Milo Yiannopoulos is a reader and a supporter of Sarah Lacy’s new blogging venture, PandoDaily, but he worries that the publication might be losing its way.
Something troubling is happening at the blog who would be king. Sarah Lacy’s PandoDaily rose from the ashes of AOL’s beleaguered TechCrunch and was initially touted as a new journalistic power in Silicon Valley, but it’s failing to meet expectations. The rumours are that traffic’s not great. One reason? A disappointing lack of proper journalism, despite the fact that Lacy is one of the few writers on the West Coast whom I would actually call a journalist.
The issues run deep. I’m writing this in the hope that the writers at PandoDaily, many of whom I respect individually, and Sarah particularly, whose last book I reviewed for the Telegraph and thought very good, are able to arrest the slide. Because while, doubtless, traffic at the site is meandering upwards (this is the tech industry: it’s pretty difficult to fuck that one up) and it’s true that Lacy has used her deep and excellent connections in the Valley to make PandoDaily’s name quickly, roping in the likes of Peter Thiel to her live events, there are stress fractures appearing.
On current trends, there appear to media observers the promise neither of future profitability nor of making the sort of cultural impact that TechCrunch did. I desperately wanted to see PandoDaily snatch the crown from the soporific The Next Web and the smug GigaOM, but I think the publication is losing its way. Let me explain why.
You might think it an odd assessment from a publication like The Kernel that generally eschews news, preferring comment, analysis and satire in our pages, but that’s sort of the point: we desperately need authoritative news sources to do our job. Yet, when I look around at the tech blogosphere in search of a one-stop news site, I am left bitterly disappointed. I appreciate that most tech bloggers don’t have two brain cells to rub together and so demanding intelligent analysis might be asking a bit much, but the latter is, after all, what PandoDaily claims to be a part of its raison d’être.
Recently, I’ve noticed coverage veering dangerously off-piste, with bizarre and wrong-headed rants from Lacy about other women’s endeavours to uniquely stupid suggestions about picking up tips from cab drivers to odd-ball broadsides that exhibit mountainous levels of lazy prejudice and financial ignorance.
Surely even PandoDaily is not so devoid of sources that it must tout for controversy and content like this. We are living through perhaps the most exciting period in the internet’s adolescence: is it too much to ask that the people covering that journey behave as though they are at least some of the way into adulthood?
PandoDaily is failing to break significant quantities of news, one of the things its audience expects of it. Partly this is because Lacy lacks Mike Arrington’s talent for sensationalism welded to integrity. That was the reason TechCrunch survived for so long. So PandoDaily now reads more like a family newsletter for a small slice of the Valley (albeit one in which the relatives regularly hector trespassers) than the one-stop tech news shop Lacy aspired to build.
The bottom line? They’re not getting the headlines, and that doesn’t just mean breaking news of funding announcements; it means publishing the watercooler opinion pieces that shape opinion and discourse for weeks to come.
Humiliatingly, there are even questions in the Pando comment threads and on Twitter about whether some of the site’s content is intended to be satirical. Clearly, it isn’t. I think perhaps this is because PandoDaily’s writers aren’t gifted enough to let readers know the difference, a skill that comes with traditional journalistic training.
The closest PandoDaily has to an old school journalist, in method, outlook and attitude, is Paul Carr, but his relationship with the company has been kept purposefully vague and he is moving on to new things soon.
In the end, readers are presented with a confused blend of dry, TNW-level reportage and sophomoric attempts at humour that leave visitors cold. It recalls the worst of MG Siegler’s attempts at “humour” while writing for TechCrunch: you know, the piss-poor movie comparisons that leave all but the most braindead marketer with an MA in Social Media from the University of Salford with their heads planted firmly in their hands.
In many cases, quirkiness is conflated with dullness and one gets the sense that, despite their intergalactic egos, the people writing simply aren’t very bright. I don’t know about you, but I think the internet industry demands a better class of bullshit. Young writers need guidance. Proper training shows. Alas, as yet, there’s not much of either on display here.
There is a serious absence of experienced editorial talent at PandoDaily, particularly in upper management. Owen Thomas and I like to joke, rather mean-spiritedly, I suppose, that the editor doesn’t even know how to use hyphens. (Even the site’s tagline, “the site-of-record for Silicon Valley”, is wrongly punctuated.) That seems like churlish nit-picking, but actually it speaks volumes.
A major talent injection will soon be necessary to make up the shortfall: proper editors must be hired to coach writers into thinking critically and analysing intelligently what’s going on around them. They must be taught not to manufacture controversy in order to make a name for the publication or for themselves. That was OK – just – in the TechCrunch era, but the world has moved on.
At a time when it was clear that the market desperately needed a high-quality alternative to TechCrunch and the lesser publications orbiting it, I find it remarkable that Lacy opted to start a blog full of the same old garbage: right down to the pathetic internecine wars, which any publication with dignity would have conducted behind closed doors and which are now seriously alienating readers.
There was a time when everyone in the Valley wanted to get in a room with the big power bloggers. Then they wanted to be them, starting their own blogs and mouthing off on social networks. Now? People are just laughing.
I won’t add to the already voluminous whinging out there about Lacy’s choice of branding, save to say this: strategically speaking, it is bone-headed. This is the sort of name that only an inexperienced hack would choose, perhaps after one too many hits of the pipe, heading back from Burning Man.
The name is neither clever nor funny and it fails to resonate without copious explanation of its origins (even then, it feels laboured and silly). It fails to be goofy enough to be a Googlewhack or kooky enough to inherit any Web 2.0 creds. Most damningly of all, it fails to convey any meaningful information about the brand and about the sort of journalism readers should expect to read below the masthead.
