Sue Gardner knows her ambitions for The Markup are costly, but there’s some time for the impending investigative web site to lock down a business model.
“What I’m planning to do is what we did at Wikimedia — hire a chief revenue officer to experiment [with revenue streams] for about two years,” Gardner said, speaking from an event in her native Canada. “That’s the time Craig’s backing has given us.”
Craig is Craig Newmark, a philanthropist and the founder and chairman of Craigslist, the platform that took classified ads online and is still a source of some grumbling by veteran newspaper folk who saw the effect of Craigslist on revenue. Newmark is the major backer of The Markup with a $20 million “gift” to the new outlet, founded by Gardner, a former journalist who became executive director of the company behind Wikipedia, along with Julia Angwin and Jeff Larson, who both left ProPublica to start the site as founding editors.
The Markup is specific in its goals, but they’re set to go deep. It will be all investigative journalism focused on the tech industry, and data-focused investigative journalism to boot, which means spending a lot of time and money for few stories, relative to the rapid news production rate that the Internet seems to demand.
Come the end of two years, Gardner expects to “know by then where we should put our energy going forward,” from a revenue standpoint. Right now, she’s hoping that reader donations will get to a point where individual donations will support operations “to a degree,” but she knows The Markup will be niche.
“I think the argument we would need to successfully make to people is they want the tech industry to be held to account,” Gardner said. “For me, I look at the [International Consortium of Investigative Journalists], the [Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project], and I think, I want them to exist in the world, even if I don’t personally consume the news material they’re making. It’s not so much a consumer good but a public good.”
Nevertheless, Gardner does not foresee a time when The Markup will run completely on its own created revenue, even though there will be some “ancillary products” to drive revenue. Larger benefactors will continue to be needed and given the new club of billionaires buying up media properties, more or less as an act of public charity, The Markup will not be not alone.
“It’s indicative of the broken business model [in media],” Gardner said of the string of uber-wealthy people swooping in to back or buy media outlets. “When advertisers started to have more choices…that broke the back of the journalism industry…we’re lucky that some wealthy people see the importance of an informed citizenry.”
But Gardner admits that the risk associated with such a small number of people, mainly coming out of the tech industry, owning so much of the news media presents some risks. For a lot of media brands now however, it’s either accept the risk or be shut down, because no one has figured out a new revenue stream as robust and formerly dependable as advertising.
“It’s entirely unclear where the solutions lie,” Gardner said, “ and it could take a decade to figure out.”