It was a battlefield promotion. On September 11, 2013, the founder of The Daily Beast, Tina Brown, announced she was parting ways with the company she’d co-founded five years before with Barry Diller. Our brief marriage with Newsweek was heading toward divorce and the grim business of layoffs loomed. The smart money thought we were dead. But the second chapter of the Beast was beginning.
The next five years were a wild ride full of good fights, from standing with Charlie Hebdo to standing up to President Trump. Our commitment to quality original digital journalism at the intersection of politics, pop culture and power proved to be a prescient formula for the insane news cycles ahead. But before we could thrive we had to survive.
That afternoon, the newsroom was shell-shocked. The idea of the Beast without Tina Brown was almost impossible to imagine. From the jump, she’d infused the site with her wit, smart-set contributors and signature high-low sensibility. I’d joined Team Beast one month after our launch as a contract columnist and rose through the ranks to become political editor and then executive editor. Just one week back from paternity leave with a three-week-old son at home, we corralled reporters to raise a glass to Tina and I promised the Beast would continue to roar. This was bravado based on a need to rally the remaining troops—nothing was certain.
We’d survived the great recession but plenty of digital news sites were on their way to extinction. Nonetheless, The Daily Beast had already achieved online growth beyond legacy brands like the New Yorker and Vanity Fair. But the Newsweek merger had sucked up attention and expenses, while diluting our individual brand and dragging us into the dreaded “general news” category.
The most urgent editorial challenge was how to refocus The Daily Beast identity. One of Barry Diller’s mantras is “differentiation” and this provided an essential guide forward. After all, great news brands are ultimately badges for their readers. And in an era where information is everywhere, differentiation is the soul of a news brand. It would have been malpractice not to build on our foundational high-low DNA.
Journalism is a mission-driven business and so we crafted a new editorial mission statement with newsroom input to make sure we were all pulling in the same direction. We wanted to be independent, irreverent and intelligent, focused on scoops, scandals and secret worlds. We would stand apart from the epidemic of snark by being always skeptical but never cynical. Perhaps most of all, we were happy warriors who loved calling bullishit on bullies, bigots and hypocrites.
We took select quotes from the mission statement and put them on the newsroom walls and pillars. Left publicly unsaid at the gentle request of the sales team was a deeper truth with an even simpler pitch: we wanted to be the smartest tabloid on the web.
Flowing from all of this was a doubling-down on original reporting in contrast to the online avalanche of hot takes and day-two-stories-on-day-one analysis. This was no disrespect to opinion—I come from a columnist background and love the form, especially the Breslin/Kempton style reported-column, which I still believe is ideal for the internet. The presence of the legendary Mike Daly in our newsroom was evidence of our commitment.
But society moves forward through scoops, and balancing my background was an important reason why I brought Noah Shachtman on board to be executive editor, joining us in February of 2014. A bass-player turned war correspondent and founder of The Danger Room at Wired, he was an iconic early adopter of social media and there is no better mentor of young reporters. Along with our managing editor Katie Baker, we created a newsroom leadership team of unusual stability while five publishers and sales heads cycled through on a permanent or interim basis. This continuity allowed us to create a high-morale, high-metabolism newsroom, a collaborative culture that supports and inspires people to do their best work, attracting and retaining great talent while offsetting the unrelenting intensity of competing against editorial teams like Vice, Buzzfeed, Politico and Huffington Post that were often multiples bigger than our roughly 40 full-time writers and editors. We believed in Steve Jobs’ admonition that “it’s more fun to be a pirate than to join the navy.”
The alchemy of individuals was the secret to the success of our journalistic pirate ship. As core part of our strategy, we hired writers and reporters who were not just anonymous bylines: I wanted people on the team with outsized profiles on TV and social media. I half-jokingly referred to this as our advertising budget. Every time a Beast reporter appeared on cable news and the chiron showed their affiliation, it raised brand awareness. Their social media imprint helped build buzz around the Beast and highlighted their colleagues’ work. And as we built a more diverse newsroom, we made sure we had a balance of experienced journalists alongside younger reporters on the rise, promoting from within our intern classes and cheat sheet team whenever possible. One of my favorite moves was to pair people from the left and right on political beats—no other site could pull it off, it gave us credibility across the aisle and was great for sourcing.
In politics, we were determined to differentiate by being non-partisan but not neutral, fiercely independent and willing to hit both sides when appropriate without falling into the morass of mythic moral equivalence. We sidestepped horse-race campaign coverage and puffed-up profiles, aiming instead for the emotions of insight or outrage. The politics team, led by DC Bureau Chief Jackie Kucinich and Politics Editor Sam Stein broke big stories with hustling young reporters like Betsy Woodruff, Olivia Nuzzi, Tim Mak and the Trump White House team of Lachlan Markay and Asawin Suebsaeng. Columnists ranging from liberal to libertarian, including Mike Tomasky, Erin Gloria Ryan and Matt Lewis helped round out our coverage, along with voices like P.J. O’Rourke, Ana Marie Cox, Mike Barnicle, Maajid Nawaz, Stuart Stevens, Harry Siegel, Jon Favreau and Rick Wilson.
In pop-culture, we focused a gimlet eye on the new golden age of TV at a time when access-driven movie and music coverage dominated most entertainment sections. Led by the energetic editor Marlow Stern and Melissa Leon, the entertainment team highlighted hilarious and incisive voices like all-star Kevin Fallon and Ira Madison. And there were few better stylists than our award-winning arts editor Tim Teeman and the multi-dimensional talents of Erin Gloria Ryan, Ben Collins, Brandy Zadrozny, and Goldie Taylor.
