, above, across an open square, and was delighted but unsurprised when I found out that’s where we were dining. It’s a mediterranean menu in a big open mod-Bavarian space; I had an excellent steak. A group of journalists including John Gapper, Marcus Brauchli, and the entire senior Fusion team joined our table which led to a massively hilarious meal and the self-satisfied feeling that I was at last networking appropriately.

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Two other straight-up Bavarian meals of note: Monday lunch with Kate at Zum Franziskaner (two giant, crackling pig ribs); and dinner with a different iteration of Felix’s crew at Zum Dürnbräu (a perfect viener schnitzel and table tastings of this craziness.)

Davos invite lost in mail, so it’s back to America today.

Flood the #DawnWall

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Yesterday, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgenson finished their historic free climb of the Dawn Wall of El Capitan in Yosemite Natonal Park. It’s a story that I got sucked into following almost exclusively via The New York Times, about which, a few thoughts.

I first encountered the story when the Times ran this piece about the quest on the bottom of A1 on Monday, January 5. At this point, the expedition had been on the wall for about a week, having arrived at the toughest part of the climb. It felt like a good, quirky choice for an A1 story: the right mix of quixotic quest with heroic sheen. I followed the climbers on Instagram and Twitter, figuring this would be about the last I’d read of the quest in the Times, or any mainstream media.

Wrong. From there out, the Times went full court crazy on the story of Caldwell and Jorgenson. Tuesday, January 6, a detailed piece on the front page of the sports section. Thursday, January 8, back on A1 (the story that birthed the famous “Kyrgyzstan, not Kyrzbekistan” correction). Friday, January 9, an op-ed on “Climbing and Tweeting.”

On Saturday, January 10, the print edition of the Times sports section gave over nearly the entire front page to a graphic of the Dawn Wall, and the pair’s route up it. Here’s when the digital side of the Times really dove into the story, creating an interactive graphic of the Dawn Wall, complete with scrollable photo illustrations. Yesterday, the interactive team was at it again, creating a zoomable photo of the Dawn Wall to track the climb’s progress. And twice more this week, the story would wind up back on A1, including a photo today of the successful climbers summiting the ridge.

Now, I’m probably one of the few people left who reads the Times in print every day, but the frequency with which this very soft news story hit A1 blew my mind. Howell Raines, the Executive Editor who popularized the phrase “flooding the zone” — a concept we used liberally at Curbed, and still teach to our editors — would be proud. Yeah, don’t get me wrong: I completely support and encourage good zone flooding in general, and think the Times nailed it here. I got sucked into a story I wouldn’t otherwise care about as it carried along for two weeks.

Also of note is the exceptional work of the Times interactive team, which I think sets the bar on the web right now for interactive storytelling experiences. That the organization can get zone-flood buy-in across print and digital is impressive. Makes me think about how we can flood the zone even harder on the stories that matter to us at Vox.

CES Past and Present

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[Verge trailer at CES in this afternoon's fading sunlight.]

I attended my first Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January 1997. Six months earlier, fresh out of college, I’d started a job as an associate editor at a new consumer electronics magazine called Wideband. Our boss, an industry legend named Richard Ekstract, had created and sold a number of trade magazines, and Wideband was his latest effort. With an eye towards differentiating it from the other tired trade magazines in the space, he staffed it exclusively with 20-somethings.

The merits and pitfalls of this staffing strategy were never more evident than when Richard announced that, en masse, the staff would be heading to Las Vegas to cover the Consumer Electronics Show. We stayed at The Aladdin, a hotel that would promptly be imploded after we checked out. (It’s where Planet Hollywood stands now.) I had no idea what I was doing, so I scheduled interviews with company executives in different convention halls, leaving myself 10 minutes between appointments that in actuality took more like an hour to navigate. I sweated like crazy, filled tiny notebooks with notes, and even got some stories. Then each night, after walking all day, our Wideband crew would hit the town, gamble and drink until dawn, then crash and repeat the cycle. It was one of the most memorable weeks of my life.

All of which might explain my fondness for the Consumer Electronics Show — and Las Vegas in general — that others seem to lack. By my math, this is my eleventh CES. I’ve moved to that place in my career where I’m really just here for the schmoozing, but The Verge has an entire trailer and most of the staff on site and they’re reporting hundreds of stories a day and creating a ton of amazing video. (I’m typing these words from inside The Verge trailer. It has an unforgettable odor.) If you want to read one good thing about what’s up at this year’s show, I’d recommend this one by Verge editor in chief Nilay Patel: Gadgets are Back.

Speaking of Nilay, a few minutes ago, I was standing outside The Verge trailer talking on my phone when I spotted Nilay approaching. He was stopped by a fanboy for a selfie, which he obliged. Then he ambled up to me, backpack over his back, plastic container holding a hamburger in one hand. “This week is fucking weird, man.”

True. But also kind of the best.

Going Vertical

Last week, Rafat Ali wrote a great blog post titled Why It’s Time for a Vertical Media Collective. He explains:

For all the hype that media loves to shower on itself, vertical media companies, outlets and startups are the invisible middle child that everyone ignores. Even media reporters writing at vertical media outlets ignore it, while using those platforms to talk about the same five BuzzVoxViceQuartz538Gawker & the ilk.

I have written previously about my love for verticals — after all I have built my life in them — and companies and sites I admire that are taking a vertical focus and building long-lasting loyalties way beyond the flavor-of-the-day types.