That’s before we even get to the site design. The first time I saw PandoDaily, I was convinced it was unfinished, or a spoof. Now it’s been running for a while, I’m aghast. Were one to crowdsource the ten most anachronistic WordPress theme features from the last five years and jam them together with horse glue, you would struggle to come up with something uglier or more difficult to navigate. The menu bar, in particular, is simply unintelligible. No thought whatsoever has been given to smart taxonomy.
Amateurish development work is married with clumsy implementation (if a professional designer signed off the spacing around those orange arrows, I’ll write Pando a $5,000 convertible note myself). This is clueless, lazy, ugly design that treats readers like morons: work that someone once thought “looked pretty” but which fails entirely to communicate the ethics and identity of the brand.
We haven’t spoken much about ethics, but before we do, I’d like to talk about the operational culture at PandoDaily, which resembles Lacy’s alma mater in a number of unfortunate ways. You see, the sharpest editorial operations are not democracies. TechCrunch was the exception that proved the rule, because it had enough talent on board and a larger-than-life personality at the helm. PandoDaily has neither.
“It’s clear to me that there is no strong leadership from the top, dictacting editorial trajectory,” said one British newspaper executive to me this morning about PandoDaily. “If there were, much of the execrable content on the site would have been spiked. They seem to publish just about anything. If there’s one thing we’ve learned about how to build a globally successful online content business, it’s to get the QC right. We reject every other story now.”
PandoDaily’s corporate culture suffers from the company being defined by its enemies. Many – perhaps most – of its staffers come from TechCrunch, not a journalistic operation of the highest rank in the first place, and much of the editor’s time in the early days of launching PandoDaily was spent not defining future goals but trying to get its nemesis, Erick Schonfeld, fired, in part by spitefully poaching his best writers. Lacy may have been successful at that endeavour, but her victory has come at terrible cost.
You can’t create a blogging phenomenon from the ashes of a hate campaign. So PandoDaily, whose aetiology is so entwined with an elaborate strategy to secure the removal of Erick Schonfeld from TechCrunch, must now decide how to use its power. This, in my view, will require wholesale rebranding, repositioning and retooling. And yes, some of those writers you hired simply to make a point now need to go.
I’m going to skip over what everyone already knows about PandoDaily: it’s funded by the people who invest in the companies it writes about. Read Dan Lyons for a rough overview of how that works, and decide for yourself whether that makes them a credible news source. It’s possible to argue either way.
One of the many unintended consequences of PandoDaily’s origins is an in-built defensiveness among its writers. On the constant look-out for war, they have become intolerant, oppressive and hostile to criticism. So that’s another thing my friends at the blog need to fix: abusing their own community.
PandoDaily’s writers have got into the habit of piling onto commenters, without waiting to see if they’re speaking sense or not, as a sort of prophylactic measure. It gives the deeply unedifying sense of a playground gang – something TechCrunch never had, even when Paul Carr was at his most brutal. Carr always did it with wit and wisdom: at PandoDaily, it’s just bullying.
Readers notice, and some of them – at least, so they claim – have already stopped returning as a result. Given that this sector is so over-reported on, there’s no reason not to believe them. This is a horrible shame, because with relatively few adjustments, PandoDaily really could become the site of record.
Overlook the cringeworthy home-made videos and innovations like the PandoTicker, a mini-news feed on the homepage, start to reveal themselves as almost indispensible assets.
One other thing: I’m picking my words carefully here, but should it emerge that any blog’s management were to start abusing writers elsewhere for turning down a job with them, it would very quickly turn into a scandal, from which the publication in question would find it hard to extricate itself.
Hire whoever you can, or whoever will piss off your former editor, and to hell with the consequences, is not a massively inspiring business model. Half-arsed attempts at monetisation like the hideous and spammy Meebo bar (which investor insisted on that, I wonder?) just make people irritated, and will inevitably be dumped. If it doesn’t rapidly develop a packed roster of events and sustainable digital content sales, the company is – obviously – fucked. But you knew that. And, if Dan Lyons is right, Lacy may not care anyway.
Sarah Lacy must be admired for stepping up to the plate and launching something fresh at a time of abject moribundity in the technology blogosphere. Accordingly, it’s not hard to work out why she got funding from an ecosystem sick of the sloppiness and tribalism of TechCrunch. But given that PandoDaily appears to have inherited much of the bad, and little of the good, from its parent, it very much remains to be seen whether that $2.5 million was money well spent.
And I do mean spent. Because, as her investors must surely know, without a world-class chief executive, PandoDaily has no hope of returning that money. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that hubris and inexperience have led Lacy to make the same mistake she has castigated other founders for in the past: taking on too much money and ramping up too fast.
With all the advantages PandoDaily had, and the near-perfect timing with which it launched, its progress so far can only be regarded as lacklustre; its future dependent entirely on fixing the very significant structural and attitudinal problems that are holding it back.
Because once you garner a reputation as a habitual playground bully – unlike the occasionally stroppy but normally fair TechCrunch – it takes many months of diligent work and discipline to tear up that rap sheet, lest you be written off entirely as just the latest vanity venture from an elite group of spoilt, arrogant journalists who know fuck-all about technology but get drunk with the right people in San Francisco.
There are a few lessons here for wannabe media moguls. Columnists don’t always make the best editors. Getting a book deal is a bit different to running a media business. And don’t treat your new publication like it’s a scalable platform business. It isn’t.
Six months in, absent visionary editorial leadership and running out of cash having hired too quickly, you may find yourself in financial trouble, with an audience that frequents your content by necessity but which, when all is said and done, simply doesn’t like you very much.
And who can blame them, when they’re presented on every fucking visit with that bastard Meebo bar.