Under the theme of power, world news and national security coverage was a key differentiator, focused on covering dictators, dissidents and terrorists. Foreign editor Chris Dickey was perhaps the single best gift we got from the Newsweek divorce, a legendary reporter and editor with an endless rolodex, encyclopedic insight and a tireless work ethic. He was able to deliver a steady stream of scoops with voice from authoritative figures that helped us stand out from the pack and increased our influence in corridors of power in the United States and around the world. Over the years, we added firepower with a national security team that included Pulitzer Prize-winner Spencer Ackerman, Shane Harris, Kim Dozier, Josh Rogin, Eli Lake and Michael Weiss.
And the already iconic Cheat-Sheet—helmed by Justin Miller and then Andrew Kirell—offered a way out from the commodity news crowd because it allowed us to stay on top of the relentless pace of the news-cycle while linking directly back to the original source rather than ripping them off through rewrites. In this, we were determined to be part of the change we wanted to see.
Developing a distinctive visual style was also a key part of differentiating the Beast brand. Because our strike zone is at the intersection of politics and pop-culture, straight photography often fell short when it came to expressing the essence of our stories. As a result, working with a photo team led first by Marcia Allert and then Sarah Rogers, we focused on photo illustrations that could combine images into something distinctive and original, capable of expressing the article's unique point of view. We decided to infuse the Beast's vision of photo illustration with a Pop Art sensibility, with references to Barbara Kruger and the bold humor of classic tabloids.
We treated the walls of the newsroom as a rotating art gallery with some of the Photo Team’s most compelling images, which doubled as a way of reinforcing our distinctive POV and newsroom mission. For example, we had an image of Vladimir Putin being unzipped at the middle of his forehead and Julian Assange emerging, or Kim Jong-Un riding on top of a nuclear bomb in a nod to Dr. Strangelove. To take full advantage of the possibilities of digital, we also developed distinctive GIF-style moving images that also aided our 10x growth on Instagram.
But the stories were what really animated the Beast. We were determined to not simply follow the pack but make the important stories interesting. We broke big news on abuse of power: police violence from Ferguson to Baton Rouge, the #MeToo movement from Harvey Weinstein to James Deen, and too many mass shootings. We dug into the Sony hacks to reveal that Jennifer Lawrence had been paid much less than her male co-stars in American Hustle, sparking a larger reckoning in Hollywood. No less than five of our weekend long-form features were optioned to be made into films. We were the first English language news-site to report news of the Paris terror attacks and the first American site to republish Charlie Hebdo's covers in solidarity with that satirical site after it was attacked. We ran an epic series called "Confessions of an ISIS Spy" and unmasked an elite Russian military unit's role in the Maidan massacre with incriminating photos. We shone a light on the sham behind "craft" whiskey made in massive distilleries and raised an early warning about the disturbing anti-Vaxxer trend. We exposed Oculus Founder Palmer Luckey’s subterranean Trump support, Steve Bannon’s self-described Leninism and published the threats Trump attorney Michael Cohen unleashed on our reporters. The dark, surreal rise of Trump from reality show star to Wingnut populist to president of the United States was right in The Beast’s strike zone - a story that combined politics, pop-culture and power. I’ll never forget working late into the night of Election 2016 on an editorial titled “How The Daily Beast Will Stand Up to President Trump.” And following through on that promise, our reporting informed Mueller’s indictments against Russian troll farms and senators of both parties referenced no less than five scoops from The Daily Beast in an intelligence committee hearing on foreign interference in our election.
On the way, we were the target of angry attacks from the right and left—and even denounced by the Taliban—but we received many more accolades. Beast reporters received more than 20 journalistic awards in categories ranging from arts and entertainment to investigative reporting to crime and column-writing to humor to foreign reporting and politics. Because journalism is an essentially human enterprise, we made mistakes but admitted them, learned from them and moved on. Perhaps most important, we earned the respect of our colleagues and competitors, from one-time Beast critic Michael Wolff, who tweeted “I am starting to like the Daily Beast...consistent, sharp, meaty. I'll be damned,” to Politico’s Jack Shafer, who tweeted “@thedailybeast has been burning like a sodium fire lately. Now at the top of my reading queue,” to Buzzfeed reporter Joe Bernstein who called us “maybe, pound-for-pound, the best publication on the internet.”
In the end, the Beast defied skeptics and cynics to prove that quality original digital journalism delivered with edge and attitude can succeed by virtually every metric. We more than doubled our traffic, to more than a million readers a day, with less than half the staff of years past. We became the most cited digital first news source, receiving multiple story mentions and reporter interviews per day on cable news and shout-outs on Colbert, SNL and others. But how you grow is as important as that you grow, and we attracted a disproportionate number of direct visitors and the highest visitor engagement among our competitive set, with four and half minutes per visitor. Our social media community grew from just over one million followers across Twitter and Facebook to over 3.5 million. Perhaps most significant was that our growth was organic—we did not boost numbers through expensive paid promotion campaigns like many competitors. To me, the equation for value creation was clear: quality journalism attracts a quality audience.
As you walk into the Beast newsroom, you see a quote on a column from the legendary Texas columnist Molly Ivins: “Keep Fighting for Freedom and Justice, but Don’t Forget to have Fun Doing It.” To me, that sums up the happy warrior spirit of The Daily Beast. As you walk out, you see a quote from the legendary Watergate-era editor Ben Bradlee, which reads: “Today Our Best. Tomorrow Better.” That’s the spirit with which I left after five great years as Editor-in-Chief, proud of the team we built and the work we did together, serene in the belief that the Beast’s best days are still ahead. I know that we’ll look back on this time as one of the best to be a journalist: not because it was easy, but because it was hard and our mission was clear.