Verticals, the real ones, are focused on subject matters where professionals build careers in, or enthusiasts spent their lives in being obsessed about. By definition, these are specific niches, but businesses being built on top of these don’t have to be.

As someone who spent a decade building and growing the vertical media stacks of Curbed, Eater, and Racked, I couldn’t agree more. In his post, Rafat rattles off a bunch of vertical media companies that he loves. Here are some of mine, in no particular order: Pando (Sarah Lacy’s Silicon Valley events and media company); Apartment Therapy (Max Ryan’s interiors site); Food52 (Amanda Hesser’s impressive recipe-cum-commerce hub); MediaRedef (Jason Hirschorn’s growing curated email newsletter empire); and Skift (Rafat’s own travel intelligence and events concern).

Each of these sites does what a strong vertical media company should do: deliver an insane depth of knowledge about its world, and, in many cases, creates ways for people who live in the penumbra of that world to meet up in real life and/or transact commerce in a very specialized way (such as with Food52′s Provisions store, which feels like shopping alongside Amanda Hesser herself).

Separate from Rafat’s post, I’ve been thinking about verticalized media as it relates to Vox Media. Despite Rafat lumping Vox in with a bunch of other horizontal media plays at the start of his post, I think one of the core advantages of a model like Vox’s (or Gawker Media’s) as compared to, say, the Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, or Mashable, is that our verticals can stay mostly verticalized, whereas more horizontal media companies need to expand their purview significantly in order to increase audience. Refinery 29, one of the leading fashion websites, has been doing this aggressively over the past few years, branching out into food and drink and movies and TV coverage, among numerous other subverticals. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to give a rabid audience more of what they want, and R29 has a pretty good filter for this sort of thing. But I also think a brand like R29 risks losing its authority in its original vertical when the site that was once the best place about one thing becomes yet another site about everything.

An interesting Digiday story that came out this morning about The Verge illustrates this same tension inside Vox Media:

The Verge may have been founded as a competitor to tech sites like CNet and Engadget, but it’s now eyeing newer, bigger targets: lifestyle publishers like Rolling Stone and Vice. Since its launch in 2011, the Vox Media tech site has extended its editorial coverage beyond technology to culture, science and even general news. This has all been in the hopes of building its audience beyond gadget enthusiasts and attracting more lifestyle-oriented advertisers.

In its most recent move, the site hired Grantland culture editor Emily Yoshida to build out the its coverage of movies, television and music. The Verge is also putting the finishing touches on an automotive and transportation section, which will push its coverage boundaries even further.

Listening to Verge editor-in-chief Nilay Patel explain it, the purview of The Verge isn’t so much “technology” as it is “the future.” Which helps explain the filter The Verge will use to expand its coverage into areas like entertainment and automotive. The risk is that in doing so, The Verge loses touch with the core of what makes it so great — and its fans so passionate about it. Nilay and the team are aware of this risk, and I believe they’ll manage it successfully. (I also could not be more excited about The Verge’s addition of Emily Yoshida to its team; she’s going to kill it.) But it’s a risk worth remembering and revisiting as The Verge grows.

Meantime, Rafat’s planning to assemble a bunch of folks obsessed with vertical media — including me — next month in New York City. He’s calling the undertaking the Verticals Collective, and hey, you know it’s serious because he’s even got a website for it up and running. If any of what I’ve written about here touches a nerve, join us. I expect the conversation will be illuminating — and oh so very vertical.

The Retro-Futuristic Future of Eater

In the Department of Sheer Coincidence, at almost exactly the moment that I started this blog back up, Ben Leventhal published this interview with Adam Kuban, the man behind the original New York City pizza blog, Slice. This portion of the interview plays as a perfect coda to my posts from yesterday:

But it’s an interesting thing. That kind of voice and personality is exactly what made the site successful.

I think that’s what readers connected with, not only on Slice or Hamburger Today or Serious Eats. But, blogs in general. That was what people connected with. That’s why there were blogs and there was the mainstream media. As blogs became more professional, they lost some of that craziness. I miss the early days when you could just get up a post about whatever and just kind of express yourself without really thinking about page views, thinking about SEO, thinking about how it will play on Twitter, if it’s shareable on Facebook … I do miss the sense that you were making it up as you went along. Now there’s a formula to things. There’s a way to do a lifestyle blog. There’s a way to do a recipes blog. You have to have beautiful photos. You have to have giveaways.

Doesn’t that suck?

It does. It is formulaic. It all kind of blends into the same voice. “Look, we have a giveaway from Kitchen-Aid. Fun!” It’s a little sad to see what was once my baby kind of lingering there. Languishing.

Eater, as Ben notes in his intro to his interview with Adam, has undergone more change in the past six months than in its nine-year history as a result of Vox’s investment in the site and team. Which is unbelievably exciting. And yet the biggest changes haven’t yet come to light. For the past six months, the Vox Product team has also been in the trenches with Team Eater, prepping the biggest visual overhaul to the site that we’ve ever done in conjunction with Eater’s move onto Vox’s publishing platform, Chorus. The results are set to be unveiled next month. If ever this word felt appropriate: brace.

But nostalgia for the old days is palpable with Team Eater, too. Which is why I got excited when I noticed several crucial friends of Eater talking on Twitter that perhaps a gala nostalgic throwback is in order before Eater takes its great leap forward. Could we be talking new IMterviews, people? The mind boggles.

And there’ll be a giveaway from Kitchen-Aid. Fun!